The Grammy Awards

A black new wave

Print edition : March 29, 2019

Frank Ocean , a file picture. Photo: Jordan Strauss/AP

The Singer-songwriter Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, known as H.E.R., at the BRIT Awards 2019 in London on February 20. Photo: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP

Donald Glover, who performs under the name Childish Gambino, at a private party in Los Angeles in 2018. He won four Grammy Awards this year. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Kendrick Lamar, the hip-hop artist, at the 2016 Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas, in 2016. Photo: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP

The Singer The Weeknd at the 88th Oscars in 2016. Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP

Singer-songwriter Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Grammy Awards and singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and singer Jennifer Lopez at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards on February 10. Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP

The Grammy Awards finally recognises the global appeal and significance of the quietly radical and deeply political music genre called Alt R&B.

Until this year’s Grammy Awards came around, the U.S. Recording Academy, which presents the awards, just did not seem to be listening. Even though the soundscape of popular music in America had changed vastly over the years, the awards remained trapped in an ivory tower. In recent years, music A-listers nominated for the awards had set off a trend of not showing up for the awards ceremony in protest against the Academy’s cultural biases, materialism and stifling of creativity.

So, in every sense, the 61st edition of the awards [held on February 10] can be termed historic. At the function held at the Staples Centre, Los Angeles, Childish Gambino’s This is America became the unlikely winner of the Song of the Year and Record of the Year, two of the big four awards. We cannot blame Childish Gambino for not being present to collect the awards; he must have expected a repeat of the usual farce and indignity.

For several years now, the awards had increasingly begun to embarrass even the white winners, as most felt they were “robbing” the awards from more deserving black nominees.

After the 2014 Grammy Awards night, Macklemore, who won the awards for the Best Rap Song, Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance, instagrammed a picture of a text he sent to fellow nominee Kendrick Lamar, which read: “You got robbed. ….It sucks that I robbed you.” Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City had won seven nominations but no awards.

Macklemore’s guilt in “claiming a hip-hop culture that wasn’t his” and “robbing” the Best Rap Album award from Lamar was to find expression later in his highly political 2016 album titled The Unruly Mess I’ve Made.

“The face of hip hop has changed a lot since Eminem

And if he’s taking away black artists’ profits I look just like him

Claimed a culture that wasn’t mine, the way of the American

Hip-Hop is gentrified ……………….

Where’s my place in a music that’s been taken by my race

Cultural appropriated by the white face and we don’t want to admit that this is existing

So scared to acknowledge the benefits of our white privilege…”

In 2017, Adele won five awards including the Best Record of the Year but declared in her acceptance speech: “I can’t possibly accept this award.”

Citing fellow nominee Beyonce’s album Lemonade, she said: “Lemonade is so monumental…. so well thought out, beautiful and soul-baring… the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering.”

Lemonade won the Best Urban Contemporary Album. In her speech, Beyonce said: “We all experience pain and loss, and often we become inaudible. My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that would give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history.”

But will progressive and creative songs and albums that fall outside the Grammy Awards’ prescription ever win the top awards was a question doing the rounds until the awards were announced this year. Down the years, the Best Urban Contemporary Album, Best R&B Performance and Best New Artist awards seemed to be the farthest the Academy could go to recognise even top-streaming artists such as The Weeknd.

In 2016, the Academy blatantly and unbelievably gave the Album of the Year award to Taylor Swift’s 2014-released work titled 1989 over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness, bypassing its own eligibility criteria for nominations for that year.

In 2017, Frank Ocean, winner of the Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2012, spoke up in an open letter to the Academy that to award Taylor Swift over Kendrick Lamar’s work was just plain faulty.

In 2017, Drake won two Best Rap category awards for his pop song Hotline Bling. Drake questioned whether rap was the only category in which they could manage to fit a black singer in. After 35 Grammy nominations and just three wins, Drake said he was done with the business of sending his music to the Grammy Awards.

Macklemore did not send The Unruly Mess I’ve Made to the 2017 Grammy Awards. In the same year, Frank Ocean too did not send his highly successful Blonde for the reckoning, calling the awards’ infrastructure of awarding, nomination and screening dated.

So, it had become a clear contest between the Grammy Awards and the top-selling artists, which has always had a predominance of black artists. If the top names choose to not send their music to the Grammy Awards, will the awards not become irrelevant? Who owns American popular culture and music now, as the racial and ethnic composition of the United States itself remains in flux? Can singers afford to flout the recording industry diktats and survive without a label was the other side of the question.

Somewhere along the way, popular English music emerging from all major international cities became highly political as the marginalised tried new ways of communicating their struggles through songs.

Race fault lines

The field of music was a very segregated space in the U.S. right from the beginning. The first radio broadcast happened in that country in the 1920s, but it aired only white music for two decades. Until the 1940s, the music of black artists was not broadcast on radio and it was available only in the form of “race records” that were sold among an exclusively black audience. Thus, the space of black singers and audience never overlapped with the space inhabited by white singers and white audiences.

However, the immense popularity of black songs and music genres such as blues, jazz, swing and gospel music forced the recording companies to record black music and extend it to the general audience. In 1948, the music journalist Jerry Wexler first coined the term “rhythm and blues” (R&B) music to replace the term “race music”. By the 1950s, R&B music became widely popular in the U.S. after youngsters in the white community embraced the predominantly black R&B music more freely and openly.

As the new genres of the 20th century caught the fancy of the general audience, there were attempts to appropriate this music by the white recording industry; white artists covered catchy songs originally sung by black artists and walked away with the fame and ownership of these songs. As with traditional R&B, most subsequent popular music genres in America were basically driven by black artists, who had high-timbre singing voices and a special talent for mixing and blending styles and genres.

However, the multibillion-dollar white music industry viewed R&B music as “racial and sexual adventurism” and clamped down on the raw and passionate expressions by black musicians from time to time with its own rigid norms of aesthetics and morality. At the same time, black singers were exploited for their art and not given their due recognition or remuneration.

Record companies, radio programmers and concert producers together dictated the formula for popular music production in the U.S. Also, with the elaborate packaging of a song in a music video album, songs soon came to foster a celebrity lifestyle. Business and profit considerations dictated music, which became a mere component to aid celebrity culture.

Rise of hip-hop

The underground hip-hop music scene, born in the Bronx borough of New York in the 1970s, was the first reaction against the continuous repression of black musical creativity by the mainstream music industry and the marginalisation of black musicians.

Hip-hop or rap music was the music of angry, powerless, low-income black and Latino urban youth living in U.S. cities, where they were pushed to the backstreets. The hip-hop breakout flouted all norms of musicality and decency set by the mainstream music industry.

Young hip-hop artists articulated their experiences of urban neglect and shrinking urban spaces that they had faced since childhood and spoke against social injustices without apologies or fear, in stylised rhythmic speech and rhyming style. Hip-hop music did not dwell on love or the beauty of the countryside but was “ugly” and unconventional in terms of its musicality and lyrics, and the artists did not care to “please” anyone any more.

The mood of hip-hop music can be judged from album names such as Streets Made Me, Ready to Die, 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted, Keep Ya Head Up, and Life After Death.

Starting off from New York, hip-hop became the language of protest for less privileged communities all over the world. The oral rhythmic rendering of the genre was copied in various different languages across the globe. The Recording Academy waited and watched with chagrin for an entire two and a half decades before finally including Rap category Grammys—perhaps as a last-ditch attempt to remain relevant.

Lauryn Hill’s solo debut album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, released in 1998, started the trend of bringing in musicality into rap expressions and now we have a category called rap song. Lauryn Hill’s singles such as Everything is Everything and Doo Wop (That Thing) seamlessly blended both singing and rapping. In 1999, she became the first hip-hop artist to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Lo-fi music

As with hip-hop, another genre of music called lo-fi music (in the 1990s) represented another breakaway trend vis-a-vis America’s mainstream music culture. Best explained as a “do-it-yourself” kind of music, this was another music genre that went against institutionalised, high-fidelity studio recordings of songs. Songs of this genre deliberately misplayed notes, distorted harmonies and published songs with poor recording quality.

In short, although lo-fi music was a very imperfect kind of music that challenged listeners, it paved the way for a lot of home-produced recordings of independent music using inexpensive and readily available equipment. Independent, or indie, music was always more daring with its experimentation, and it always sought out new talent and fresh perspective.

What the hip-hop and lo-fi genres of music and the advent of the mixtapes in the 1970s and 1980s did was to challenge the international music corporations that controlled about 75 per cent of the world’s commercially recorded and distributed music. Challenging the idea that music can be provided only by record companies, radio programmes and concert promoters, together they demonstrated that music can be produced, in garages and private houses and distributed without difficulty. The trend of breaking away from the mainstream norms of music caught on in a big way.

By the turn of the 21st century, contemporary R&B was becoming repetitive, with each song displaying the same kind of mainstream rhythm, style and structure. In a couple of decades, hip-hop music, too, had quickly become saturated, commercialised, and co-opted. Record sales started plummeting as listeners could not connect to what was peddled as popular music.

Internet and Alt R&B

However, this lull period in American popular music was also when the traditional music industry was being replaced by independent individuals who shared their own songs through online platforms. The mainstream recording business accused the Internet of “stealing” its business. In February 2011, the American singer Frank Ocean released his debut mixtape called nostalgia, ULTRA as a free download on the Net. The cover photograph of the work had a retro vibe and showed a ripe papaya-coloured car parked on a patch of grass to represent soulful, lyrical music which couched deeply personal memories rendered in impressionistic detail. The audience connected with the deeply introspective lyrics and the new style and sonics of the songs.

A month later, Abel Tesfaye a.k.a. The Weeknd, a Canadian singer of Ethiopian descent, released three mixtapes as free downloads on YouTube. The mixtapes House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence were released a year later as an album called The Trilogy. It caught the attention of listeners worldwide for its new sonics and sound effects and painfully honest lyrics. Although the mainstream industry tried to dismiss it as drug- and sex-driven music full of profanities and swear words, nothing could stop The Weeknd’s popularity.

Internet users worldwide swarmed to the fresh perspective and pioneering sounds in the music of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, which they identified as a reinvention of the R&B genre but marked as a stylistic departure from the repetitive and unauthentic contemporary R&B genre. Music journalists denoted the new stream of music as Alt(ernative) R&B, as different from traditional R&B and contemporary R&B.

Alternative R&B

Alt R&B blended and revived elements of earlier genres like funk, soul, jazz, swing hip-hop, lo-fi and electronic dance music. It was largely marked by a languid and laconic style of freestyle singing with slow beats and mellow instrumentation, quite unlike anything listeners were used to until then. The genre also experimented with fresh vocalisation styles that were characterised by varying pitches and lengths of notes and also falsettos. New artists from the English-speaking world brought in vocalisation styles and sonic influences from the musical heritage of their ancestral lands. For example, The Weeknd, a second-generation immigrant to Canada, says he owes his high-flying vocal style to that of Ethiopia’s habesha singers. This manner of vocals, blended and mixed with software-engineered sonics and accompanied by the use of background synths, created a new sound of music unlike any heard before.

The sound of the familiar Western popular music was getting challenged forever as Alt R&B music, boosted by the Internet, signified uninhibited expression that bypassed all preset norms of sonics, lyrics (and even decency) standards set by the recording industry. The Weeknd and Frank Ocean soon figured on the “Top Trending” videos on the Net, having gained popularity among tech-savvy youngsters looking for something new.

Paradigm shift

The Internet radically changed the dynamics of music listening and even music publishing on three main counts. Firstly, it provided easy accessibility to one’s favourite music through free YouTube downloads. Secondly, if you had a microphone, a computer, a room, and an instrument, you could readily articulate your own creativity or passion and publish it through the Net and hope to be shared online. Anybody with an intimate personal memory, a deeply introspective mood or a philosophical or political concern to sing about could now share it globally.

Thirdly, there were no gatekeepers from the mainstream music industry to push back your creativity and you could still have a global audience without riding the wave of a music corporate-backed celebrity culture.

Although music critics talked about a new energy “not seen since the days of Stevie Wonder”, creativity ran amok and the bewildered critics could not forward a strict definition for the genre.

Owing to the limitless freedom offered by the Net, songs and albums in the new genre became creative and progressive taking the conversations surrounding popular culture and music forward.

Childish Gambino’s This is America, with its hip-hop/Alt R&B song style and out-of-the-box visual aesthetics, is an example. It is the singer’s own idea of a song; it portrays his deep political concern in his own creative way.

Each artist had a different way of expressing the how and why and basic philosophy underlying this new wave of music.

“I am just inspired to tell stories. I envelop the story that I have in all sorts of sonic goodies,” says Frank Ocean.

“I write in crazy ways,” says Devonte Hynes, the latest phenomenon on the Alt R&B music scene.

“If you break down the elements of the song, it’s all quite random,” says Alex Crossan, known as Mura Masa.

The singers largely shun the limelight, unlike the earlier era in music where record sales depended a lot on the publicity stunts of celebrity artists.

Gabi Wilson, a.k.a. H.E.R., who won the Best R&B Album award this year, never takes off her oversized sunglasses and hat while performing or giving an interview. Even on the Grammy stage, she did not take off her glasses. It is her way of resisting the celebrity culture. She likes to be anonymous, she says: “I am very private, I don’t have a clique. You won’t see me out with so and so. All the gossip and drama, I am not about that at all.”

According to H.E.R., the positive aspect of this intriguing new genre’s artists not playing to the galleries is that it “really makes people focus on the music” and not on some frivolous gossip related to the artist.

The album covers and music videos that go with the songs of most Alt R&B artists are also minimalistic, unlike earlier, when the recording industry gave more attention to the production and packaging.

And, as in every other genre that went before, the most popular Alt R&B singers and songwriters are of African descent.

Many debates

However, the genre has stirred many debates. For the first time, music albums were published with a Parental Advisory marked on the album covers. How edifying were the nihilism, profanities and swear words seen in the genre-defying Alt R&B songs?

The age-old contention about what constitutes respectable and acceptable music, on the one hand, and what constitutes music that does not lead listeners towards positivity and light and therefore can be deemed unacceptable, on the other, was back in place. How did fans share an intimate connect with The Weeknd’s songs such as Pray for Me, Call Out My Name, Secrets, and Can’t Feel My Face, all songs in which the artist seemed disturbed and depressed and used swear words without any compunction?

Going by the immense popularity of Alt R&B musicians like him, we can only conclude that a whole new generation of audience has also evolved in time. Here is an audience with a high emotional quotient, an audience that connects sympathetically, that looks beyond the bad language in the lyrics and extends an understanding to the social context of the singers and songwriters.

The Weeknd’s parents were Ethiopian immigrants to Canada. He speaks of a difficult childhood, dropping out of school and drug abuse as a child. He credits his misspelt stage name and his reluctance to face press interviews even after earning a name to his illiteracy. What clicked with the listeners is that he expresses his situation without whitewashing. His music inspires a kind of a friend’s confidentiality and connect in the listeners, who are also entranced by the sonics.

The languid style of singing, slow beats, mellow instrumentation and tenderness of the songs couched in sonic goodies are beguiling. When we listen closely, layers of purpose lie embedded in the lyrics.

Devonte Hynes, the consummate Alt R&B artist of our times, in his incarnation as Blood Orange, came out with his 2016 album Freetown Sound that is unconventional by Western popular music standards and shows his search for his identity, tracing his roots to Sierra Leone and Guyana. He wrote on his Instagram, dedicating his album “to anyone who had ever felt not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way”.

His songs are for anyone in search of his or her identity in a colliding world where races and genders mix and for those who feel vulnerable in the confusion of it all. The songs portray his own vulnerability, living as a displaced person. The audience connects with the genuineness, raw emotions, and helplessness expressed in the face of the deluge of identities confronting the singer and the songwriter, who do not even try to hide or gloss over their situation.

In August 2018, Blood Orange released his album Negro Swan, which The Guardian called a dizzying triumph. Blood Orange put a new phenomenon called “black despair” under the spotlight. Hynes describes New York as a “city of displaced persons” and also brings his fans face to face with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Through his songs, lyrics and music videos, he puts black humanity in the popular imagination of America and the world.

Verna Simon, a resident of Rochester who is passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement, best explains the politically charged music that is coming out these days. “African American lives are not respected or cherished by our fellow Americans. If we are addicted to drugs, we don’t need psychological or other medical help, we are criminals who should be punished. If we are out of work or poor, it’s because we are lazy or not intelligent or can’t keep or don’t want jobs. If our men get stopped by the police, they must be dangerous criminals who are so scary that they need to be shot, even when unarmed….”

Writing in The New York Times, Myles E. Johnson best summed up why the Grammy Awards were blind to new age black music so far: “If you are a black person who does not try to be palatable for a white audience, but instead focuses on your own culture and experience, this is seen as a transgressive act.” The questions raised in such albums are too radical and uncomfortable, and the Grammy Awards did not dare venture into such waters but finally had to because the ground on which they stood had shifted.

Scratching the surface, we see that Alt R&B is a quietly radical, democratic and progressive genre of music, questioning the very edifices of what constitutes civilisational values of human dignity, mutual respect, equal citizenship, and so on. When discussing issues of bad language used in these songs, it throws the political question back at us: What use is decency when the privileged citizens of a nation or society do not recognise even the humanity of the marginalised sections?

Whether Alt R&B is disparaged as “drug-addicted” music like some of The Weeknd’s music or whether it voices the feelings of fragmentation, alienation, racial marginalisation, poverty or general purposelessness in life, whether it is the lyrical poetry painting intense childhood memories, Alt R&B music resonates with youngsters who are getting affected by the rapid changes happening in societies worldwide. Fans of Alt R&B music empathise with the authenticity of the music as it does not try to gloss over the feelings of vulnerability just to make the artist look strong and respectable or make the artist seem like a role model. Fans have risen beyond expectations to recognise the soul and context of the new wave music.

This year’s Grammy Awards have definitely striven to rise above the perception that they are just an old, outdated, white, male-dominated spectacle.

Leena Mariam Koshy is a writer and journalist based in Abu Dhabi.