Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said he does not believe the Grammys suffer from a race problem in an interview with Pitchfork.
The critique has been lobbed at the Grammys over the years for various reasons, but resurfaced again Sunday after Adele bested Beyoncé for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Album of the Year. Even the British singer seemed flummoxed as she accepted the top honor for 25, saying, “What the fuck does [Beyoncé] have to do to win Album of the Year?” As many have also noted, a black artist has not won Album of the Year since Herbie Hancock in 2008.
Responding to the critique, Portnow said, “No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all. Remember, this is a peer-voted award, it’s not a corporate entity – it’s the 14,000 members of the Academy … It’s always hard to create objectivity out of something that’s inherently subjective, which is what art and music is about. We do the best we can.”
Portnow also said he believed that Grammy voters – a mix of artists, songwriters, engineers, producers, art directors and more – don’t listen to music based on gender, race or ethnicity. “When you go to vote on a piece of music – at least the way that I approach it – is you almost put a blindfold on and you listen. It’s a matter of what you react to and what in your mind as a professional really rises to the highest level of excellence in any given year. And that is going to be very subjective. That’s what we ask our members to do, even in the ballots.”
Portnow also pointed to Chance the Rapper’s win for Best New Artist as a counter to this critique saying, “You don’t get Chance the Rapper as the Best New Artist of the year if you have a membership that isn’t diverse and isn’t open-minded and isn’t really listening to the music, and not really considering other elements beyond how great the music is.”
However, as Rolling Stone‘s Steve Knopper pointed out, not only can sales, visibility and prominence all impact Grammy results, but Recording Academy members – though they do skew liberal – remain predominately, white, male and old. To that, Portnow was asked if the Recording Academy was interested in diversifying their membership as the Motion Picture Academy did after the #OscarsSoWhite backlash.
“We are always working on increasing diversity in membership, whether it’s ethnicity, gender, genre, or age,” he said. “In order to maintain our relevance, we have to be refreshing all the time and we have to be doing that across the board.”
Elsewhere, Portnow discussed Frank Ocean’s decision not to submit Blonde for consideration this year. Ocean notably expressed a wariness to participate in the Grammys, telling The New York Times that the institution “doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from.”
“Not everybody likes or wants to be part of every organization or awards process,” Portnow said. “I respect that. What I’ll say about Frank is he did have his earlier album out at an early stage of his career, we were delighted that it was entered, we were delighted that he was a Grammy winner, we were delighted to have him on our stage, which gave him a platform very early in his career. That’s something we’re proud of, and down the line he may feel differently. Artists change their opinion. I don’t begrudge his choice at all and we’ll see what the future brings.”