Un/Classically Beautiful: The Problem with the 2015 Grammy Awards’ Selma “Tribute”
By Erika Dickerson
While we were waist-deep in circular (yet necessary) conversations about Iggy Azalea’s Grammy Award nomination for Best Rap Album, her “blaccent,” and appropriation of Black music and culture at-large, the Grammy Awards were undermining Blk women in another way: the “tribute” performance for Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Let’s quickly recap the shameful dismissal that has encircled Selmato date:
At the 72nd Golden Globe Awards, Selma was nominated in every major category: Best Drama Motion Picture, Best Original Song (Glory), Best Actor in a Drama Motion Picture (David Oyelowo), and DuVernay became the first Blk woman in Golden Globe history to be nominated for Best Director. Still, we left only with a win for John Legend and Common’s “Glory,” reminding us that America will accept our rap music but not our stories and the reality of this country’s violent racism. Not to be outdone, the 87th Academy Awards (The Oscars) only nominated Selma for Best Picture and Best Original Song. DuVernay and her actors were cheated out out of rightful recognition of their dynamic directing and acting, respectively. The Academy’s 432 voters are reported to be 93% white and 76% male. Had DuVernay been nominated, she would’ve been the FIRST Blk woman nominated for Best Director. The Golden Globe Awards has existed since 1944 and the Academy Awards since 1929 and still a Blk woman has yet to win an award for Best Director. Think on that.
Then there’s the 57th Grammy Awards. With very few nominations for artists of color, the awards show decided to attempt diversity on stage. They even threw in a tribute performance for Selma including “Glory” introduced with a snippet of Mahalia Jackson’s “Precious Lord” sung by
Ledisi Beyonce…even though the song was sung by nine time Grammy nominated artist, Ledisi ,who played Jackson in the motion picture. Thus far, I have listed the year of each award show to highlight how Blk people’s talent and industry work has been undermined at best and at worst, altogether ignored. This year, the Grammys reminded us that dark-skinned, counter-cultural women are still unwelcome on the main stage, that their work is not good enough for broad recognition, that systematic oppression exists in the arts beyond rap, and that Blk women don’t always choose each other over opportunities for self-advancement.
None of this is new. When I heard the news of Ledisi’s dismissal, I immediately thought of the NY Times critic who deemed Viola Davis “less classically beautiful.” I thought of the outrage at the fair-skinned Afro-Latina, Zoe Saldana, playing Nina Simone in the biopic that never quite made it to the screen. I think of Beyonce’s 2011 blackface photoshoot/tribute to Nigerian artist, Fela Kuti with L’Officiel Paris. I try to reconcile the questionable L’Oreal ads that all but dismiss Beyonce’s Blkness. I think about howDreamgirls was marketed with Beyonce as the main character and all of the blog feuding concerning Jennifer Hudson “outshining” her. I remember the 1949 film Pinky, where a light-skinned Blk woman was played by Jeanne Craine, a white woman, though Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne auditioned for the role. I remember Hattie McDaniel, who often filled stereotypical roles such as the mammy in Gone with the Wind. Something in my belly churns when I remember that she became the first Blk person to win an Oscar for that role but was forced to sit in a segregated area away from her colleagues. That same uneasiness comes over me in thinking on Halle Berry’s 2002 Oscar win for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Monster’s Ball, where she arguably plays the object of the white gaze and the sexual object of a racist white male. I think on the difficulties that Ethel Waters encountered because she was not only Blk and female, but a dark, full-figured, Blk female. I think of the fact that Alfre Woodard is hardly mentioned when speaking of beautiful Blk women actors.
And then there’s Ledisi. The loc-sportin, chocolate Blk woman who often shows more vocal range than cleavage, is nearly a decade older than Beyonce, and is perceived as inferior to Beyonce’s cross-over sex appeal, Grammy nominations, and overall award wins. Beyonce, in all of her Blk girl glory, is, in many ways, more digestible that Ledisi. Beyonce is a blonde bombshell with curves in all of the “right” places. She’s one-half of American’s beloved hip-hop power couple. She’s rich, commercially successful, and seemingly balances marriage and motherhood effortlessly. She can sing and damn it, despite the ruffling of white feminists’ feathers, the girl is magic. Beyonce will undoubtably get ratings. The politics behind the Grammys’ Selma tribute decision was surely political. To mention that Beyonce will perform anywhere guarantees millions of faces plastered to the screen waiting for the magic to occur. In addition to the historical undermining of Blk and moreover, dark-skinned Blk women actors and singers in mainstream Hollywood, there are several other factors to consider in this matter.
In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, John Legend and Common revealed that Beyonce contacted them about performing “Precious Lord.” Legend went on to say, “You don’t really say no to Beyonce if she asks to perform with you.” While I love and respect John Legend and Common and have recently applauded them for their gracious acknowledgment of Ava DuVernay during their Golden Globe acceptance speech, I am gravely disturbed by Legend’s words here. Despite the extent of Beyonce’s celebrity and the many other opportunities to collaborate with her, Legend affirms taking an opportunity at the expense of Ledisi. Additionally, there is no evidence that Legend, Common, or Beyonce even considered collaborating with Ledisi on the performance in an effort to respect her role as the actor and singer of the song in the film. It’s one thing for Blk people (and dark-skinned women specifically) to be overlooked by historically racist systems like these award shows, but it cuts differently when we overlook our own.
I am disappointed that Beyonce did not choose to be audaciously brave in calling out and undercutting colorism and ultimately, the system’s racism by deferring to Ledisi, or at the very least, collaborating with her. I am disappointed that I was told by an older Blk sister via social media that I should simply accept that Beyonce is doing a job and be glad that chose her instead of Ariana Grande. I am angry at the idea of settling forany representation instead of accurate representation. What messages about ourselves have we begun to believe? Since when did we start accepting breadcrumbs? I will never settle for Beyonce though I love her. She is critical to Blk feminism, Blk Hollywood, and a shining example of work ethic. She complicates Blk women’s sexual politics and prowess. She is magic. But so is Ledisi. As a powerhouse, it is my hope that Beyonce won’t always ride the fence in obvious injustices like #Ferguson or in covert injustices like this Grammy Award fiasco, that she won’t always pepper social media with politically correct statements about pay inequality between men and women or sample Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on feminism without using her influence to eradicate injustices, much less be a tool in committing them. Beyonce (John Legend, Common, and any other beloved celebrity), though wonder-filled, is not and cannot be above reproach. We must critique those we love, be critical in accepting mass media representations of us, and intentional in representations of ourselves.
May we never forfeit our dignity or the dignity of others and the pursuit of equity for an opportunity at the expense of one of our own. May we never settle, even for Beyonce.
Also, remember that time Ledisi killed that Peaches verse in Nina Simone’s classic “Four Women”?
Be Blk. Real Representation Blk.
This piece was originally published on The Daughter’s Table
Photo: Ledisi/Ron T. Young Photography/Facebook