Awards, like Western archives, are in the business of classification—of ordering, selecting, and preserving. By doing so, they are also in the business of erasing, othering, and appropriating. And yet, as we are seeing in this awards season in particular, the award show stage can also be a platform to speak out in protest against forms of erasure and othering. We’ve also seen, this year and last, protests against those self same awards institutions regarding who is and is not invited onto the award show stage, with #OscarsSoWhite and #GrammysSoWhite.
Such critiques start at the level of prominent nominees, but then require an even deeper questioning of the underlying structures that result in particular nominations and categories. Structures of genre designation and appraisals of what constitutes enduring value, what constitutes authenticity and history, that again, are not dissimilar from the realm of archives.
Before something can be awarded, it must be sorted, cataloged. Is a performance by an actor or an actress? Is it a supporting role? Is the film comedic or dramatic? Can songs by Bob Dylan be considered literature? What is a country song, a gospel song, what is it to write a song?
The history of European documentation of Indigenous practices—a history of archives—is a history of settler colonialism, genocide, and slavery. Performance Studies scholar, Diana Taylor writes about the ways in which Western archives were a genocidal tool in creating the so-called “New World”--Indigenous practices needed to be written down in order to eradicate them. In Modernity’s Ear, Roshanak Kheshti charts how this practice continued on in the creation of the recording industry which was (/is) then also an ethnomusicology industry. The music industry was built on the practice of cataloging and preserving performance practices deemed to be on the verge of extinction. Following in the Western archival tradition, it becomes imperative that such preservation practices obscure traces of the act (the performance) of recording and sorting. By obscuring the role of the mediator (recorder/archivist/filmmaker) in documenting the disappearing performance, we obscure their role in disappearing the performer, and award those who preserve, or even, “discover”.
Thus the birth of a modern era, where art (perhaps music most especially) is obsessed with the “authentic” as defined by those who are modern (white) as it regards the disappearing and extinct (non-white). As Jack Hamilton writes in Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, “Modernity and ‘authentic’ African American music were implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, held to be irreconcilable to one another.” (Just ask Damien Chazelle.) Or as Morgan Parker has it: “At school they learned that Black people happened.”
So, let’s talk about Beyoncé.
"Pretty Hurts" music video. Melina Matsoukas, director.
The last time Prince stood on the Grammy Award stage was two years ago, when he presented an award that he himself had never won: Album of the Year. Many presumed that he would be presenting it to Beyoncé for her eponymous album which, in many ways, fulfilled what Prince declared before announcing the nominees, that: like books and Black lives, albums still matter.
When she didn’t win, and after Kanye psyched everyone out, momentarily taking to the stage in a would-be protest (that was still a protest), he later went on to say that what was at stake was the recognition of (which is to say, the definition of) artistry:
"The Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us … respect artistry, and [Beck] should have given his award to Beyoncé. At this point we’re tired of it. Because what happens is, when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you're disrespectful to inspiration."
In response, many sought to delineate the structural logic by which an album like Beyoncé was not art, it’s creator not an artist, but rather an entertainer, a performer. A logic that of course, as others would then point out, happens to create divisions that conveniently fall along lines of race and gender (as dominant structural logics are wont to do).
It also opened up a space for Beck, whose music owes a great deal to hip hop, to heap praise on Kanye (and less so, on Beyoncé, although he did agree she should have won) as a genius.
That hip hop-loving white boys and British blue-eyed soul singers regularly take home awards rarely bestowed upon rap and R&B artists testifies to how genre is what George E. Lewis refers to as “a socially improvisatory assemblage that operates epistemologically to produce what ‘counts’ as knowledge.” In other words, genres, like archives, have never been neutral.
Because what happens is, when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you're disrespectful to inspiration. We as musicians have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyoncé album and they feel like it takes them to another place.
- Kanye West
Grammy Awards telecast, February 8, 2015. The Recording Academy / CBS
In the two years after Beck and Kanye: another groundbreaking album by a black artist lost Album of the Year to a hip hop-influenced white artist (and Kanye was again brought up on stage without being brought up on stage), we witnessed worldwide mourning for Prince, the incomparable artist and the man who in no uncertain terms declared Black Lives Matter on the Grammy stage (and in so many other ways), while we also saw an increased and more explicit rise to power by those who do and say everything they can to declare otherwise.
As 2016 turned to 2017, awards season was also protest season. At least, to those for whom protest is seasonal, and can be slipped on and off like a designer dress. Because protests, too, are categorized. And as such, the protests allowed on an awards stage have much to do with who is protesting and for whom.
R: Lola Kirke (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite—the hashtag, because the condition the hashtag protests is perennial—protesting the president who lost the popular vote is unifying, patriotic even. But on an awards show stage as protest site, only those who win awards are invited. And should those whose inclusion in white spaces is more tenuous complain, they may be told not to bite the hand that feeds them. Or to “find the democracy inside.”
Often enough, the mere presence of a person of color, especially a woman of color, is enough to incite the discomfort and shame of a white audience as they are reminded of their complicity in the continuing existence of oppression. Forty-three years after she was both booed and applauded for her non-acceptance of Marlon Brando’s Oscar and her non-recitation of a prepared speech regarding Hollywood portrayals of Native people and the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee, Sacheen Littlefeather recognizes the power her presence had to unsettle. In a 2016 interview with Jasmyne Cannick she remarks, "Indian people bring out the guilt in the dominant society, because our blood is on their hands, we bring out in them the guilt that they feel towards us. ...I was using their platform, and it was spoiling their evening. It had nothing to do with the Academy Awards, it was just stating a fact."
"Indian people bring out the guilt in the dominant society, because our blood is on their hands, we bring out in them the guilt that they feel towards us. ...I was using their platform, and it was spoiling their evening. It had nothing to do with the Academy Awards, it was just stating a fact."
Footage of Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars is available online through the Academy’s Youtube channel, as is video of Clint Eastwood’s joke about her protest, prior to announcing the award for Best Picture (“I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford Westerns over the years”). One wonders how archives—institutional or otherwise—connect Eastwood’s joke to Littlefeather’s protest. I knew to look for it because in the Cannick interview, Littlefeather mentions Eastwood joking at her expense. She also mentions John Wayne attempting to assault her backstage and requiring six people to restrain him—something I’d venture to guess is not documented in any institutional archive.
In a way, it is remarkable, and could be seen as a victory of #OscarsSoWhite, that 2016 saw a renewed interest in Littlefeather while she was alive and able to provide these interviews as oral history. For as she says, there was a price of admission to that stage. She paid for it personally, with studios that would no longer hire her, talk show hosts who would invite Brando but not her, commend his activism, promote his movie, and continue to make jokes about her and Native Americans. (Littlefeather talks of jokes made by Johnny Carson specifically, which, while I couldn’t find anything he said about her, I did come across this moment that coincidentally enough, involves a “library” segment, courtesy of the ALA—even 40 years later, the late night jokes continue.) And while her protest undoubtedly paved the way for others, it also reportedly was the impetus behind the Academy Awards no longer allowing anyone to accept an award on another’s behalf (the Grammys have a similar policy in place).
Other activist artists have paid similar price of admissions, but are not around to receive their proper recognition, when or if it should come. Liz Garbus’s documentary on Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone? (which was nominated for both a Grammy and an Oscar, but in both cases lost to the documentary Amy, about Amy Winehouse) portrays numerous ways in which Simone paid for her outspokenness and uncompromising art, not least of which through damage and change to her voice as she stretched and strained it to meet her own music and protests’ demands.
The Recording Academy named Nina Simone as recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award this year, and in an interview backstage after the Grammy ceremony, citing Simone as an inspiration, Solange Knowles reminded the press room that “it’s interesting the trajectory of her career where she’s being so celebrated and revered, but she was really shut up during [her] time.” Knowles also spoke to issues of classification as it pertains to black women by acknowledging that it’s important for her to create "strong visual representation, of not only myself, but again, black women and getting to see us as avant-garde beings, in a world that sometimes puts us in a box.” Knowles’s statement stands alongside the work of Fred Moten in creating a lineage from artists like Simone, Julius Eastman, Coltrane (and Coltrane), to Knowles (and Knowles-Carter), as well as a tradition of those who prefer Black radical artists in the archives (and lifetime achievement awards) rather than in the flesh. “The flipside of fetishistic white hipsterism’s recourse to black authenticity is a white avant-gardism whose seriousness requires either an active forgetting of black performances or a relegation of them to mere source material,” Moten writes in In the Break.
Or as Daphne Brooks, who has written on both Beyoncé and Simone, put it in her talk on “The Archive, the Critic, the Record Shop and the Blues Woman”:
“We need our women to be lost in order for them to do a certain kind of work for those who would erase them.”
Within the awards structure, what protest space is given then, to those who are asked both to do a certain kind of work, while also being erased? Those for whom a performance stage may be offered up in lieu of an award. And what questions or possibilities do other forms of protest open up for those of us working in institutional archives?
Boycotts are not new to award shows. For the Grammys especially, before hashtags, boycotts declared that these awards are “so white.” Moten again: "The people who are called black operate studiously in the interplay between the refusal of what has been refused them and the consent of what has been imposed upon them. To refuse what is normatively desired and to claim what is normatively disavowed is our life, our performative repertoire."
As nonperformance, we should be attuned to the multi-faceted nature of such refusals, how and whether those present absences can both be reflected and respected in the archives.
An artist whose studied practice of present absence puts John Cage to shame, Frank Ocean was perhaps the most noted refusal of this year’s Grammy Awards season. In his comments to the New York Times, Ocean points towards how competition and structures of categorization are bound up with the settler project of nation-building by comparing his Grammy boycott to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem. Unlike Kanye West, who boycotted this year’s ceremony while being up for eight nominations, Ocean refused to submit either of his two albums during the submission process, thus refusing both the possibility of nomination and the process of categorization. As with Littlefeather, the price of (non)admission is paid beyond Ocean himself, as it also denied the possibility of nominations to a team of collaborators and featured artists who would have been nominees should the album have received an Album of the Year nomination. But even upon Blonde’s release, Ocean was pushing back against hierarchy and categories by publishing the credits for the album as a list of collaborators rather than delineating roles such as producer, mixer, writer, etc.
The people who are called black operate studiously in the interplay between the refusal of what has been refused them and the consent of what has been imposed upon them. To refuse what is normatively desired and to claim what is normatively disavowed is our life, our performative repertoire.
In Hollywood, the state of what constitutes national security is more explicitly at stake this year, as Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti and director Asghar Farhadi from the nominated film, The Salesman, are boycotting the Oscar ceremony in protest of the US Government's Muslim ban, while other award winners will use the various award stages to perpetuate the settler myth of “a nation of immigrants” in order to protest the ban as somehow anachronistic to the history of the US. One of the most famous Oscar boycotts, that of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten,” was similarly a case of persecution and protest both falling under the guise of patriotism.
Which brings me back to Beyoncé.
The Movement for Black Lives demonstrates how for some, the simple act of asserting one’s humanity is inherently unpatriotic. When Beyoncé took to the Super Bowl field to declare “I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” and subsequently announce her Formation World Tour, the response was for police unions to urge a law enforcement boycott of the tour. Beyoncé's response? To sell “Boycott Beyoncé” Formation tour T-shirts. Refuse the refusal. Y’all haters corny.
Even with the (always present for some, for Beyoncé) threat of being seen as unpatriotic, her sweeping, capacious love letter to Black women, Lemonade, was met with critical acclaim, sales, and a profligacy of gifs. Following an election year that proved the folly of thinking it’s ‘her’ turn, heading into Grammy season with the most nominations of anyone, it was Beyoncé's turn, and she was not sitting this one out.
On the Run Tour: Beyoncé and Jay Z. Jonas Åkerlund / HBO
Lemonade is concerned with questions of fidelity. As a certain rubric of authenticity, so too is the recording industry at large, which is in turn reflected in the Grammys and the numerous awards given to those who uphold particular ideals of sonic fidelity: Best Historical Album, Best Engineered Album (Classical and Non-Classical), Best Surround Sound Album, Best Remixed Recording, Producer of the Year (Classical and Non-Classical). In Modernity’s Ear, Kheshti quotes Merriam Webster’s definition:
to underscore that fidelity is about faithfulness to “a structuring logic, whether tied up in the heterosexual imperative, nationalism, or mimesis.” Through Lemonade (but in her other work as well) Beyoncé wrestles with and troubles every facet of that definition in ways that have archival implications beyond the historical impact of Grammy awards won and snubbed.
To be faithful to the structuring logic of genre—which, for white artists, can even mean the ways in which you transcend genre—is itself already a kind of award. The most contentious genre category in the Grammy Awards is perhaps “Alternative Album,” which the Recording Academy updated their definition of in 2014 in order to distance it from its alternative rock record store/radio origins and take on a more amorphously inclusive definition of being the genre-defying genre. Looking at the past years’ nominees and winners of the category, however, shows the extent to which genre classification is a mutually constituted performance between voters/users and catalogers. If voters don’t know to look for say, Blood Orange or FKA Twigs (or Solange or Rihanna or Frank Ocean) in Alternative, are they even there?
Grammy voters understand what Alternative functions as, just as they understand what “Urban” and Gospel and Christian Contemporary function as. (Gospel has “roots” whereas Christian is contemporary). So when Beyoncé creates a work that traverses boundaries of genre, it is reportedly seen as calculating, rather than innovative. Boycott Beyoncé.
Accusations of inauthenticity have always accompanied Beyoncé, up through speculations that on Lemonade she was being unfaithful to the truth in her opus on unfaithfulness. But one doesn’t become the most nominated woman in Grammy history, and the only black woman (possibly the only person of color) to win a Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album without becoming adept at navigating multiple constructions of authenticity, fidelity, and history. And like Ocean, Queen Bey has created a particular realm of present absence for herself.
In the outpouring of beautiful prose by those for whom Lemonade reflected deep and layered truths, ancestral connections were made to artistic forebearers of the work, including the writings of Zora Neale Hurston (I want to point in particular to pieces by Regina M. Bradley and Janet Mock). And it is via an understanding of the archival work of Zora Neale Hurston, as described by both Brooks and Kheshti, that one might recognize Beyoncé's 2017 Grammy performance as both embodied archive and protest.
The epilogue to Kheshti’s Modernity’s Ear asks whether there might be a way of resisting the ethnomusicological archive’s desire to both fix a performance in time and separate archivist/anthropologist from subject. By way of an answer, Kheshti outlines what she calls the sonic infidelities of Zora Neale Hurston as enacting a “feather bed resistance”: Hurston’s term for how African Americans could simultaneously placate and reject the white gaze (or ear):
"I’ll set something outside the door of my mind for him to play with and handle. He can read my writing but he sho’ can’t read my mind. I’ll put this play toy in his hand, and he will seize it and go away. Then I’ll say my say and sing my song."
What this meant in her field recordings is that rather than a highly mediated construction of what constituted an authentic record of folksong performance, Hurston would insert herself in the recordings by commanding the performers, performing the songs herself, or recording herself discussing the rituals.
Brooks draws a comparison between Hurston and singer Odetta—who historian Matthew Frye Jacobson has referred to as a “public archivist.” “Both women pounded out the beat of overlooked histories through their bodies,” she writes. Years ahead of Lemonade, Brooks also wrote about 2007’s B’Day as a performance of post-Katrina protest “that sonically resists, revises, and reinvents the politics of black female hypervisibility.” Beyoncé may be regularly called upon to entertain award show audiences, but when her performance aligns herself within a matrilineage that has historically been denied to her (her Grammy performance begins with the words of Warsan Shire: Do you remember being born? / Are the hips that cracked / the deep velvet of your mother / and her mother / and her mother), while her pregnant body flaunts a refusal to be relegated to history even as she embodies it, it is a protest reminiscent of Littlefeather’s words: “People are uncomfortable...because our blood is on their hands.”
And so, Beyoncé can perform on the Grammy stage, say her say and sing her song, before walking away without the night’s supposed top honor, and still finish the night shining, shining, shining. Smiling for a whole ‘nother reason. And when she accepts her genre-relegated award for Best Urban Contemporary Album and exhorts us to learn from the past, she speaks both to those whose history is legible through her performance, and those of us who must learn from the mistakes still present in the structures we benefit from and work within.
While I haven’t said anything about Beyoncé that Brooks and others haven’t said better, what all of the works I’ve cited here (including and especially those of Mrs. Knowles-Carter herself) push me to ask myself is what these histories and protests mean for me as a practitioner in an institutional archive. In this I take cues from archives nihilist, Jarrett Drake (alongside Chance the Rapper and Michelle Caswell), and those who work in community archives. And where it is not my place to fill in the gaps, but to understand the refusal and respect the protest of what has been refused, I want to work against the obfuscation of what exactly our archives and institutions are refusing, how and to whom. This requires active interrogation of the ways in which Album of the Year has as much to do with Best Historical Album as it does with Adele, and John Wayne has as much to do with Sacheen Littlefeather as Marlon Brando does. It means that in a season of all of this winnin’, I want to listen for the underlying structures and lineages, and heed the voice of Dionne Warwick:
Just because you say things are gonna change
Isn't good enough, isn't good enough
Isn't good enough, isn't good enough
Isn't good enough, isn't good enough
Isn't good enough, isn't good enough