In typical Grammys fashion, Monday morning’s award show aftermath was marked variously by jubilation, disappointment and bafflement. Adele’s successive victories over Beyoncé left nobody more surprised than herself. By her own admission, she could not “possibly accept this award.” Adele, in her typical forthright fashion, made no attempt to justify her win, openly declaring that the significance of her work paled in comparison to the “monumental” impact of Lemonade.
While Adele’s 25 was certainly a work deserving of commendation, context is important. Adele’s phenomenal album sales for 25 were largely attributed to the record-shattering success of 21. To many critics, 25 rode the wave of expectation generated by her earlier work, but failed to deliver an album of a remotely similar quality. 25 was, in many ways, a high-grossing disappointment. Her Album of the Year win for 21 was an undisputedly deserved victory, and this just doesn’t seem to be in the same category. Surely, a previous winner should be held to an even higher standard before being considered for second helpings? Far from expanding her impact, 25 seemed more like a limp imitation of past glory.
Beyoncé, on the other hand, has been a towering monolith on the landscape of pop for the best part of two decades. Her iconic status and formidable staying power cements her place in the ranks of greats like Madonna and Michael Jackson. In recent years, after rebelling against the lifelong management of her allegedly domineering father, Beyoncé has struck out with an independence and urgency that has made her a lightning rod for the feminist and black rights movements. Her eponymous album in 2013 explored themes of self-love, identity and womanhood. It was lauded for celebrating motherhood and marriage in a sexy and exciting way normally reserved for singledom, and was also nominated for Album of the Year.
This was Beyoncé’s first foray into explicit, targeted feminism, but not her last. Lemonade, her magnum opus, presented a searing vision of the struggle of black womanhood and the pain of male infidelity. In the era of the Black Rights Matter movement, Lemonade was a political statement of immense gravity. It coherently weaved the struggle of black women as a whole into Beyoncé’s personal narrative of agonising betrayal and perseverance. It was also the culmination of the 35-year-old’s journey from mere pop diva to artistic visionary – a career peak that seemed to scream Album of the Year. The visual album was so nuanced, politically charged and relevant that it seems unthinkable it would be overlooked in favour of a collection of radio-friendly ballads.
For many people, there is an obvious solution to the riddle. Black artists are rarely recognised to the same degree that white artists are. In 2015, Nicki Minaj unequivocally declared her belief that she had been passed over by the VMAs because of this inherent bias. There was uproar in 2016 after Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was overlooked in favour of 1989. Every time the question of racial bias is raised, it is quickly shouted down. The Grammys reward popularity, we’re told. The best artists are never recognised, it’s just a capitalist sham, so stop trying to pull the race card.
While it’s certainly true that the Grammys award based on popularity more than merit, it still doesn’t account for our concerns. Beyonce, Nicki, and Kendrick are just as popular as Taylor and Adele. Even amongst the popular people, the white popular are still favoured – that’s the issue. As Nicki Minaj so cleverly put it, “When the ‘other’ girls drop a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination”. The issue is not that black artists never win awards, as they clearly do, and it is not that the Grammys is the ultimate metric of true artistry, as it clearly isn’t. The issue is that when albums of huge merit by popular black artists are considered next to their white counterparts’ mediocre work, white mediocrity wins the day without fail. The point is that it seems white artists need to do very little to earn recognition, while black artists, even the universal icons like Beyoncé, can move earth and heavens and still be ignored. As Adele herself so insightfully queried on Sunday night: “What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” What DO black artists have to do to be given equal consideration? When will their achievements carry as much weight?
Adele’s decision to dedicate her award to Beyoncé and to speak out on the unfairness of the whole ordeal was hugely significant. As we’ve seen, black artists have publicly questioned the racial prejudices in the system for years. Their criticisms are routinely swept under the rug, and the artists who win over them block their ears and deny any foul play. But not Adele. What Adele did at the Grammys was important. She saw a fellow female artist being overlooked, and she did something about it.
Beyoncé is notoriously stoic in the public eye, but on Sunday night, as she watched Adele deliver a self-deprecating declaration of submission to her superior achievements, she shed a tear. One has to wonder what moved her so much. Was it fury and disappointment spilling out over the floodgates? Or was it a different emotion?
Throughout Lemonade, Beyoncé championed sisterhood as the ultimate source of strength. She describes how black women pass their strength and knowledge down through generations, as her own grandmother passed down recipes to her, teaching her how to make something positive of the bitterness in the world. Perhaps Beyoncé shed a tear because she found a new sister in an unexpected place – because she saw sisterhood triumphing over prejudice fame and self-promotion.
Perhaps Beyoncé wept at the Grammys not because she lost, but because sisterhood won.
Brian O’Flynn is a Dublin-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @.