Last night was yet another big night for Texans at the Grammys. As has become something of a tradition for the event, the list of award winners and nominees included an impressive number of musicians from the Lone Star State—at least 23. Headlining the list was Megan Thee Stallion, who took one of the bigger awards of the night when she claimed Best New Artist, but it hardly stopped there.
Beyoncé claimed four prizes as she shattered a Grammy record by reaching 28 lifetime awards, including Best R&B Performance for her single “Black Parade.” (Daughter Blue Ivy Carter, who’s officially a Texan if she wants to be, also earned one, for her performance on her mom’s “Brown Skin Girl,” which won Best Music Video.) The list goes on: Houston jazz pianist and bandleader Robert Glasper won Best R&B Song for “Better Than I Imagined,” his collaboration with H.E.R. and Me’shell N’degéocello; Miranda Lambert took home Best Country Album for Wildcard; Austin singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz earned Best Americana Album honors for World on the Ground; Denton jazz fusionists Snarky Puppy claimed Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for Live at the Royal Albert Hall. Texans including Mickey Guyton, Selena Gomez, Black Pumas, and Bobby Sessions were also nominated for awards. And, in addition to claiming her Best New Artist title, Megan Thee Stallion took home the awards for both Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance for “Savage,” her song-of-the-summer collaboration with Beyoncé.
There was a lot to celebrate, especially if you stan Megan and Beyoncé. But as the evening’s top awards were announced, a familiar story played out. When it came time to announce the winner of the final award of the night, Record of the Year, the camera cut away from presenter Ringo Starr to the stunned face of Billie Eilish, who began her acceptance speech with the words, “This is really embarrassing for me.” Was it false humility from a young star? Not really—she was embarrassed, she said, because the award should have gone to Megan Thee Stallion.
“Megan, I was going to write a speech about how you deserve this, but I was like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to choose me. It’s hers,” Eilish said. Speaking directly to the Houston-born rapper, she went on: “You deserve this. You had a year that I think is untoppable. You are a queen. I want to cry thinking about how much I love you. You’re so beautiful, you’re so talented, you deserve everything in the world. I think about you constantly, I root for you always, genuinely this goes to her. Can we just cheer for Megan Thee Stallion, please?” Eilish concluded her speech by briefly thanking the academy, her brother, and her management team.
Eilish’s speech was a classy response to an awkward moment, but any student of the history of the Grammys would recognize that, in fact, Eilish was a much more likely candidate to receive the award than Megan Thee Stallion. Despite dominating the charts, rappers rarely earn the biggest honors at the Grammys. Before Childish Gambino’s 2019 win for “This Is America,” no rap song had ever taken Record of the Year. And Black women working in any genre are a vanishingly rare sight for the top awards. Had “Savage” beaten out Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted,” it would have been the first recording by a Black woman to win the evening’s final award since Whitney Houston was honored for her recording of “I Will Always Love You” way back in 1994, before either Eilish or Megan Thee Stallion were born. Eilish isn’t even the first white artist to express shock and dismay after receiving an award that she believed should go to another musician: in 2017, Adele used her acceptance speech for that year’s Album of the Year award to praise Beyoncé, whose Lemonade had somehow similarly come up short in a category that a Black woman hadn’t won since Lauryn Hill took it in 1999.
In any given year and category, of course, it’s possible to argue that the winning artist deserved their prize. Eilish is a seismic talent; even though “Everything I Wanted” is a non-album track that came after the release of her record-setting debut, it’s not impossible to argue that it’s more award-worthy than “Savage.” Art is subjective, after all! Lemonade was a tour-de-force album from one of the most iconic artists of the past two decades operating at the height of her powers, but Adele is the best-selling artist of the century, and the Grammys do like to reward commercial achievement. Maybe at the 2015 ceremony, in which Beyoncé’s industry-redefining self-titled album lost Album of the Year to the sixth-best Beck album, the academy felt the need to honor the alt-rocker’s career longevity? It’s impossible to say exactly what goes into giving impossibly broad awards like “Record of the Year” and “Album of the Year” to artists in a field with as much variety in genre, fame, and commercial success as the music industry. We just know that whatever those awards specifically are meant to honor, they almost always also honor whiteness.
That’s an uncomfortable fact, and that discomfort was reflected in Eilish’s speech last night, just as it was in Adele’s in 2017. (Beck, reflecting on his win a few years later, said he “got the point” of those who were upset when his Morning Phase beat out Beyoncé.) The Grammys are full of categories that are intended to honor Black artists, and Beyoncé, as of last night, has won more of them than any woman in history. But when Black artists dominate the charts, and when the work of those artists has long defined the sound that the entire industry emulates, that sort of marginalization is impossible to justify, as fans and critics lamented on Twitter:
Macklemore to Kendrick, Adele to Beyoncé, Billie to Megan: the trend, it continues!
— Elamin Abdelmahmoud (@elamin88) March 15, 2021
our annual tradition of hearing white artists tell Black artists they deserve the awards they're not winning
— Astead (@AsteadWesley) March 15, 2021
During the ceremony last night, Harvey Mason Jr., the interim head of the Recording Industry Academy of America, acknowledged this problem. Appearing in a video presentation, he expressed a new vision for the academy. “We hear the cries for diversity, the pleas for representation, and the demands for transparency,” he explained, as he urged the Grammys community to “build a new recording academy that we can all be proud of.” An hour later, for the seventeenth time in the past twenty ceremonies, the event’s biggest award went, yet again, to a white artist. She spent the bulk of her speech acknowledging the earth-shattering year that Megan Thee Stallion had, but honoring that achievement shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of one mortified teenage superstar. The history of the Grammys—up to and including last night—tells us that if you want to see a face like Megan’s or Beyoncé’s during the acceptance speech for the top awards, though, that may end up being the only way you’ll get it.