why it’s so important that award shows get it right

Top awards shows have a history of ignoring achievements of artists of colour. Moonlight’s Best Picture win at the Oscars highlight how important it is that they get it right...

by Lynette Nylander
27 February 2017, 9:20pm

As Adele scooped the Record of the Year gong at last week's Grammys, my genuine happiness for her was met with a bubbling rage. An emotional paradox. Adele is an artist who I always felt has displayed an admirable tenacity. Her talent is without question and she has a girl-next-door-in-Tottenham relatability that has always appealed to me growing up next door in East London. The world watched as she dedicated her speech to who she felt should have been awarded, Beyoncé and the outcries on Twitter carried onto the next day. I wanted to be annoyed, to join in on the hashtags, the meme postings and the general backlash that ensued, but the feeling was all too familiar. It's a feeling that any black person, or for that matter, any POC will attest to. The feeling of knowing, sometimes, your best (or being the best), will never be good enough. This is upheld in all facets, in the workplace, across the creative arts and most frustratingly, the organisations that are meant to celebrate them. Moonlight's win last night was a rare example of when the Academy got it right, but there are so many other times them and other award governing bodies have got it so wrong.

A number of awards shows have a shockingly white history and have consistently displayed an inability to keep plugged in to what is permeating the mainstream and, time and time again, disregarding deserving POC. We look for validation from award governing bodies for our music artists and film stars but these establishments tend to be grossly out of touch, with judging panels not reflective of the audiences seeing the films, instead the 1% in their place. It begs the question, why do artists of colour continue to play the game? Attending the award shows and performing; giving the shows publicity in turn when they are continually ignored. Well because awards can still give indie flicks like Moonlight, the power and the platform for their cultural message to permeate far beyond art-house cinemas and limited runs. If only, award governing boards give them the opportunity. Yesterday was in an important step, but we are far off true progress.

While you could argue Beyoncé's deservedness for any award is subjective, this year's Brits sadly did nothing to defy the trend that people of colour get overlooked at award shows.

No matter how many records sold and make-do awards given, for many, a Grammy or an Oscar is still the ultimate symbol of success and artists strive for their peers as well as the influence and legacy of their work. Beyoncé, who in her near 20 years as a recording artist, has sold over 100 million records, won over 22 Grammys and been nominated for a Grammy more times than any other female artist, so her relegation to the 'urban' and R&B categories, instead of Record of the Year, isn't just confusing, it's almost nonsensical. Kendrick famously lost best album to Macklemore who himself labelled Kendrick as "robbed." Skepta was not even invited to the Brits when he stormed Kanye's All Day performance despite his hits That's Not Me and Shutdown, the latter using the Ofcom complaints of the All Day performance by disgruntled viewers, complaining of "men aggressively dancing on stage" as one of its refrains.

While you could argue Beyoncé's deservedness for any award is subjective, this year's Brits sadly did nothing to defy the trend that people of colour seemingly get overlooked at award shows. After a 2016 nomination list that conveniently forgot it was the year of grime, the Brits' council promised 2017 would be different, with an overhauling of the committee who votes for nominees after it was revealed the panel consisted of over 70% males and only 15% of the panel were from BAME backgrounds. Stormzy, Kano and Skepta featured alongside POC artists Lianne La Havas, Emeli Sande and Nao all featured as nominees but when it came to actual award winners, Rag'n'Bone man beat out both Skepta and Stormzy, the former whose album charted at No.2 without a major label, the latter who has sold over a million singles worldwide, again independently. In a world where subcultures have more or less diminished, the sound of a galvanised youth is grime; a sound with the storytelling of what is going on on British streets at its heart. For an award ceremony that is meant to celebrate the accomplishments of British artists, to disregard grime by not giving it award but using the nominees to display a supposed move towards 'diversity' feels like nothing but a cleverly engineered plan to use the artists as props as well as an indication of how glaringly out of touch they continue to be.

The impact of Moonlight's win is bigger than any one movie, or one performance. Its recognition will undoubtedly go on to inspire a wealth of POC filmmakers, actors and actresses; as well as anyone who has felt marginalised and underrepresented.

#OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag that caught fire last year, after not a single person of colour was nominated in 20 categories for two consecutive years led to boycotting of the ceremony by the likes of Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee and Michael Moore and ill-thought out comments from Charlotte Rampling. The Academy seemingly took stock, with 2017 highlighting a wealth of black actors who all shone in their roles. Namely Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Octavia Spencer, Naomie Harris, Ruth Negga, Dev Patel and Director of Moonlight Barry Jenkins. Moonlight, Fences, Hidden Figures and Loving all explicitly deal with race in their plots - at a time when these stories hold particularly weight, especially living in Trump's America, where racist and xenophobic rhetoric is being peppered into everyday conversation. The Academy had pressure to right years of overlooking and unappreciating the work of non-white movie makers and actors. The impact of Moonlight's win is bigger than any one movie, or one performance. Mahershala Ali's Best Supporting Actor award, (the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar in history) and Moonlight's Best Picture win cements the need for an alternative narrative, and the Oscars recognition of its place in history will undoubtedly go on to inspire a wealth of POC filmmakers, actors and actresses; as well as anyone who has felt marginalised and underrepresented, hopefully making it easier for them to follow the countless number of POC that have strove in the face of adversity. Those who have made proverbial lemonade of out of lemons, taking lesser pay-packets, limiting categories and fewer roles and opportunities and turning out stellar performances that garnered them their deserved praise from their own communities. Award shows now compete with the court of public opinion, and it's happening on phones, live on Twitter, on Tumblr, through Snapchat commentary and peer-to-peer on Facebook. So perhaps we should evaluate the role of award ceremonies and their relevance, particularly to a millennial audience. In lieu of unrepresentative Academies, should we come up with disparate alternatives to decide what needs to be celebrated.

With Moonlight's win, it's now important we build on a movement towards change. If award ceremonies continue to be neglectful, to not give due credit to artists of colour, to not have diverse enough casts or to have a lack of POC on a bill, it'll take a collective disruption and bold objections of the status quo that will be needed to change things. Take Frank Ocean and Kanye West's boycotting of the Grammys as an example. It's 2017 and now is not the time to just say when things aren't reflective of a diverse society, we need to be the change we want to see. But for now let us celebrate in the success of Moonlight, which will now show at an additional 80 screens in the UK, bolstered by its win last night. It's imperative we vote with our wallets (like we did with Hidden Figures) and support the stories that are a true reflection of our times, whether major award councils choose to or not.

Read: 10 albums by black artists that should have won album of the year at the Grammys.


Text Lynette Nylander

The Grammys
the oscars