Like many Grammys viewers last week, I was watching with baited breath. Who was going home with hardware for Album of the Year? In my opinion, 2016 belonged solely to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and her magnum opus, “Lemonade.” To attempt to capture the sheer brilliance of it in words is to be disappointed with how much you can’t cover. So, I was sure the Grammys would do the right thing.
But I was mistaken.
“25,” Adele’s latest and best-selling album, won. We can wax on about Adele’s beautiful profession of love and admiration for Beyoncé. Or, we can ask ourselves: should we actually be surprised?
When Black women decide to center ourselves and our experiences, we also prepare to be punished for it. The process is like purposefully implanting Imposter Syndrome into your brain. There is doubt, rage and fear. You will lose people and support along the way. But you remind yourself: “this shit is for us.” Deep down, you know that this decision you are about to make is important to your sanity and to your people. From the moment Beyoncé decided to explicitly center Black womanhood in her latest work she knew: you don’t make this kind of soul-stirring art and expect to have old White executives bowing at your feet.
According to the Rob Tannenbaum of the New York Times, the Rock Sorting Committee discussed whether “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, a rock song, was a rock song. A senior executive of the Recording Academy revealed that some voters flagged Beyoncé’s inclusion of rock and country music on “Lemonade” as her trying to “run the table” on nominations. In other words, how dare Beyoncé showcase her artistic genius, hone her craft and do that across multiple genres? How dare she do this while being Black and a woman? And how dare she do it well?
The 59th annual Grammy Awards was a reminder that no one, not even the Queen Bey herself, is safe from institutionalized white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal evil. It is why, as several folks have pointed out, Beyoncé used her user’s platform (the Grammys) to affirm why her art matters with a golden, powerful letter. Again I ask, should we surprised?
From childhood, Black women and girls have our genius trivialized into luck, an accident, or a hallucination. The video of the Williams sisters’ father stopping a White journalist from breaking his daughter’s confidence is etched in my memory. I remember when Scott Macdonald of the Atlantic wrote a story titled “Sorry Quvenzhané Wallis, but Best Actress Nods are for Big Kids”, suggesting that Wallis couldn’t possibly be talented enough to earn an Oscar Nomination at age six. These are real-life examples of what it means to have someone else dictate the terms of your greatness. Against our own truth, we are forcibly given standards to measure how (un)worthy we are against everyone else. But these same measures have never included us in their creation.
When have the Grammys ever recognized our GREATEST musical accomplishments? When have our contributions to academia, science and technology been properly recognized by the ivory towers? When has our ancestral, intuitive knowledge been recognized as a valid form of knowledge? When have our bodies ever been appreciated beyond what it can do and look like to others? When have we been properly compensated for our contributions to language and culture?
What I want folks in post-Grammys outrage to do is pay attention. Black women and girls are punished every day in our lives to mediocrity and unfairness on a systemic level. We lose our jobs for daring to wear our hair the way it grows. Black female entrepreneurs, the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs, are having their work stolen left and right. We are punished for making noise about such injustices. There is a stinging irony in Jennifer Lopez quoting Toni Morrison’s call to action to artists during this year’s Grammys.
Beyoncé answered that call long before it became trendy, and lost. Maybe the next question is this: where do we look for validation? If we are, year after year, to be outraged by the exclusion of our excellence, what are we doing? Saul Williams has spoken endlessly about the idea of the diet including the media we consume. If the outrage is contradicted by what we consume on a regular basis, what does that mean? Does it mean flipping the script with powerful performances and gold letters?
How do we continue to celebrate us and recognize us in our glory? Or is it doing revolutionary work in the ways you know best? Figuring this out makes navigating this cruel world a little easier. Beyoncé knew, and she knows.
We all do.