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.

Better Love

Depending on which day you ask me, I will tell you that my 7th graders are (a) hilarious, (b) adorable, (c) obnoxious, (d) too hormonal, or (e) horribly mean. That’s a lie: puberty allows them the unique opportunity to embody all 5 of these traits within one day.

I teach three different subjects, so I see some students two or three times a day. It is amazing (or horrifying) how a perfect angel in 2nd period can turn into the alien in the film Alien by 3rd period.

Because of these personality whiplashes, I never know whether to take some students’ comments as humor or insult. Today, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, my students took an intense interest in my love life.

I am asked three or four times a day by four or five students (for an average of 12-20 comments) about my love life. My students remain constantly concerned that I am not taking my personal life serious, that perhaps because I am a first-year teacher I am letting it fall by the wayside.

On a typical day, I will get some variation of the following questions:

  1. Are you dating anyone yet?
  2. How is your girlfriend? I know you have one. Is it Ms. So-and-So?
  3. Have you considered dating Ms. So-and-So? I can introduce you if you’re nervous.
  4. Did you go on a date this weekend? Why not?
  5. Are you worried that a girl won’t like your beard?
  6. You should get out more and try to meet new people. You know you have to put yourself out there if you’re ever going to get a girlfriend, right?
  7. Why did you break up with your last girlfriend? What if that was your last shot?

Don’t be jealous: I know you wish you had a tiny army of preteens who cared this much about your romantic well-being. Somehow I juggle these questions with various denials, quips, and general mopey faces and still manage to teach them subject-verb agreement.

One of the more insulting conversations I had was with one of my best students. That’s the thing about having good students—they have to go and get a big head about it. I was talking with her and her friend after school, and the friend was checking out guys on the football team as they ran to practice.

My student said, “Don’t you have a boyfriend?”

The girl, still maintaining eye contact with the backside of football players’ uniforms, replied, “Not at the moment.”

I thought this was hilarious, so I nudged the girl and said, “Single on the weekends, am I right?!”

And my student, without hesitating, nudged me and said, “Single all your life, am I right?!”

She moved down my list of good students immediately.

Today, I was met with an exponentially more severe amount of love life questions centering around my Valentine’s Day plans. In a truly Oscar-worthy monologue, one girl splashed me with a cold glass of reality:

“Mr. Taylor, don’t you want to have a family some day? You don’t have much time. You’re already in your 20s, so you need to get started soon. You haven’t even started dating someone, and you have to date them, marry them, and then have kids. Do you understand how little time you have? You already look like you’re in your 30s. Have you even shaved lately? Because it looks like you haven’t shaved in weeks. I’m worried about you.”

Cupid has not shot me with an arrow in a few years, but my students haven’t failed to take aim. And she was right: I haven’t shaved in 2014 at all.

In truth, I never find these conversations insulting. These are the type of absurdly hilarious comments that keep me going when the going gets tough and the kids get annoying. If I seriously worried about getting a girlfriend, maybe the story would be different. But believe me, my apathy about my romantic world balances out their sole interest in it.

What worries me is that some of my kids really do think it is the end of the world that tomorrow they will not receive a Valentine. Right now, some of my kids are figuring out a way to feign an illness or make up a significant other who “goes to another school”. As middle schoolers, they are wired in such a way that they can’t help but treat tomorrow as social life or death.

Several of them have started to roll the “L” word around in their mouth, seeing how it tastes when it is applied to someone other than family. Some of them are already regretting that they didn’t reserve it for their mom and dad.

Middle school romance is usually funny due to the total dramatization of a totally insignificant moment in their lives. I will comfort a girl crying over a boy one day, and the next day listen to that same girl go on and on about the boy in 7th period she hadn’t noticed before today. And somehow the universe always maintains a perfect balance of Drake songs that cover both the falling in and out of relationships.

As unserious as most of it is, my kids are discovering both the mushy-gushy side of staying on the phone long after curfew and the very destructive side of believing whole-heartedly they will never be worthy of love.

I recently read a Lorde interview in which she criticized the type of love-or-bust music that Lana Del Rey makes:

“I was just thinking it’s so unhealthy for girls to be listening to, you know, ‘I’m nothing without you.’ This sort of shirt-tugging, desperate, ‘don’t leave me’ stuff. That’s not a good thing for young girls, even young people, to hear.”

Leave it to a 17-year-old to articulate a truth even adults have trouble understanding.

My kids are currently working on a poetry project in which they pick out the poetic conventions used in their favorite songs and analyze what the song means based on how the artist uses these conventions. I have to check over their analyses before they are allowed to make their posters. As I was going through their papers, one device kept popping up: hyperbole, hyperbole, hyperbole.

I started to tell a few of them to pick out different devices, but after combing through the lyrics, I found that they had picked out everything there was.

Miley Cyrus has a song on the radio letting her boo know that she “just started living” when she met him.

Katy Perry has a song on the radio letting her boo know that all his dirty laundry never made her blink “one time”.

Drake has a song on the radio letting his boo know that she is “everything” that he needs.

The band keeps playing, and kids keep taking it to heart. These hyperboles are slowly slipping their way into children’s subconscious, convincing them that this is how love works.

When those children become adults, they don’t know how to be alone because the radio tells them that life doesn’t start without a significant other.

When those children become adults, they don’t know to be together because they expect people to fulfill every need humans weren’t made to fill.

Eventually the joke about middle school romance gets old, and the “L” word starts to leave a bitter taste in their mouths. That same student who made the “single all your life” joke about me was sitting with me after school one day, updating me on all of the hot gossip (don’t judge; it’s really juicy in junior high). She finished up a story about a complicated love hexagon, and finished by saying, “People be taking relationships too serious. That thing that you’re doing ain’t all that serious at this age. Right now, you’re just playing. That’s why I had to break up with my last boyfriend: we were having fun, and then he got too serious. I told him he was too young to know what he was talking about.”

Do you ever get the feeling that we are all too young to know what we are talking about? That my students, Lana Del Rey, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Drake, me, and you all share that in common?

True love is serious; it is not meant to be taken, or given, lightly. But please hear this: You are valuable with or without a significant other. Your worth does not come from the love that you get but from the love that you give.

Today, if you are alone, look around. There is someone there that you failed to notice, just like my kids when they finally see the cute boy or girl next to them in 7th period. And I don’t mean that romantically for you: you are not alone if you have even one friend. I have never met a single person that didn’t feel lonely every once in awhile. Bright Eyes put it best: “You’re not alone in anything/you’re not alone in trying to be.” So stop trying to be.

Today, please look up. Please love the people around you, and please love yourself.

A student who is analyzing a Christian rap song asked me what humility is, and I said, “It means you know that any good thing you do is because of God and not you.”

She asked, “Oh, so it’s like having a low self-esteem?”

I clarified, “No, people my age confuse humility and low self-esteem all the time. A low self-esteem means you hate yourself, but humility means you love yourself but not because of what you’ve done but what God has done in you. You are not the reason you are valuable, but that doesn’t make you any less valuable.”

It’s time we tell ourselves a better message about love. Am I right?