The Grammys, Kanye, Racism, and Us

On Sunday I gathered with a small number of friends to watch my second favorite awards show of the year (the Oscars take first prize). As one of said friends described, the Grammys are the equivalent—in fact, superior—to most national holidays for me.

Although ratings dropped significantly and a lot of viewers felt little more than boredom, I thought this year’s show was actually indicative of the state of more than music in America—an important step for a show that is typically just another way for celebrities to celebrate themselves.

Despite groaning that Pharrell was going to perform “Happy” two years too late, I was taken aback by his approach to the song. His dancers donned hoodies and—during a piano interlude in the middle of the song—raised their hands to indicate the now-iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” protest signal. Drawing to mind both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Pharrell used his platform to nod to the African-Americans that never get the chance to succeed like him.

President Barack Obama made a surprise video appearance to speak out against domestic violence, along with a spoken word performance from activist Brooke Axtell and Katy Perry’s moving rendition of “By the Grace of God”. In the week leading up to the film release of the disgusting glorification of domestic violence (otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Gray), the three messages were bold, timely, and necessary.

Throughout the three-hour show, social messages like these were more than sprinkled throughout the broadcast. Country artist Eric Church sang “Give Me Back My Hometown” with news footage ranging from #BlackLivesMatter protests to the Je Suis Charlie demonstrations. Beyoncé’s choir also made use of the “hands up, don’t shoot” signal, Prince made reference to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and John Legend and Common performed their beautiful Selma-inspired “Glory” to close out the show.

Art has always been meant for addressing societal ills in attempts to move people to action. In fact, part of Obama’s speech noted artists’ “unique power to change minds and attitudes and get us thinking and talking about what matters.”

This year’s Grammys seemed to center on that notion, as artists who were being recognized for their work were pointing to what really matters right now.

I couldn’t wait to discuss this with people the following day.

After logging onto Facebook, however, I found that the entire conversation around the Grammys had turned to Kanye’s speech about Beyoncé deserving the Album of the Year win over Beck. “Go away, Kanye. Just go away,” one post read. “Kanye proves to be an idiot again,” another said. Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, wrote an open letter to Kanye, telling him to stop throwing his toys. These and other vulgar words and phrases were used to chastise the artist.

Let me begin by saying that Kanye’s comment about respecting “true artistry” was insulting—intentionally or not—to Beck. It was inexcusable to even accidentally imply that Beck is not a real artist (even though he later clarified that he loves Beck, the initial wording had already done its damage).

But why was that the story that media focused on the next day? You currently cannot Google the word “Grammys” by itself without Kanye’s speech popping up at the top of news stories. Is it that Kanye’s speech was the most “exciting” part of the Grammys—even if it came in the E! post-show? Is it that Kanye was dead wrong or right, depending on who you asked?

I think the real answer is that both media and now social media have trained us to care about the wrong things. In a year where we could have opened up some great and needed conversations about racial issues and domestic violence, media outlets have focused our attention to what is being described as another Kanye “rant,” “outburst,” or “tantrum.”

As I write this, I know some of you will read that last paragraph and think, “Way to go, Kanye. You ruined it.” But Kanye, though not totally innocent, was not the one who turned your focus to him. When you watched or read about the Grammys, you chose what to talk about. You chose what to digest. You chose what to post about.

What many of us do not understand about Kanye’s speech is that his opinion—though not totally clear in this speech—was rooted in very real and valid feelings about the troubling history of Grammy awards. “They need to stop playing with us” is another way of saying, “The Grammys need to stop pretending to honor black artists.” (Kanye has spoken about this before, in clearer terms.)

When LL Cool J introduced Kanye for his performance of “Only One,” he mentioned that Kanye has won 21 Grammys. What he didn’t mention was that Kanye has only won these awards in the Rap and R&B categories, which historically mostly feature only black artists. Though a relatively young genre, hip-hop albums by black artists have only been nominated for the coveted Album of the Year category eight times. Only Lauryn Hill and Outkast have gone on to win. Music legends Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., and Jay Z have never been nominated. Compare these numbers (or lack thereof) to Eminem’s four nominations, more than any other rap artist and a third of the total number.

It is easy to dismiss the Grammys as an irrelevant award show. But the reality is that, regardless of how much we vocally dismiss it, we pay attention to it. And when black artists are told they are honored by the show, but see that they are usually only honored when pitted against each other (and not when Eminem is nominated), this promise feels hollow. Yes, Pharrell and Beyoncé won against white artists for “Happy” and “Drunk In Love,” respectively. But the exceptions are never the rules.

A reality of white privilege is that we get to attribute Beck’s win over Beyoncé to musical ability and ignore any potential racial implications. People of color cannot help but be hyper-aware of racial implications, whether real or perceived. This is the reality that Kanye lives in daily, the one where he points out privilege that we are either afraid to admit or unable to even see.

I am speaking from a place of white privilege myself, but I have observed the way my students view different situations in their lives, constantly questioning whether a teacher’s reprimand or a waiter’s rudeness was racially-charged. Before teaching, I never considered that people might be treating me in a certain way based on my race. That is part of what privilege is: being able to exist without awareness of why people treat you in a certain way. The world that people of color exist in does not allow them such a carefree, inattentive attitude.

When my African-American students view the media, I want them to see a narrative that says they are valued, that the outcry of #BlackLivesMatter is not just a dream deferred, something paid homage to only by artists who already look like them. I want them to see African-American success stories without asterisks, without footnotes.

I want them to Google “Grammys” and see celebrations of Beyoncé rather than dismissive reductions of her life’s work. I want them to see people talking about Kanye’s moving tribute to his mother and daughter rather than calling him a baby for expressing real fears of prejudiced voting systems. I want them to see WHITE people fighting for African-Americans, rather than just African-Americans.

If you want to stop being part of the racist media, stop insulting Kanye on your newsfeed. Post something positive about him, or another African-American artist. Question the way media portrays him and other black artists. Start a conversation about whose voices are heard on the Grammys and whose are not. Support the #ItsOnUs campaign to help victims of domestic abuse, an issue affecting all races.

If you feel you cannot do any of these things—or don’t want to—don’t post another word about the Grammys. Don’t call Kanye a child for feeling something you have never had to feel yourself. Don’t reduce people for the sake of it, or at all. The media has already done enough damage without your cutting sword.

Let’s talk about what our world really needs right now. Because black lives really do matter. And domestic abuse is on all of us to stop. And social ills need more than artists paying tribute to them in order to be cured. You are more capable than you realize, and certainly more responsible.


I fantasized ’bout this back in Chicago.

Vacations are hard work. You can spend a lot of time carefully planning out the itinerary and packing appropriately for what the weathermen and weatherwomen predict, but something will always go wrong. I have a bit of a track record for minor misfortune on trips. Approximately all of my adventures turn into a series of mishaps, and my trip to Kanye’s hometown last week was no different.

Many people questioned my venture to Chicago in the middle of April for seemingly no reason, and my answer didn’t seem to clear much up. Something you should understand about me is that I will take a trip for just about anything. If someone wants to go on some excursion, I will neither deny him or her that nor will I let it go until it happens. Positive and persistent is the name of the game.

We made it in America.

My sister is an accountant, so when Tax Season (is that a proper title?) ended April 15th, she wanted to get out of town for a few days. Additionally, she is embarking on a cultural pilgrimage to see the Rangers play in every ballpark. They just so happened to be playing at Wrigley Field last week, which just so happens to be in Chicago, the hometown of my musical and personal hero, Kanye West. Say no more.

You should know that there is no bigger Kanye fan in the world than me. I know a lot of people say that about artists they love, but I’m not just saying that. I own over 230 of his songs, be those album tracks, B-sides, unreleased demos, features on other peoples’ songs, what-have-you. I cried both times I saw him live. I wrote my senior Religion thesis at TCU on the spirituality of his 2011 album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne. I have the unique and annoying ability to quote him in almost every situation; I’m basically a human encyclopedia of Kanye quotes and facts. I might know more about his life than him (a stretch, I know).

The night before departure, rather than spending time looking at weather forecasts and packing my bags to carry-on perfection, I did what any sensible person does when they’re traveling to the city where their favorite artist grew up: I researched and created a log of Kanye quotes to be able to caption all of my Chicago pictures to perfection.

Most rappers’ taste level ain’t at my waist level.

And guys, I nailed it. Every picture had such perfect captioning of my Chi-nanigans (see what I did there?) that you could bet Kanye probably wrote the line in the same place I took the picture. A famous pizza place that has served the likes of Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé even tweeted me back about my caption at their restaurant. Kanye and I are obviously connected on some deeper level of the soul than any onlooker could understand.

Now with such great captioning, you must think that our trip went off without a hitch. But you forget that you’re dealing with a guy who will commit to such trivial matters as picture captioning that he forgets to plan the rest out.

Some highlights of our lows:

Emily and I went to the Rangers-Cubs game severely underdressed for the cold, as I did not have the time to research weather conditions due to my extensive lyric research project.

I believe.

We walked to Millenium Square from our hotel after being told it was a “few blocks away” which translates to an hour on foot. And don’t forget the rain.

We refused to buy an umbrella in the pouring rain, but ended up snatching one from a couple who left The Book of Mormon early after being offended (a rare victory for us, actually).

We failed to eat before the Second City comedy show, and only found an open Cheesecake Factory at 11 p.m. that refused to serve us for twenty minutes in protest to us showing up thirty minutes before they closed (which actually ends up being on their cheesecaked hands, not ours).

We went to the Field Museum with tired feet, complaining the whole 2-3 hours unless we were looking at dinosaur fossils. Pro tip: Don’t go to the Shedd Aquarium to look at live animals and then go to the Field Museum to look at taxidermy animals. It’s very anticlimactic, and the Museum sincerely doesn’t want you tapping on the glass to make the stuffed animals move (lesson learned).

The best living or dead, hands down, huh?
The best living or dead, hands down, huh?

We went to a couple of art museums, including the Art Institute. After failing to find the Picasso exhibit for a couple of hours, I asked someone who looked like a friendly attendant.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I politely interrupted her daydream, “Where is the Picasso part?”

“Do you mean the Picasso exhibit?” she sassed.

“Yes, where the Picasso paintings are,” I returned.

How I'm supposed to stand out when everybody got dressed up?
How I’m supposed to stand out when everybody got dressed up?

“Try the double doors up the stairs with the big sign that says PICASSO,”she snapped, inflecting ‘Picasso’ to make it sound like a dirty word.

Suffice it to say, I could not enjoy the Picasso exhibit because I kept returning to retorts I should have given the woman. “Thanks, I hadn’t gotten that far,” I kept muttering under my breath. “I could’ve sworn the sign that says Picasso lead to the Rembrandt exhibit, but you’re right.”

When all was said and done though, the biggest disappointment was that I did not get to see Kanye’s childhood neighborhood. On the last day of our trip, Em and I went to see the University of Chicago. On the way back, we had the brilliant idea to convince our cab driver to go through Southside on the way to the airport.

But this was not to be. “We need to go to our hotel to get our bags,” I told the large Ugandan driver. My sister gave me a look to keep going. “Umm. And. Also. Could we perhaps go through Southside on the way there?”

Inner-city anthems based off inter-century tantrums.

The man turned and looked at me. “What?”

“The thing is,” I began, “I am the biggest Kanye fan in the world, and I was kind of hoping to see where he grew up.”

The driver laughed, and turned back around. “You don’t want to go there,” he said, and headed for the hotel.

There’s something about humans that lets them get easily hung up on disappointments. People are only full of so many chances for others before they give up and write someone or something off.

All of the little hang-ups in Chi-City did nothing to stop my big sis and me from having the time of our lives (this is Ben Taylor you’re talking to—I could have fun with a pile of dirt), but I can guarantee they would ruin someone else’s day. Some lady on our flight to Chicago complained to anyone with ears that she was late flying in, as if the rest of us weren’t arriving at the same time as her. The couple next to me at The Book of Mormon left thirty minutes into the musical because they were so offended they couldn’t stick around for the message behind the vulgarity. Our cab driver on the last day knew too much about Southside to even drive through it for me.

If you talkin’ bout classics, do my name get brought up?

And I have a sneaking suspicion that some of you read that I love Kanye, and shut down to anything I might say about him. He offends you, doesn’t he? The mentioning of his name pulls you back five years to that incident with Taylor Swift, or a few years before to that incident with Katrina, or any incident at all that involved Kanye on national television. To many, he is nothing but an arrogant child that can’t keep his mouth shut.

Chi-town till I’m on my back, Chi-town till I’m on my back.

But Kanye West has done more for me than a lot of people in my life. Here is a man who grew up middle-class in Chicago, but still managed to speak out against the murder happening in his city while other rappers boasted about killing others. Here is a man who was told for years he couldn’t rap and now has released 7 albums, won 21 Grammys, and is notorious for releasing classic after classic. Here is a man who got famous for a song about his walk with Jesus, and then spent the rest of his career being criticized by Christians while he continued to search for God in his misery. Here is a man who lost his mother and all four of his grandparents in one year, and wrote an entire album about what it’s like to have everything in the world in the way of fame and girls and money, and yet have nothing at all.

She askin’ bout the speedboats; I admit we rented ’em.

Here is a man who is a human being in a world full of fakes.

He’s the sole reason I started rapping and doing spoken word, a large part of the reason I started writing, and the reason I don’t see people as good or bad, right or wrong, but both good and bad and right and wrong and totally and fully human. Imagine that: I was inspired by someone I don’t idolize as a god, but by someone I believe points me to God.

Can we get much higher?

You don’t have to love all of a person or a place or a thing to learn from it. The world isn’t so simple, and people certainly aren’t. Vacations are wonderful things that often contain many small mishaps, but those mishaps are part of what makes them so great. In the same way, people are complicated beings that often contain many big mistakes, but those mistakes are part of what makes us human. Last week I saw the home of someone who taught me to love where I am and who I’m with, regardless of what goes wrong. It was truly an experience to remember.

If you don’t know by now, I’m talkin’ bout Chi-town.

On this day we become legendary. Everything we dreamed of