Wednesday the Brit Awards took place in the O2 Arena in London. The BRITs, as the show is often called, is the most important annual music award show in Britain. This year's edition was marked by an increase in ethnic diversity. A small step in the right direction.
After last year’s controversy over the lack of BAME (black, Asian, minority, ethnic) nominees in the Brit Awards, organisers turned the tables drastically. The BRITs have come a long way in the diversity debate. This year 45% of the nominees were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and so were quite a few winners. Emili Sandé won the award for British Female Solo. Drake and Beyoncé took home Best International Male and Female Solo. Girl group Little Mix won Best Single and Best International Group was claimed by hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest. A substantial difference from 2016 when out of the 45 nominees, five were BAME artists and none of them took home an award. The imbalance led to the hashtag #BritsSoWhite and sparked a debate on diversity. A promise from the BRITs’ organisers to make a change followed.
It was not perfect. Despite many nominations for Grime artists Skepta and Stormzy neither won an award. Remarkable, since Grime is taking Britain by storm. This led to some criticism on Twitter and even a weak revival of the hashtag #BritsSoWhite. In addition media like The Guardian and NME expressed frustration in ignoring the genre. Nevertheless, Stormzy's surprise collaboration with superstar Ed Sheeran could count on a highly positive Twitter feed. Perhaps it is a quick fix in response to last year's controversy but it could be that little push forwards that award shows like these need.
Last year's #BritsSoWhite almost disappeared
Last week the Grammys were awarded in Los Angeles who find themselves in the same diversity debate. Whereas the Brit Awards have listened to the criticism, their American counterpart has definitely not. In an interview with Pitchfork last week head of the Grammys Neil Portnow surprisingly makes the claim they have no race problem at all. Portnow states the following: “We have 84 categories where we recognize all kinds of music, from across all spectrums.” This is partly true as for example Beyoncé and Drake have won plenty of awards. However, black artists are too often put away in separate categories such as Best Contemporary Urban Album or Best R&B Performance but ignored in the major general categories. Drake won a Best Rap Song Grammy last week with a song that is not a rap song.
The BRITs on the other hand have no genre specific categories. Portnow also claims that Grammy Award nominees are selected democratically by qualified experts listening “with a blindfold”. Decisions are led by expertise and not made based on gender or ethnicity. This statement implies two things. One, there is a lack of BAME artists talent. They are simply not good enough to win an award. Or two, there simply are no black artists with commercial success. A quick glance at the Billboard Top 100 shows the opposite. At this moment, six of the ten acts in the top 10 from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. The BRITs this year have shown that there is room for these artists.
Music Awards and the importance of representation
Why even care about music award shows? Whether or not you can appreciate the spectacle, they are still an influential part of the popular music industry. Cultural prizes create reputational capital for an artist and serve as quality signals for consumers (English, 2014, p.125). The shows create a huge buzz around nominated and winning artists and are a major contribution to an artist’s popularity. Therefore, the award shows function as gatekeepers on what music and artists are accepted and of good quality.
When music award shows do not contribute to more diversity it becomes a vicious circle.
BAME artists will not be accepted as legitimate popular music by the Brit Awards or Grammy Awards and as a result less accepted by the public. This way BAME artists are continiously neglected. The Academy voters (who are responsible for the lists of nominees) will continue to go for the safer vote - the familiar white artists. The Brit Awards already took a small step forwards in breaking this vicious circle. Let's hope this was not a simple reaction to last year. Hopefully other music award shows like the Grammy Awards will take responsibility and follow.
Ginsburgh, V., & Throsby, D. (2014). The Economics of Cultural Awards. In J. F. English (Red.), Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture (pp. 120-141). Oxford, United Kingdom: Elsevier.