If you haven’t heard the news, I should let you know that it’s happened again. Kanye West has taken to the stage at a major music awards ceremony to protest the supposed snubbing of Beyoncé. Once more, the poor winner of the award had to politely stand by, bemused at the breaching of the unspoken awards ceremony code of conduct. Poor Beck. Poor Taylor Swift. Whatever.
What the latest incident has made me realise is that, holy crap, I think Kanye’s right. The first time around at the VMAs, Kanye was protesting the fact that the award for Best Female Video went to Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me, rather than Beyoncé’s Single Ladies. At the time, it was easy to dismiss this act as eccentric and obnoxious grandstanding. You think the wrong person won the award, so what Kanye, get over it. However, with the passing of a few years, it’s become clear how much of a monumental snub that decision was. Not only is Single Ladies an iconic music video, but it’s a cultural powerhouse. Even so, maybe Kanye’s protests could have found a more classy venue than interrupting an acceptance speech.
So this time, Kanye stormed the stage to protest Beck’s acceptance of the Grammy for Best Album. Again, it was Beyoncé who was snubbed, with her self-titled album that was so famously released with no warning whatsoever and immediately became a huge success. Beck’s album, on the other hand, well I didn’t even know Beck had released a new album. Even Beck himself was a bit bemused by the win as he stepped up to accept the award, and has since said that he expected Beyoncé to take the gong. So was Kanye right to storm the stage in protest? Maybe, maybe not.
What is becoming clear to me, at least, is that West might be onto something real. He’s made a point of highlighting the racial discrimination in the media and consumer capitalist machine in the past (see New Slaves for a more fleshed out version of that critique). It seems his criticism extends to the world of the creators too. He retold his experiences with racial prejudice in the fashion world in that famous interview with Zane Lowe, and I have to agree with his theme. It’s not like there’s no place for black artists, but that place is very strictly defined. In the realm of music, black artists are too often confined to be celebrated only at black music awards. Mainstream music awards are reserved only for the predominantly white mainstream. Superstars like Beyoncé are pretty much shut out from claiming their rightful place atop the throne.
It’s easy to dismiss claims of racial bias in a one off case, such as Best Female Video at the VMAs, but now we have a second data point. Who the hell is Beck these days, and how does his album pip Beyoncé’s. Kanye West’s case is getting more and more compelling, and I’m finding myself more forgiving of the way he makes it. It’s hard to think of a more effective way than what he’s been doing to confront the creative industry about their racial prejudices. In subsequent comments, Beck has said he absolutely agrees with Kanye’s assessment that Beyoncé deserved the award – but he didn’t go as far as to give it to her. For a more radical politick, we’ll have to look to Ye.