Beyoncé Famously Skips the Grammys—and Her Absence Speaks Volumes
Bey herself has never explained why, but evidence suggests she may be protesting the Recording Academy's failure to honor artists of color.
Even though Beyoncé is the most Grammy-nominated woman of all time, she famously hasn’t appeared at the ceremony in years, and her absence at what’s supposedly music’s biggest night speaks volumes. On Saturday, the Recording Academy confirmed that she would also not be performing at the 2021 Grammys, where she leads the night’s nominations with nine. “It’s unfortunate, because she’s such a big part of the Recording Academy,” CEO and president Harvey Mason Jr. said. “We absolutely wish we had her onstage.” Though she did not walk the red carpet, it appears Beyoncé and Jay-Z did quietly sit in the audience of Sunday night’s performance.
Ever since 2017, when Lemonade was passed over for Album of the Year in favor of Adele’s 25, Beyoncé’s attendance at the annual ceremony has been sporadic at best. While she’s never spoken out about a beef with the Grammys, a detailed read between the lines suggests that her complicated relationship with the institution might have something to do with the Recording Academy’s frequent failure to honor artists of color. Though Beyoncé has been nominated a staggering 79 times, she’s only won once in the major categories (“Single Ladies” won Song of the Year in 2009).
Let’s turn back the clock to 2017, when Beyoncé received nine Grammy nominations, two of which she would go on to win: Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Music Video. Though she was largely favored to win Album of the Year for Lemonade, an ambitious visual album and an artistic triumph, the award went instead to Adele. A visibly overcome Adele insisted that the award should have gone to Beyoncé, who demurred, and listened to the impassioned speech with tears in her eyes.
“I can’t possibly accept this award,” Adele said. “My artist of my life is Beyoncé, and this album, to me—the Lemonade album was just so monumental… the way you make me and my friends feel—the way you make my Black friends feel—is empowering. You make them stand up for themselves. I love you, I always have, and I always will.”
Adele’s win gave rise to outrage in the Beyhive, as well as a groundswell of conversations about racial bias in the Recording Academy. In the Los Angeles Times, John Vilanova described “a glass ceiling on Black art,” citing previous times that Beyoncé had lost to white artists: “The message was clear: making the cut into the nominations for Album of the Year should be perceived as victory enough for artists of color, even if they go on to lose to white artists.” The uproar over Bey’s loss to Adele was perhaps part of what motivated the Recording Academy to form its Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, which led to the voting body expanding by an additional 900 members, all of whom were women, people of color, and/or artists under the age of 39. As Tyler the Creator described this disparity in 2020 after winning the Grammy for Best Rap Album:
“I’m very grateful that what I made could be acknowledged in a world like this, but also, it sucks that whenever we—and I mean guys that look like me—do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything, they always put it in a rap or urban category, which is—I don’t like that urban word. That’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”
Bey herself kept mum as the events played out, but attended the ceremony again in 2018, when her husband, Jay-Z, was the year’s most-nominated artist.
Yet in 2019, after Beyoncé and Jay-Z were shut out of the main categories for their collaboration, Everything Is Love, the Carters skipped the ceremony. Jay-Z rapped about injustices at the Grammys in “Apeshit,” a song on Everything Is Love: “Tell the Grammys fuck that 0-for-8 shit / Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?” His lyrics refer to the events of 2018’s ceremony, when he didn’t win a single award for 4:44, despite being the most nominated artist of the night at eight nominations. Jay-Z’s Grammys stats are equally troubling. He’s been nominated a staggering 80 times but has never taken home an award in a major category.
The Carters weren’t the only artists skipping the 2019 ceremony on account of unjust treatment; Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino all declined to perform on the grounds that the Recording Academy’s racism prevents hip-hop artists from winning the top prizes. Producer Ken Ehrlich admitted, “We continue to have a problem in the hip-hop world. When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy and what the Grammys represent continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad.”
Fast forward to 2020: another Grammys, another Beyoncé absence, despite her four nominations. Though she attended pre-Grammys events, like the Roc Nation brunch and the Clive Davis gala, Bey was a no-show at the ceremony for reasons that remain unclear. Perhaps the strongest clue is an interview she gave in January 2020, in which she was asked if she was disappointed that Lemonade didn’t win in any of the Grammys’ most prestigious categories.
“I began to search for deeper meaning when life began to teach me lessons I didn’t know I needed,” Beyoncé told Elle. “Success looks different to me now. I learned that all pain and loss is in fact a gift. Having miscarriages taught me that I had to mother myself before I could be a mother to someone else. Then I had Blue, and the quest for my purpose became so much deeper. I died and was reborn in my relationship, and the quest for self became even stronger. It’s difficult for me to go backwards. Being ‘number one’ was no longer my priority. My true win is creating art and a legacy that will live far beyond me. That’s fulfilling.”
Will Bey ever return to the Grammys? Maybe yes, maybe no, but one thing’s for sure: the Grammys need her more than she needs them.