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A deeper look at the representation issues Jay-Z talked about in his Grammys speech

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Jay-Z has 24 Grammy Awards, and he won an honorary Grammy last night. But when he went up to speak, he criticized the Recording Academy for ignoring Black artists like his wife, Beyonce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAY-Z: I don't want to embarrass this young lady, but she has more Grammys than everyone and never won album of the year. So even by your own metrics, that doesn't work.

PFEIFFER: And he's not the only one making this criticism. For some perspective, we have NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas. Hi.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: So Jay-Z's remarks have caused a lot of chatter, but there are some exceptions to his criticism. I'm thinking about "The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill," which won album of the year in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOO WOP (THAT THING)")

LAURYN HILL: (Singing) Yeah, yeah. Guys, you know you better watch out.

PFEIFFER: That was a really big moment for hip-hop, and it was the last time a Black female artist won.

TSIOULCAS: Both of those things are true. And interestingly, Sacha, that was also a year led by female artists. Back then, there were only five nominees for album of the year. And that year, they were all solo female artists or women-fronted bands. So we know there was Lauryn Hill but also Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Shania Twain and the band Garbage with singer Shirley Manson.

PFEIFFER: And there's another exception. Outkast's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," that won album of the year in 2004. And that, I think, was the only other hip-hop album to do so. Of course, that was 20 years ago. So some people are making the case that hip-hop as a whole has been ignored. How fair is that?

TSIOULCAS: Well, we have this situation in which the most influential genre on the planet is shut out of the music industry's biggest prize now decade after decade. And I have to say, Sacha, not only was I a voting member of the Grammys during that Outkast era, I was also a judge in one of the categories that wasn't open to the general membership voting. I left being a Grammy judge and voter when I joined NPR. But that year that Outkast won, one of the other nominees for album of the year was Missy Elliott for her album "Under Construction." And, at least to me back then, it felt like a certain tide was maybe starting to turn. At the end of the day, though, that didn't happen.

PFEIFFER: You know, the Oscars, as you certainly know, have made a push to diversify their membership and their picks. Has anything like that happened with the Grammys?

TSIOULCAS: Yes and no. Back in 2018, the Recording Academy, which is the organization that gives out the Grammys, pledged that it would diversify its membership after it endured heavy criticism, not just for sidelining Black artists but women overall as well. Infamously, the then-CEO, Neil Portnow, told variety that if women want to find places for themselves in the music industry, they had to, quote, "step up." Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of pushback to that and people asking the Grammys to do better. And back then, I asked the academy, and it turned out they weren't asking their members for their demographics. And frankly, you can't improve what you don't track. Also, you have to cross certain hurdles to become a voting member, with a certain number of album credits. And that privileges folks who have been working in the industry for a while. So they've made membership more accessible but not necessarily those people have become voting members.

PFEIFFER: But if the Grammy voting membership is starting to look different, then why haven't we seen that shift in its voting?

TSIOULCAS: There are some structural issues at hand here, Sacha. First of all, there's something like 21,000 Recording Academy members, but still only something like 12,000 of them are eligible to vote for the Grammys at all. And the Grammys have a whopping 94 categories now. That's way more than the Oscars. And the members can only vote in those six major categories, things like album of the year and record of the year and best new artist. That's it. Otherwise, they can only vote in three genre fields that they specialize in. So that often means for those big, major categories, voters still vote for the most mainstream names, the ones they know the best. So maybe you like Taylor Swift or someone you know does, and then you vote for her, and she continues her world domination.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas. Thanks, Anastasia.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.