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29 Jan Written by  Oris Aigbokhaevbolo

On the Grammys, Hip-Hop, and Femi Kuti

The major fallout from the 2014 Grammys, televised early Monday morning at 2am, concerns the victory of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in the Rap categories. The duo won Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Album in categories with true hip-hop heavyweights like Jay Z and Kanye West, and also newbie Kendrick Lamar whom many felt deserved at least one of those awards. 

Although Macklemore was the only white rapper in that category, that is not exactly the reason for the trouble. The problem is the duo has a reach not many rappers have; they have many pop fans, which also probably mean they have many white fans. The Rap Committee for the Grammys were so conflicted they decided to not nominate Macklemore in the Rap categories, but they were vetoed in by the general Grammy committee.

So even before the awards, the band had caused controversy. And by the end of the Grammy season, starting with the announcement of nominees and ending at the conclusion of the televised show, the pattern would have repeated itself over and again.

The Grammys consists of an early untelevised show that has the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences handing out a majority of the awards; 82 this year. Only 10 awards were handed out during the televised show this year.

This means if you are in Nigeria and cared enough to stay up late to see the show, possibly to see our country’s only nominee Femi Kuti, by the show’s end your chagrin would be two-fold. Femi didn’t win, and if he did you wouldn’t have had the pleasure of seeing him receive the gilded gramophone. In spite of the Grammy publicity people’s claim of 1 billion viewers around the world, the televised show skewers in favour of the categories Americans may readily identify.

This brings up a question: considering how much hip-hop has taken over pop music, why were its categories relegated to the pre-televised show?

Short answer: too many performances— this year had about a dozen more performances than awards. The not-so-short answer: hip-hop has a tortuous relationship with the Grammys.

In 1989, when the first Rap Grammy (for Best Rap Performance) was handed to Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff, it was not televised. A decade later, Jay-Z boycotted the show, his reason being they didn’t give enough respect to the genre; in 2011, music executive Steve Stoute wrote an open letter decrying the treatment of rap artists at the Grammys. In between, Kanye West has whined, threatened, screamed and given interviews lamenting his inability to be honoured beyond the Rap categories.

These days the man just avoids the show.

Last year, Mr West, in an interview with the New York Times, noted that he had never won against a white artist. “I don’t know if this is statistically right,” he said, “but I’m assuming I have the most Grammys of anyone my age, but I haven’t won one against a white person.”

Typical Kanye, combining hubris with truth. Or mostly truth: in 2006, his “Late Registration” won against Eminem’s ‘Encore’ in the Best Rap Album category, but maybe Eminem is no longer considered white. And it isn’t just white persons, as he lost to Jazz musician Herbie Hancock in the Best Album category in 2008. But he has a general point, a point illustrated by Macklemore’s victory at this year’s ceremony.

Macklemore’s three rap awards have its antecedents in Eminem’s, the main difference being the latter is far and away a better rapper. Also Dr Dre, Eminem’s mentor, provided his protégée with an unassailable credibility while Macklemore might never get acceptance into the predominantly black culture that supports rap. Only the general fact of whiteness hitches them together.

Eminem has seven studio albums but his last wasn’t eligible for this year’s awards, and five Best Rap Album awards. In other words, the rapper has five Best Album awards for six eligible albums, beating off Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Mos Def and others in the process. Put another way, in a period that saw Nas’s ‘Stillmatic,’ Jay-Z’s ‘The Blueprint’ and Busta Rhymes’s ‘Extinction Level Events’ without Grammy validation, Eminem has had almost half a dozen gilded gramophones for albums not named ‘Marshall Mathers LP’ or ‘The Eminem Show’.

Now, Eminem is a great rapper, easily Top 10, dead or alive, in any rap fan’s list, and mainstream black publications rank him highly. Yet his race has bolstered his success. And he knows.

“Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself

 If they were brown Shady’d lose, Shady sits on the shelf…

 Let’s do the math: if I was black, I woulda sold half

I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that…

 I’m like my skin is just starting to work to my benefit now?”

Like Macklemore’s now public apology to Kendrick Lamar after the award show, Eminem’s song ‘White America’ (quoted above) from 2002’s ‘The Eminem Show,’ shows the conflict white rappers face. They know these are stolen goods— Macklemore said “I robbed you” to Lamar— but the real owners are so vast and of uneven rapping prowess, it is impossible to return the loot. Besides, anymore public displays of contrition and their own authenticity stands to be questioned. And as every fan knows, authenticity is the lifeblood of rap.

The Grammys wouldn’t matter so much if rappers didn’t covet it so much. But they do. And it has become a status symbol, a little like what those white (or light skinned) girls are in the videos by Nigerian pop stars.

On ‘Paris Morton Music,’ after Drake received a nomination but didn’t win, he rapped:

“I never threw away that paper with my Grammy speech

Because I haven’t hit the pinnacles I plan to reach.”

On ‘Versace remix,’ after he won:

“The pillows’ Versace, the sheets are Versace, I just won a Grammy.”

Lil Wayne responds to been ignored with sadness: “Last year they had the Grammys and left me in Miami” ; Jay-Z named a song ‘Grammy Family’ in which he raps about success; Will Smith has bragged about being first to receive a Grammy for Rap.

By contrast, Eminem’s memorable Grammy line in ‘The Real Slim Shady’ are not rendered in reverence, but with a raised eyebrow:

“You think I give a damn about Grammy…

But slim, what if you win, wouldn’t it be weird

Why, so you guys could just lie to get me here?”

At the time, he hadn’t even won.

Macklemore’s “I robbed you” message is another white rapper treating a Grammy Award not with reverence but like just one more plaque in a room full of them. In America, the flamboyant rejection of awards is restricted to white artists. Marlon Brando, in 1973, rejected the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Godfather, and before him, George C. Scott. The former was in protest of the treatment of Native Americans, the latter declined on philosophical grounds.

Knowing how difficult it is to be validated in America, the African American performer can hardly show anything but elation; only the Caucasian can be ambivalent. To be specific, black hip-hop musicians seek acceptance; white ones seek acknowledgement.

Perhaps this is the price hip-hop has to pay for its own success, for leaving pop music’s margins for pop central.

Over here in Nigeria, our dream of a Grammy win was rekindled when Femi Kuti was nominated in the Best World Music Album category. It was his fourth nomination. After his third nomination, he said he was never going to attend the show.

“If I win it, let them bring it here,” he said.

They wouldn’t be doing that.

Despite the happiness the man must have felt at the nomination— after all there are many musicians in the world— this year’s loss may be the hardest to take because it was a tie. This means there were two winners in a category consisting of four nominees: the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo— whom Nigerians may recall for their hit song ‘Homeless’— and Gipsy Kings; the other winless nominee was the late sitar player Ravi Shankar.

It must rankle to have two winners out of four — including one dead for more than a year­— and still fall short.

Nigeria, perhaps more than Femi, is eager for that validation. We famously love foreign praise. Those Laurels from Los Angeles have been sung about, most notably by 9ice on ‘Street Credibility’:

“Categorically, I’m the best, mentally…

Don’t doubt me, I go bring home Grammy”

In recent songs, 9ice has not informed his listeners on the state of his Grammy acquisition program. But that doesn’t mean the country has stopped hoping.