Janelle Monae & Donald Glover’s Grammy Nominations Celebrate Artistic Authenticity
When the 2019 Grammy Award nominations were announced on Friday, Dec. 7, there were plenty of surprises, shocks, and more than a few snubs that left fans up in arms over not seeing their favorites honored. But one of the most interesting group of nominations that unfolded on Friday morning was that for Best Music Video, which honored two of the most talked-about clips of the past year: "Pynk" and "This Is America. And, if Janelle Monáe and Childish Gambino's Grammy nominations mean anything, it's that the 2019 Grammys are celebrating authentic, original voices from innovative artists.
The Grammy Awards have often been criticized for their tendency to award very mainstream artists. In a January article recapping the 2018 awards, NPR noted that though "the nominees were more eclectic and adventurous, the safe bets prevailed." The article noted that Bruno Mars, an undeniably likable and non-controversial artist who won Album of the Year, "managed a rare sweep of the major awards, a feat also accomplished last year, when Adele beat Beyoncé ... in each of the major categories."
This year, however, the Academy is honoring Glover and Monáe, either of whom are particularly mainstream in their ideas, their music, or their artistic vision. Moreover, "Pynk" is an ode to queer, feminine power; "This Is America" is about the brutal systems that oppress people of color. Neither of those concepts are general, or palatable to the mainstream, but the Grammys' decision to honor them, to accept their authentic, unapologetic art might be a sign that the famous old-fashioned award show might finally be embracing progressive ideas.
Neither Monáe nor Glover are particularly mainstream in their ideas, their music, or their artistic vision. Sure, both of them have enjoyed a great deal of mainstream success — in fact, the omission of Glover's TV show, Atlanta, from the recent Golden Globe nominations caused some outcry — but their work is a testament to their authentic selves and experiences. That's why people connect to it so much, the raw openness with which both artists present their ideas, but it also means that there are many people who might shy away from the blunt honesty of their perspectives.
After she found out that she had also been nominated for Album of The Year for her recent masterpiece, Dirty Computer, Monáe told CBS This Morning that the nomination wasn't just about celebrating her music, but her identity and those she hopes to represent. "Being a young, black, queer woman in America, there was something I had to say ... a group of people I wanted to celebrate, and I’m happy to be representing them," she explained. "I hope they feel seen, I hope they feel heard. I hope they feel loved, and I hope they feel celebrated."
Monáe's celebration of womanhood (specifically queer womanhood) is evident in the video for "Pynk," which features the singer wearing her now-iconic "vagina pants" and dancing with a group of women — including actress Tessa Thompson — in the desert, and celebrating their bodies and sexualities. The clip is brash, original and unapologetically feminine, something that hasn't always been appreciated by the Recording Academy.
Monáe's Grammy nominations reveal that she has managed to connect with people, and that by staying authentic to her identity and her authentic perspective on the world as a young, black queer woman is the best way to do just that.
Glover's work this year had a similar sense of identity and purpose, particularly Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover)'s electrifying, pop-cultural phenomenon, "This Is America." The clip confronts many of the major issues facing Americans — and black Americans in particular — right now, from gun violence to mass violence to police brutality. While a shirtless Glover dances through a warehouse, scenes of violence and horror unfold behind him, as a commentary on the fact that many of us are easily distracted from the major issues confronting society today by the shiny new thing.
It's a brutal, unflinching, and incredibly dark video to accompany an unapologetic song about society's ills; it also happened to be one of the most honored songs of the 2019 Grammys, scooping up nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Rap/Sung Performance in addition to Best Video. That the Grammy Awards — which, historically, has shied away from rewarding black artists, especially rap artists in major categories — is celebrating Glover's forthright and harsh critique of American society is a sign of mainstream validation that the rapper and actor's unique voice and perspective are necessary for the culture.
By being unwilling to shy away from sharing their full, unadulterated visions, without worrying about watering it down to appeal to the largest possible audiences, both Monáe and Glover have managed to connect with their audiences in a deeper, more meaningful way.
And that kind of bravery and openness always deserves to be celebrated. Their music makes people feel seen and heard, and their nominations prove that that connection, and that artistry is just as deserving of being honored as the biggest, chat-topping songs of the year.
While it's hard to say whether or not the Grammy Awards will actually follow through on these early progressive steps — and if they'll actually be able to shake off the idea of making "safe" choices — just seeing Monáe and Glover nominated this year proves that authenticity and artistry will always go hand in hand.