Revisiting Sinéad O'Connor's 1991 Grammys boycott

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Thirty years ago, "Nothing Compares 2 U" singer Sinéad O' Connor said "no" to the Grammys, refusing to accept an award on the U.S. music industry's biggest stage. The boycott raised eyebrows, leading her to become one of the earliest artists in the Recording Academy's history to speak up for injustices in the Grammys system that are still present today.

Here's what happened in 1991: It began with O'Connor, who was nominated for four Grammys, including for Record of the Year. (It should be noted her hit single "Nothing Compares 2 U" was a song written and composed by Prince, who was only twice nominated for Album of the Year, and never for Record of the Year.) But O'Connor penned a letter to the Recording Academy, saying she would not accept their awards even if she was given one. Her scathing remarks about the state of the Grammys and the music industry writ-large sent shockwaves through the media landscape.

"They acknowledge mostly the commercial side of art," a portion of O'Connor's letter to the Academy reads. "They respect mostly material gain, since that is the main reason for their existence. And they have created a great respect among artists for material gain — by honoring us and exalting us when we achieve it, ignoring for the most part those of us who have not."

O'Connor's cry was for equal recognition amongst her peers amidst a chaotic socio-political era that included the Gulf War, of which O'Connor was fervently against. Notable acts joined in solidarity with O'Connor that year. "Cult of Personality" rock group Living Colour's lead guitarist Vernon Reid accepted the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance with a photo of O'Connor on his shirt. "NARAS doesn't dictate my dress code," Reid later said.

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"The whole idea of king-making in music is odd and unfair," Living Colour bassist Muzz Skillings told the Washington Post in an interview before the show. "You know, Elvis Presley was great, but because of the politics and racial climate of this country, he was able to benefit from mass exposure and be touted as the King. For all we know, Vanilla Ice, eight years from now, might be touted as the King of Rap."

At that time, the Academy had barely begun to recognize music rooted in Black culture like rap and hip-hop. And even when it did, it wouldn't even make it to the live telecast. Public Enemy boycotted the 1991 Grammys after the O'Connor news. Nominated for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for its album Fear of a Black Planet, the "Fight the Power" act said it was angered that only the major Grammys were being presented on prime-time television. Public Enemy's decision echoed one Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff had made two years prior, when they didn't show up to accept their award for what was then the first ever Best Rap Performance Grammy.

The Grammys had a long way to go to honor the zeitgeist, and it still does. Contemporary Black musicians including Kanye West, The Weeknd, Tyler, the Creator, and Frank Ocean have been outspoken in their criticism of the awards. In 2016, Frank Ocean, a widely-celebrated artist amongst his peers, decided against submitting his albums Endless and Blonde for Grammy consideration, calling it his Colin Kaepernick moment.

"That institution certainly has nostalgic importance. 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," Ocean said in a New York Times profile.

Three years later, the Song and Record of the Year awards went to a rap song for the first time ever, with Childish Gambino's "This Is America" taking both trophies.

For this year's Grammys, history repeated itself when another letter was sent to the Academy in protest of their lack of diversity. This time it came from three music groups who were set to be nominated for Best Children's Music Album: The Okee Dokee Brothers, Alastair Moock & Friends, and Dog on Fleas. All three called to be pulled out of final-round voting.

The Grammys have made attempts to remedy the situation, including assembling the Recording Academy's first Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion under then president and CEO Deborah Dugan. But there's been mixed signals on what progress it has led to, including the firing of Dugan herself seven months after she started at her position. Dugan says she was let go in retaliation for exposing a "boys' club" atmosphere and a rigged Grammy nominations process.

Whatever page the Grammys is looking to finally turn to heading into the 2020s, it must find it fast if it plans to buoy ratings which have been plummeting in the last decade. The 2020 Grammys were the lowest-rated in its history, and an all-remote telecast this year won't be helping matters if award shows like the most recent Golden Globes are any indication.

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