Popular Music Hasn’t Been This White Since 1981

Was Kanye right? According to historical data, racial diversity at the Grammys—and on the Billboard charts—has been sliding for 10 years

The Grammy for most dramatic moment definitely went to Kanye West this year for storming the stage in outrage after Beck beat Beyoncé for album of the year. But West was just one person giving voice to an issue that’s been weighing on the national culture. Shortly after, Twitter users began demanding #JusticeForBeyoncé. Many, including West, questioned whether race played a part in the decision, adding to the chorus of initial criticism over the general whiteness of the nominations.

And it turns out that the awards show has been getting paler for a long time. In fact, a close look at the data reveals that the Grammys—and popular music in general—are whiter than they’ve been in 35 years. Here’s how the Grammy nominations in four major categories—record, album, song and best new artist of the year—break down historically by race:

But the trend isn’t necessarily exclusive to the Grammys—or to the out-of-touch voters who make up the Recording Academy. We crunched the numbers on Billboard’s Hot 100 list over the past 50 years, too. And the picture is almost identical.

The recent drop in diversity comes after a long climb toward equality. The end of the civil rights era saw the number of black nominees and winners take a dive—a slump paralleled on the Billboard charts—which only got worse during the disco inferno of ’70s, the low water mark for racial diversity in modern pop music.

In 1984, the Grammys stretched toward parity as Michael Jackson took home a record-breaking eight awards. And by 1989, the number of black artists nominated (13) actually exceeded the number of white artists nominated (7) for the first time.

Through the ’90s, Grammy nominations and wins stayed fairly level, but black artists on the Billboard charts exploded.

Then something happened in the mid-2000s, when the presence of black artists on the charts and the Grammy rolls went into sharp decline. Even as the number of other races represented has climbed, white artists have felt the strongest gains and black artists the steepest losses.

2013 was the first year there wasn’t a single black artist with a No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, the only time that’s happened since Billboard started making the charts. Black artists represented less than a quarter of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2014, which puts last year on par with the late 1960s in terms of diversity. 2015 isn’t looking much better.

Meanwhile, a black artist hasn’t won a Grammy in any of the four major categories since 2010.


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