Hip-Hop’s Torch Bearer Shows Out at the Grammys

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By: Saeed Mohammed

The opening of the 2016 Grammy Awards shows Kendrick Lamar stepping to the stage to receive his award for Rap Album of the Year. While up there, he states his win was a win for real hip-hop. This year Kendrick Lamar received 11 Grammy nominations, just short of Michael Jackson’s historic 12 nominations in a single year for his album Thriller in 1983.

With a total of 20 Grammy nominations since releasing his album good kid, m.A.A.d City, Kendrick is breaking new ground in the hip-hop world. In this year’s Grammy Awards, he led all other artists in nominations, with Taylor Swift and The Weeknd coming closest at only 7 nominations each.

By the end of the night, Lamar racked up 5 Grammy Awards out of his 11 nominations, an impressive total. His nominations were diverse, in that his name appeared almost twice in just about every category. However, Kendrick only ended up winning in the “rap” categories. For example, Kendrick won awards like Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song, Best Rap/ Sung Collaboration, and Best Rap Album. Yet he lost in the other more important general categories he was nominated in like Song of the Year and Album of the Year.

This demonstrates the existence of a “stay in your lane” mentality against hip-hop artists in the Grammys, consistently being snubbed and overlooked even though their genre has been the most popular in music for decades. After heavy criticism from the 2014 and 2015 Grammy’s awarding and nominating blonde pop stars Macklemore and Iggy Azalea in the Best Rap Album category, should we consider Kendrick’s success a victory?

Even when it came to the Best Music Video award, Kendrick Lamar won for his collaboration with Taylor Swift on Bad Blood and not for his own music video for Alright. Along with Kendrick’s achievements comes rightful skepticism of the Grammys true intentions in nominating him for the number of awards they did this year.

In a time where North American society is becoming increasingly aware and critical of the racial climate, with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining ground and expanding its membership, it has become easier for us to call out white dominated institutions and award shows like the Oscars. But whether or not this actually makes any difference for oppressed and exploited peoples in North America is a different question that we must consider.

This year, the Oscars were heavily criticized by the public for the lack of people of colour in their awards categories, and it could be said that the Grammys have taken notice of the backlash and put forth their best attempt at distancing themselves from any similar criticisms. As a result, the Grammy Awards outdid themselves to fill the gap in diversity, musically and racially, by throwing Kendrick Lamar into every category they could. But as we have seen time and time again, that does not mean they will allow the black hip-hop act to win the most prestigious prizes the night has to offer.

Yet the content of Kendrick’s album To Pimp a Butterfly is significant as it comes at a time where police brutality and racism towards blacks in America has become extremely visible. He addresses these issues as well as the systemic challenges of being black in America, black dysfunction, “hood politics”, spiritual yearning and many other topics in his lyrics. It is a concept album filled with jazz, blues and soul samples and honest, uncomfortable content.

During the Grammys, Kendrick stepped to the stage and delivered one of the most powerful Grammy performances in recent memory. Chained and suited in a blue jail uniform, Kendrick aligns himself with several other black men positioned in prison cells and raps a medley of his aggressive album cut “The Blacker the Berry” and hit single “Alright” and another never before heard song.

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Kendrick’s performance for the 2016 Grammys

He screamed lyrics like “I know you’re evil, you want to terminate my culture” and “I want you to know I’m a proud monkey…you vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me” in front of a clapping crowd that has undoubtedly participated in appropriating black culture.

Kendrick’s conscious way of framing black identity is refreshing in today’s hip-hop realm and speaks to American racial issues as well as is a major reference point for the #blacklivesmatter movement. Kendrick not only became a strong voice for oppressed black communities in music but has done so in the largest ways possible; selling platinum albums, topping billboard charts and most recently and impressively, racking up an unprecedented number of Grammy nominations this year. His commercial success represents huge wins for the genre of hip-hop, but it’s going to take a lot more than going platinum to make the change that Kendrick raps about in his music.

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