Despite public outcry from stars including Frank Ocean, Solange Knowles and even album of the year winner Adele, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow insists that the Grammy Awards does not have a race problem — and does not need to take steps to ensure a more diverse group of winners in the future.
“No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all,” Portnow told Pitchfork this week following the live Grammys broadcast he oversaw Sunday night. “Remember, this is a peer-voted award. So when we say the Grammys, it’s not a corporate entity — it’s the 14,000 members of the Academy.”
A number of stars spoke out critically after Adele beat out Beyoncé for the album of the year award. Adele herself admitted she was shocked she won for 25 — and even broke her award in half to share with the Lemonade singer.
“I was completely rooting for her, I voted for her. I felt like it was her time to win. What the f— does she have to do to win album of the year?” she said in the press room after her win, which she dedicated to Beyoncé.
After Adele’s win, critics pointed out that people of color have been shut out from the top prize since Herbie Hancock took home the award in 2008. Portnow, however, dismissed concerns that the awards show is biased toward one ethnic group.
“We don’t, as musicians, in my humble opinion, listen to music based on gender or race or ethnicity. When you go to vote on a piece of music — at least the way that I approach it — is you almost put a blindfold on and you listen,” he said.
The Grammys controversy comes a year after the Academy Awards came under fire for shutting out people of color from all acting categories for the second year in a row. After the #OscarsSoWhite outcry, the Academy took steps to increase diversity among its voters — something Portnow said is not necessary for the Recording Academy to do.
“Well, [the MPAA] may have had a problem. We don’t have that kind of an issue in that same fashion,” he said. “But we are always working on increasing diversity in membership, whether it’s ethnicity, gender, genre, or age. In order to maintain our relevance, we have to be refreshing all the time and we have to be doing that across the board.”
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Even before the awards were handed out, the show drew controversy from stars including Frank Ocean for not being inclusive enough toward people of color.
The hip hop star declined to submit his successful album Blonde for submission, and told The New York Times last November that the Recording Academy “doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from.” He also called skipping the awards show his “Colin Kaepernick moment,” referring to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who made headlines last year for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest the treatment of African-Americans and other minorities.
Kanye West also skipped the show, after tweeting last year that he would like to make the show “culturally relevant” again. Nominee Drake also opted to continue with his European tour instead of attending the awards show.
Portnow spoke out about their absences, explaining that they’re “all different situations.” Regarding Ocean, he said he respects his “personal choice” not to participate.
“Not everybody likes or wants to be part of every organization or awards process. I respect that,” he said. “What I’ll say about Frank is he did have his earlier album out at an early stage of his career, we were delighted that it was entered, we were delighted that he was a Grammy winner, we were delighted to have him on our stage, which gave him a platform very early in his career. That’s something we’re proud of, and down the line he may feel differently.”
He added: “Artists change their opinion. I don’t begrudge his choice at all and we’ll see what the future brings.”