The Weeknd has turned his back on The Grammys, and he’s not the only artist who’s had some major issues with the music awards ceremony.
Each year, when the Recording Academy rolls out its list of Grammy Award nominations, there are many critical oversights, exclusions, and snubs. And, after every installment of the long-running awards show, some question the academy’s decisions. In response, some artists have decided that “two can play that game” and snubbed the Grammys right back. In 2021, The Weeknd became the latest A-level star to denounce the ceremony and swear that he’ll never be involved with the Grammys ever again.
While some might criticize this and other’s star boycotts as sour grapes, there’s more to it than that. Most of the stars who have boycotted the Grammys in the past have done it not out of personal vendettas but in protest of the award show’s history of alleged racial bias. Since the show’s inception in 1957, only ten Black artists have won Album of the Year: Stevie Wonder, who first did it in 1974(!), Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, Ray Charles, and most recently, Herbie Hancock in 2008 (for a tribute album full of Joni Mitchell covers, and not for any of the now-classic albums this trailblazer created.) So, while some artists might blow off the Grammys due to simply not caring, others – from the 1989 mass boycott to Frank Ocean – boycott for more personal reasons.
“Because of the secret committees,” The Weeknd told The New York Times, “I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys.” This decision came after The Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) criticized the show for shutting out his 2020 album, After Hours, as well as his incredibly successful song, “Blinding Lights.” When the 63 rd Grammy nominees were announced and The Weekend was absent from all categories, he tweeted, “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans, and the industry transparency…”
The complete shutout has, as the Times noted, “zeroed in on a little-understood part of the Grammy process: the role of anonymous expert committees, which review initial nomination choices by the thousands of music professionals who make up the voting membership of the Recording Academy, the nonprofit group behind the awards, and — for 61 of the Grammys’ 84 categories — have the final say about who makes the cut.” After the Weeknd’s announcement, The Recording Academy’s interim chief executive Harvey Mason Jr. (who is subbing in after the controversial ouster of the past two presidents, Deborah Dugan and Neil Portnow, which Vulture details here) said that the Academy is “disappointed when anyone is upset. But I will say that we are constantly evolving. And this year, as in past years, we are going to take a hard look at how to improve our awards process, including the nomination review committees.”
The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency…
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) November 25, 2020
“I personally don’t care anymore,” The Weeknd told Billboard in late January. “I have three Grammys, which mean nothing to me now, obviously. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I want the Grammy!’ It’s just that this happened, and I’m down to get in front of the fire, as long as it never happens again.”
Justin Bieber decided not to attend the 2021 Grammys because “he’s not performing at this year’s show,” according to Page Six. This marks the second time he’s bailed on the Grammys. He didn’t appear at the 2017 ceremony, despite being up for four awards (including Album of the Year for Purpose.) Instead, he ate sushi instead.
Justin also had objections to the 63 rd Grammy nominations. Unlike the Weeknd, though, Justin scored nominations in the Best Pop Solo Performance (“Yummy”), Best Pop Duo/Group Performance (“Intentions,” with Quavo), Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best Country Duo/Group Performance (for “10,000 Hours,” his collab with Dan + Shay.) However, Justin objected to all his work being classified as “pop” in an Instagram post. I am flattered to be acknowledged and appreciated for my artistry. I am very meticulous and intentional about my music. With that being said, I set out to make an R&B album. ‘Changes’ was and is an R&B album. It is not being acknowledged as an R&B album, which is very strange to me.”
“I grew up admiring R&B music,” he added, “and wished to make a project that would embody that sound. For this not to be put into that category feels weird, considering from the chords to the melodies to the vocal style, all the way down to the hip-hop drums that were chosen, it is undeniably, unmistakably an R&B album!” However, Justin clarified he was grateful for the recognition, despite his irked feelings at the perceived miscategorization.
Kanye West is a multi-Grammy award winner, but he hasn’t attended a Grammy Awards since 2015. That year, he famously rushed the stage after Beck’s Morning Phase won Album of the Year over Beyoncé’s self-titled album. Kanye performed “fourfiveseconds” that night alongside Paul McCartney and Rihanna while flipping off the audience, a way to let everyone know what he truly felt about the ceremony.
Following Beyoncé’s loss, Kanye told reporters, “The Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We aren’t going to play with them no more. Beck needs to respect artistry, he should have given his award to Beyonce.” Kanye was nominated for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album in 2021 for his Jesus Is King record, but with his known feelings about the Grammys (and his divorce with Kim Kardashian), it seemed unlikely he would attend.
Frank Ocean is a two-time Grammy Award winner, and if he never takes home another gold statue, he wouldn’t be that upset about it. “That institution certainly has nostalgic importance,” he told The New York Times in 2016. “It just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.”
Frank’s Channel Orange lost Album of the Year in 2013 (but won Best Urban Contemporary Album, and in 2020, the show ditched the term “Urban” altogether.) Ocean also lost Best New Artist to band FUN., which left a bad taste in many people’s mouths.
In the wake of this experience, Frank famously refused to submit his 2016 albums Endless and Blonde for consideration. With a highly-anticipated third album on the way, Frank will likely stick to his principles and not submit it for consideration, either. “I think the infrastructure of the awarding system and the nomination system and screening system is dated. I’d rather this be my Colin Kaepernick moment for the Grammys than sit there in the audience.”
50 Cent is a Grammy winner. He’s been nominated 15 times and took home the Best Rap Performance By A Duo or a Group in 2010 for “Crack A Bottle,” his collab with Eminem and Dr. Dre. However, 50 wasn’t there, and the boycott was intentional, according to BET, with him referring to the night as “The Beyoncé and Taylor Swift show.” He also reportedly said in 2004 that he would never go back after he lost Best New Artist to Evanescence.
Will Smith, Public Enemy & More In The 1989 Boycott
The Grammys first handed out awards in the Rap category in 1989, a decade after the genre’s birth. Run-D.M.C’s self-titled album was published in 1984, and MC Lyte’s Lyte as a Rock, the first full album by a solo female rapper, was out in 1988. So, needless to say, the Grammys were late to the party. If that wasn’t bad enough, the show announced that they weren’t going to televise this breakthrough category, and hand out the award during the day with all the others (like Best Comedy Album, Best Metal Performance, etc.)
This prompted a huge boycott, led by Def Jam’s Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen, and Rush Artist Management (representing nominated artists LL Cool J and DJ Jazzy Jeff), per BET. Will Smith and Jeff refused to attend and accept their award. “We don’t have the problem with the Grammy as an award or the Grammys as an institution, we just had a problem with the 1989 design of the awards show,” Smith said in 1989, per The Hollywood Reporter. “We chose to boycott. We feel that it’s a slap in the face.” Public Enemy and Slick Rick joined in solidarity. Public Enemy would skip out on the Grammys in protest of disrespect towards rap and black artists.
Now, some artists have staged some high-profile boycotts but have gone back to the award show. Ariana Grande famously pulled out of the 2019 ceremony over a disagreement with the Grammy producers over her set-list. That year, she won her first award, taking home Best Pop Vocal Album for Sweetener. “F–k,” Grande tweeted after learning she won. “I know I’m not there tonight (trust, I tried and still truly wished it had worked out tbh) and I know I said I try not to put too much weight into these things …. but f–k ……. this is wild and beautiful. Thank you so much.” Ariana, however, would perform at the 2020 ceremony.
Drake is also one of those performers who has a fraught relationship with the show. He didn’t submit More Life for consideration in 2017. He handed out #HoodGrammys in 2014. He refused to perform at the 2019 show. However, he did show up to accept the trophy for Best Rap Song (for “God’s Plan”).
“I want to take this opportunity while I’m up here to just talk to all the kids that are watching this, aspiring to do music,” Drake said, per CNN. “All my peers that make music from their heart that do things pure and tell the truth, I wanna let you know we’re playing in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport. So it’s not the NBA where at the end of the year you’re holding a trophy because you made the right decisions or won the games.”
“This is a business where sometimes it’s up to a bunch of people who might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say or a fly Spanish girl from New York or anybody else, or a brother from Houston right there, my brother Travis [Scott],” he added. “But my point is you’ve already won if you have people singing your songs word for word if you’re a hero in your hometown. Look, if there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here. I promise you, you already won.” The show cut to commercials before he was speaking.
“You think I give a damn about a Grammy? Half of you critics can’t even stomach me, let alone stand me,” Eminem famously rapped on “The Real Slim Shady.” Eminem, who hasn’t stated that he’s boycotted the show in the past, didn’t attend the 2015 show when he took home Best Rap Album and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. “He didn’t attend; that’s all I’ll really say,” his publicist said at the time.