Why “To Pimp A Butterfly” Didn’t Win Album of the Year
Honestly, and I truly mean honestly. I have gotten down to Taylor Swift’s Blank Space on her now Grammy award winning album 1989, a few too many times than I care to admit. It perfectly captures the inner drunk white girl inside me (from my Mom’s side) and the burgeoning idyllic romantic inside of us all. Yet, in all honesty since the Grammy’s I have listened to our nation’s “Album of the Year” and for me it has many more memories of drunk girls yelling “No way!” at the top of their lungs and scuffling to the dance floor for one last song before the lights go on, then any sort of meaningful social commentary. Now, don’t get me wrong I am not like one of those circa 2007-2010 hipster music purists, may they rest in peace, because I can admit I think it takes at least some inkling of talent and courage to make a hit song. I also won’t lie I have gotten down to a plethora of mainstream white fempop songs since my birth in 1993. So, what rattles my cage when it comes to Kendrick Lamar not winning the 2016 Grammy for Album of the Year is not that it wasn’t well deserved by Taylor Swift, but that it seems just like with the Oscars this year, that there is a pasteurization of Black culture.
To Pimp a Butterfly, is by far one of the most prolific albums to ever be recorded not just in the hip-hop genre but music in general. Now this pasteurization has been going on for a long time, and much longer then there has been a city called Compton, but for the purpose of discussing this injustice, Compton will be the epicenter of platinum records, social commentary, and racial inequality in the music industry. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, which is arguably still part of Los Angeles, I could tell you that in 1988 (not 1989) Straight Outta Compton dropped but I couldn’t tell you that U2’s Joshua Tree won Album of the year in 1988. The reason is because Straight Outta Compton said something no one else dared to say and said it loud so that everyone could hear. Once again not hating on U2, because actually they were one of my favorite bands in middle school, while I rode my heelies to and from class being careful not to drop my Ipod Nano. So, why is it that the most prolific, most recognizable, and most socially conscious album doesn’t win? The answer is simple: race.
Though the notes on the page are only black and white, and the artists who sing, record, or rap them come in many different colors, it seems that when it comes to selection of “Album of the Year” the Grammy’s stick to the palatable color: white. Now, when I mention the albums To Pimp a Butterfly and Straight Outta Compton, the first things people recognize is that they are albums made by Black men rapping about social injustices. The real social injustices are not the crimes that rappers depict in their lyrics spurred on by racial dissentment towards young black males and females but the governments ignoring of the pleas, outcries, and help these lyrics hope to draw attention to in that neighborhood. Because it is fun to say “Fuck the Police” when you have no real reason to say it. Black culture, and more specifically Black music has been at the forefront in shaping a lot of mainstream culture and shaping much of the music we listen to today. From musicians like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington to Tupac and Kendrick Lamar there has been a great deal of influence that black music has had on artists. Seriously, if you go and listen to some of Taylor Swift’s songs many of them feature an 808, kickbass and an 4-8 bar hook all of which can be traced back to Black musicians, mainly hip-hop musicians.
I postulate this for the skeptics, what is it if not race or where they are from that is keeping artists like Kendrick Lamar from winning that coveted Grammy? It can’t be artistry, because as I said before 1989 is more of a tracklist to a turnt up night and doesn’t really provide much more. Where as when you listen to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly the first thing you will notice is the eclectic instrumentation, illustrative lyrics, and captivating story of a man facing his inner demons. It can’t be originality, because as good as 1989 is, it isn’t much more original than many other pop songs that come on to the radio. Yet, when you listen to To Pimp a Butterfly you are first faced with the decision of whether or not you even understand what it all means? But like a budding rose, with each listen a new pedal unfolds revealing your consciousness to ideas of faith, wealth, and family. It can’t be the numbers, because if we chose all our champions and winners based on numbers than the Panthers would have won the Super Bowl and Justin Bieber would own every Grammy from 2009 until now. So, I wonder what can it possibly be that keeps an album like To Pimp a Butterfly from winning Album of the Year? It has to be race.
Hearing that Kendrick Lamar didn’t win Album of the Year triggered the same feelings when I read that only 24% of UCLA is either Black or Hispanic. It hurts me at a systemic level. Is it not wrong to say that in order to be treated equally that skin not be a factor, yet you can judge a student based on the academic rigor of their schooling when a white student may be able to afford the opportunity to go to a private school and get a tutor, while a black student may not be able to gain access to such resources. Denying race as a factor in decision making is living in a world where everything is balanced and ignoring the fact that a majority of Black people in this country are either working class, middle class, or poor. It is a reality that even in college admission or Grammy selection our colorblindness only works to try and deny our racism, as opposed to eliminating it.
To Pimp a Butterfly will win this debate, maybe not now but in 20 years everyone will remember the content and message that Kendrick Lamar stated with his album, but no one will remember that in 2016 1989 won. Because, being on the losing side of history is nothing new to colored people as Kendrick puts the apathy of colored people towards the system perfectly in his song Alright, saying “Wouldn’t you know, we been hurt, been down before”. Yet, in the end, “We gon’ be alright”.