Another year, another persistent worry that the Grammy Awards will once again fail to recognize boundary-pushing black performers.
The nominations are led by Kendrick Lamar, Drake and a crop of female artists — a promising shift after years of complaints about a lack of diversity at the music industry’s big night. However, nominations don’t necessarily turn into wins: Two years ago, Beyoncé was snubbed in the major categories; in 2018, Jay-Z received the most nominations of any artist and walked away empty-handed.
But at this year’s ceremony, which will take place Feb. 10, there is one category in which the Recording Academy has nominated a surprisingly sophisticated set of performers, all of whom are black: best music video. (In addition to the artist, this Grammy is awarded to the video’s director and producer.)
In the Grammy context, the music video category — No. 83 out of 84 on the official list — is generally an afterthought. It was instituted in 1984, the same year MTV inaugurated its Video Music Awards, just as the medium was becoming central to star-making. At this moment — when artists are as likely to develop their audiences on YouTube as on any audio-only platform, and in which expertise in self-presentation and self-promotion is mandatory — the category feels essential. The nominations recognize clips that shaped conversation as much as the songs they illustrate. Some of these videos are wholesale pieces of art in which the visuals and music are fundamentally inseparable; sometimes the importance of the video itself trumps that of the song.
Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and Joyner Lucas’s “I’m Not Racist” present competing narratives about the state of black life in this country. “Apes**t,” by Jay-Z and Beyoncé (recording as the Carters), is a lush fantasia about dismantling old power hierarchies. Janelle Monáe’s “Pynk” is a wild, psychedelic tour of female amorousness. And Tierra Whack’s “Mumbo Jumbo” serves a strong dose of surrealism.
Of these nominees, “This Is America” was the most influential and revelatory last year, a stark, violent, ecstatic and darkly comic statement of intent from Childish Gambino, the musical alter ego of the actor Donald Glover. It was also the first music project from Glover that embodied the tension and savvy of his work in other mediums, particularly the television show “Atlanta.”
In the video, Glover saunters, slides, shimmies and bolts his way through a warehouse. His body movements careen from the sensual to the frustrated — he is a performer, a pleaser, but one at war with those impulses, torn between delivering joy and extinguishing it. Sometimes he’s nailing dances from the Instagram Explore page or the video-sharing app Triller, but then he brakes hard, finds a gun and kills fellow performers offering less fraught forms of musical healing.
“This is America/Don’t catch you slippin’ up,” he raps, setting terms for negotiating a white society that leaves barely any margin for black error. At the end of the video, as Young Thug sings, “You just a black man in this world/You just a bar code,” Glover runs directly at the camera — first in darkness, only the whites of his eyes and teeth visible. Then he emerges into the light, frantic, no longer in control.
This burst of dystopian pessimism has a dim contrast in “I’m Not Racist,” which is almost grotesquely earnest and naïvely optimistic. It, too, takes place in a warehouse, where an aggrieved, bearded MAGA-hat-wearing white man faces off against a skeptical black man. The 30-year-old Massachusetts rapper Lucas (who is black) performs both verses, first from the perspective of the white conservative (with an abundance of racial epithets), and later, from that of the black man who can’t bear to listen anymore.
As music, it is onerous agitpop — an egregious case of bothsidesism. As video, it’s unintentionally comic, mawkish passing for sober. Throughout the clip, the tension grows; the white man stands up and hovers over his counterpart, pointing and yelling. Eventually, the black man stands up, flips the table, knocks the MAGA hat off his sparring partner’s head. It seems like there will be resolution, that the guy who insists he’s not racist will finally come to the realization that he is. But then the men face each other and hug, a hilarious conclusion that pretends problems can be solved by simply airing grievances, not addressing them. It feels antiquated and childishly hopeful, as if it had been released in a less tumultuous time — like, say, the early 2010s.
Both of these videos are premised on the anxiety that’s born of systemic misunderstanding, confrontation and racism. For a recalibration of that dynamic, there is “Apes**t,” the audacious Jay-Z and Beyoncé video filmed in the Louvre, which proposes that black beauty and creativity belong in museums, too, and that no exclusively white space should remain that way.
It is a lavish affair, aesthetically and conceptually, energized by the fact that, on a basic level, the art on the Louvre walls is static, but the performers in the space are not. When a passel of dancers, lying prone atop the Daru staircase, begins to convulse and come to life, it feels like watching birth.
Throughout the clip, Beyoncé and Jay-Z hold the screen with intensity and confidence, as natural in this hallowed space as in their home(s). In this, the later stage of their respective careers, engagement with high art has emerged as a crucial signifier, one beyond music, or fashion or other more conventional displays of material wealth. While “Apes**t” doesn’t feel as fully formed or thoughtfully executed as Beyoncé’s “Formation,” which won in this category in 2017, its near-casualness is a loud statement.
All three of these videos are designed as provocations of a sort, thinkpiece-bait event releases designed to cut through online clutter. Put out a song on streaming services, and it might be swallowed whole by the ocean. In this crowded climate, creating a vivid video is a survival strategy, especially with no tastemaker outlet (à la MTV) directly promoting/privileging the format.
That is how the most effective music videos function today: as time-stopping conversation pieces. But this category also recognizes artists who understand how crucial video is to image formation, and who build it into their output from the earliest stages of their careers. Monáe’s “Pynk” is excerpted from a short film called “Dirty Computer” that accompanied her 2018 album of the same name. Since her early days, Monáe has excelled at character development, and her music functions best as part of an audiovisual whole. “Pynk” is a frothy, playful celebration of sexual openness, straightforward in narrative but inventive in presentation. It was part of a broader story she told last year, in art and in public life, about coming out as queer.
The 23-year-old rapper Tierra Whack is a natural visual eccentric and fantastical inheritor of Monáe, as well as of Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, the director Chris Cunningham and others. Her excellent 2018 debut album, “Whack World,” was 15 minutes long, one minute per song, and released as one long video full of Whack inhabiting various oddball characters. Strangely, she’s nominated here for “Mumbo Jumbo,” a single that predated that album.
Where “Whack World” feels like an extended art project, “Mumbo Jumbo” scans as a micro horror film. Whack is in a dentist’s chair, singing through a mouth retractor. At the end of her surgery, her smile has been exaggerated into an overblown grin. She walks out onto the street, which is as decrepit as Glover’s warehouse, and is surrounded by suffering people saddled with the same false grin — almost an echo of the hollow-eyed sunken place victims in “Get Out.” The song is fine, sort of an extended melodic mumble. But for Whack, perhaps more than any of her fellow nominees, the video is the story.
Inventive videos have won in this category before: Janet and Michael Jackson’s “Scream” in 1996, Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” in 2006, and “Formation.” But more frequently it has gone to the just-fine-enough (or just-expensive-enough) video for an otherwise very popular song, or to an artist so famous (say, the Beatles, in 1997) that Grammy voters tick their box reflexively.
But moving forward, this category should be seen as an opportunity to embrace a whole new breed of musician, one who reflects what has long been true but rarely acknowledged at the Grammys: that the job of a recording artist has changed, and that those now making the most vivid impact are as careful about how they look as how they sound.