Do the Grammys Need a Renaissance?
By Micaeli Dym
Photo Credits: Grammy.com
Beyonce’s Renaissance has been discussed non-stop since its July release for its emphasis on pure and unbridled fun and its rejection of surface-level pop tropes. Each track draws inspiration from various dance music traditions—from gospel-inspired to club to disco. Most of all, Beyonce seeks to create a safe space for her fans by celebrating spaces made by and for Black queer people: “night clubs, strip clubs, ballrooms, basements.”
It’s confusing that an album that encompasses so many genres would be in a singular category for the Grammys. This predicament raises the question—how should we judge Renaissance?
In a rigid system of assigning a single genre to a diverse work, Dance seems to be the best fit for Renaissance. Beyonce submitted her record to the Grammy category Best Dance/Electronica Music Album. Despite its genre fusion, Renaissance has a strong foundation in dance and house music. Its lead single, “Break My Soul,” epitomizes this influence, and was nominated as a dance recording with no debate. The National Screening Committee—a group of music industry experts that categorize multi-genre works when a genre committee can’t make a decision—wasn’t too sure about the album. Despite the recurring references to dance and house music’s long ties to Black culture, these “experts” have listened and relistened to Renaissance to determine if it should be in the Pop category instead among artists like Harry Styles and Lizzo. Renaissance will likely end up in Dance, but this conversation exemplifies the fuzziness in categorizing music. For a work like Renaissance, which ties in R&B, soul, disco, hip-hop, and trap, on top of just dance and pop, categories can only harm truly appreciating its art. Especially for Black artists, categories have tended to lead to the marginalization of their works.
Black artists have been historically underrepresented in the Grammys, and people are finally beginning to notice. Black musicians are repeatedly denied nominations and awards for Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Song of the Year. A study from 2012 to 2020 revealed that although Black artists represented 38% of Billboard’s top charts, they received around 27% of top Grammy nominations. In those nine years, only four won a Grammy in these four main categories. Beyonce has never won Album of the Year, and only three Black women have ever won this award, all three being in the 90s. Black artists are underrepresented and marginalized into “Black categories” even when they don’t quite fit. Out of 28 total awards, Beyonce has won 19 for R&B and 3 for rap. However, ask anyone to describe Beyonce, and simply “R&B artist” is rarely the first thing that comes to mind. She has evolved and remained relevant, switching genres and combining influences over her career.
This outcry for Beyonce might seem dated now, a reminder of the controversy of the 2017 Grammys when Beyonce’s Lemonade was nominated for Album of the Year against Adele’s 25. In a pop-culture moment for the history books, after beating Beyonce for the award, Adele shouted out Lemonade’s monumental impact onstage, especially for inspiring Black people to “stand up for themselves.” She even apparently split the award in half, symbolic of her disagreement with the decision.
This speech started a conversation about solidarity but only scratched the surface, not mentioning the racist institutions that consistently undervalue Black excellence. It further showed the systemic racism steeped in award shows like the Grammys, which do not often allow room for proper accreditation of Black art. Moreso, it kept Lemonade as a distinct type of success, as music that her “Black friends” liked and should be valued for its “wokeness” instead of its technical brilliance and cultural influence.
As the New York Times explained it, with Renaissance, Beyonce said, “Fuck awards, let’s dance.” Where Lemonade fits exactly into the mold of the Academy—personal, full of statements interposed over R&B tracks—Renaissance’s theme puts a dent in these norms. Should Renaissance be awarded for its rebellion from typical musical norms with an honorific like “Album of the Year?” Or, in standing in opposition to these categories that have continually marginalized Black art, does it need to be validated with awards to prove its revolutionary cultural significance?
I see the importance of awards. Validation comes from being the best at what you are trying to do. The Grammys have the potential to increase the publicity of music and artists. Despite the hate they get, they hold up in popular opinion as a measure of talent and popularity—it's a special honor even for an artist to be nominated. However, the Grammys aren’t made based on individual opinions on music. Time and time again, works that are more popular (or even just musically better) are denied awards; for the most part these works are by Black artists. Beyonce would benefit from an Album of the Year award. She deserves it; maybe not for Renaissance, but to debut seven No. 1 albums without any being an “Album of the Year,” something must be wrong. However, I think Beyonce’s work stands on its own. She continues to make revolutionary music, and people continue to listen to it. She shouldn’t have to confine her talent and creativity to fit categories determined by a committee in a historically biased institution. So while Renaissance’s rebellious and unique sound should be honored, I don’t think the Grammys will do so, at least as it stands now. And I don’t believe that lack of validation reduces its artistic significance.
Micaeli Dym is a freshman in the SFS studying Culture and Politics (CULP)