Dear Q-Tip, The Statue Should Tell Tribe How Nice They Are
#MusicSermon creator and all-around champion audiophile, Naima Cochrane, writes an impassioned letter to Q-Tip after his anti-Grammys rant.
I feel you.
The 2018 Grammy nominations were announced Tuesday, and after years of R&B and hip-hop fans typing hard and fast in tweets and penning think pieces because the nominations didn’t reflect our musical reality — we finally saw progress. The backlash from Beyoncé’s Lemonade losing the coveted “Album of the Year” award to Adele made NARAS listen to the complaints about the Grammys being outdated. Neil Portnow announced tweaks to the voting process, including the ability to vote online, which made it easier for younger members to join in on the conversation.
Perhaps largely because of that, there are no white men in the “Album of the Year” category for the first time since 1999. Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars are this year’s top nominated artists. SZA is the most nominated woman. So, yay! We did it! This is the music equivalent of the super-black Academy Awards after #OscarsSoWhite placed the hot light on the Oscars’ lack of inclusion and diversity.
Then Q-Tip posted his videoed rant to Instagram, and the celebratory record scratched.
A Tribe Called Quest’s final album, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, was snubbed. Zero nominations. No mention by the mainstream media about its lack of inclusion until Tip went off. Furiously, Tip went on a full “fuck y’all” spree over the course of five non-sequential video clips. He was angry for Phife, who succumbed to complications from diabetes in the middle of recording this album. He was angry that the Grammys have historically overlooked culturally groundbreaking artists, saying, “Y’all ain’t even give Bob Marley a fuckin’ Grammy. Marvin only got fuckin’ one. Jimi got none.” Despite Tribe’s four career nominations, Tip was angry that even now, when hip-hop and “urban” music control music sales and streaming that “the most black-cultured group out” was not getting any love.
The first thing I felt while watching Tip’s rant was guilt. I had totally forgotten about the Tribe album, and that’s a problem with the Grammy process (I’ll get to that). Then I felt frustrated, as both a fan and an industry professional, because I am not sure that it could have gone differently for Tribe this year. In this digital and social media age, fans have increasingly questioned how the Grammy, Oscars and insert-award-that-is-supposed-to-be-the-highest-standard-in-the-field are even awarded. The curtain has been pulled back on various areas of the entertainment business. Fans feel like they know how the sausage is made, but awards are still tricky, even for those who do this for a living. People say, “It’s about buzz, not quality!” Well, Tribe’s We’ll Take It From Here debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 with a Dave Chappelle-hosted Saturday Night Live performance — the show’s highest rated episode for the 18-49 demo since 2013.
Then people say, “It’s not about the buzz, it’s about the quality!” The album was a mainstay on a slew of year-end “Best Of” lists, and according to Metacritic, it was the best reviewed hip-hop album and fourth-best reviewed overall album of 2016. It was jam packed with stellar features: André 3000 (a damn unicorn), Kendrick, Kanye West, even Jack White and Elton John were on this. It was timely, with “We the People” speaking directly to the Trump campaign’s xenophobic rhetoric. And it was such an overall moment that, as Tip mentioned, the Grammys tapped Tribe to perform at this year’s awards.
So, what happened?
Keeping an album with no radio airplay in the conversation for a year is hard. It was arguably quiet for the Tribe album by late Spring. But I believe that to be only part of the equation. Another factor is the Grammys eligibility window, which goes from roughly October to September. So, an album that comes out in October is on the table for discussion a full year later when all the submitted music from the past year is whittled down until—between music committee meetings and first round votes—you’re left with five choices per category. We Got It From Here… came out Nov. 11, 2016, and if I had forgotten about it being in this year’s Grammys consideration, it probably wasn’t at the top of voters minds either.
The bigger issue: the Recording Academy needs to expand the Rap / Hip-Hop categories. In 2013, the Urban Contemporary field was added under R&B to make room for — to use current nominees as examples — both a Ledisi and a SZA. The Academy had already expanded the Pop field in 1992 to add Tradition Pop Vocals, which enabled Tony Bennett to keep racking up trophies even in the age of Kesha. It’s been time for the Rap / Hip-Hop field to follow suit. The culture has grown up, and Tribe doesn’t necessarily belong in the same conversation as Migos and Cardi B. There isn’t enough room as the categories stand now to properly honor the volume and variety of hip-hop music today. I realize there’s not supposed to be enough room for everybody; otherwise these honors wouldn’t be as meaningful. However, as a fan, a music lover, and someone trying to keep the “culture vultures” at bay as part of my vocation, it is disheartening to see the “official” measure of excellence failing to keep up with the industry’s growth and change.
So, Tip, I feel you. I do. Not just for your album, but the albums that get overlooked every year because they’re not on the right people’s radar, or because there just aren’t enough slots. 23-year-old Phife said, “I never let a statue tell me how nice I am,” and it’s easy to say “fuck the establishment,” easy to consider awards and accolades as some bullshit. But when you’re now 47-years-old, a career artist Q-Tip, looking at one’s legacy; when you know the impact you’ve had on a culture has not yet been formally acknowledge by the gatekeepers; when you know this is the final notation — no more recordings, no more performances — you want your shit, and Tribe deserves to have had their Award Tour pay off.
Naima Cochrane is a New York-based scribe and industry vet whose love of music has spurned the popular Sunday evening church gathering, #MusicSermon. Follow her (and us!) and her tastes on Twitter @Naima.