US singer-songwriter Janelle Monae
For many artists, the Grammy awards gala is not just music's biggest night — it is also a cultural battleground rife with criticisms that provocative black artists are systematically not getting their due.
This year, that criticism was muted — even if momentarily — when the Best Music Video prize was handed out on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles.
The five nominees in the oft-overlooked category are boundary pushing — and they are all black. Their visual work showcases industry innovation and is rich with social commentary on Donald Trump's America.
"It's the year of Trump — the need to speak out is overwhelming," Carol Vernallis, a music scholar at Stanford University in California, said. "I can imagine African-American artists feeling the need to push."
Childish Gambino — the favourite to win, according to award prediction website Gold Derby — took the internet by storm last spring with his painfully striking viral video, "This Is America."
The jarring clip offers a darkly pessimistic view of black life in the United States, contrasting brutal images of chaotic gun violence and references to slavery's legacy with joyful Afrobeat rhythms and a gospel choir.
Music's first couple, Beyonce and Jay-Z, took over the Louvre in Paris to create a wildly popular, visually luxurious video for their hit "APES**T," which sees the Carters insert themselves into the Western art canon, creating a black cultural moment in a traditionally white space.
Pop futurist Janelle Monae's "Pynk" is a psychedelic ode to self-love and queer culture, with the artist and her all-female entourage wearing voluminous, ruffled pink pants that clearly resemble vaginas.
Like Gambino, Joyner Lucas' "I'm Not Racist" offered a bleak depiction of a divided nation: its uncomfortable opening scene shows a white man wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, a symbol of Trump's base, running down a list of racist tropes.
A black, dreadlocked man rebuts: "It's hard to elevate when this country's run by whites/Judging me by my skin color and my blackness."
And "Mumbo Jumbo" from 23-year-old rapper Tierra Whack creates a surrealist fantasyland that is a precursor to her larger 15-minute, 15-track "Whack World" — a visual album that borders on conceptual art.
For Vernallis, music videos are "doing the most for the culture."
"The image is not definitive, but it creates a distance from the music," she said. "Then you have to go back to the music and interpret — there's a dialogue."
"It enriches the song and widens its world, and raises questions in wonderful ways," she added.
The Grammys have been honouring top music videos since 1984, when MTV also launched its own Video Music Awards, a ceremony that today focuses more on the show's spectacle rather than who wins.
Innovative performers including Michael Jackson and Madonna embraced the format in the 1980s — but its influence waned during the 2000s, as television channels that had focused on music videos turned toward reality programming.
Today, music videos have taken on a pop culture relevance not seen in over a decade, in part thanks to video streaming platforms such as YouTube.
Video plays comprise 55 percent of global on-demand streaming time in top music markets, according to statistics from IFPI, a non-profit organisation representing recording industry interests.
Views in the hundreds of millions makes crafting a well-produced music video key to driving exposure for artists, who can in turn use the medium to curate their messages, said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University.
"A music video stakes out a visual identity for a song," Thompson said. "I can't imagine 'This Is America' not having that video — it brings a whole other dimension."
"It's not just one of the most interesting music videos — it's one of the most interesting things in American pop culture in general."
Beyonce provides perhaps the best mainstream example of defining brand by controlling her image — she used her multi-dimensional visual album "Lemonade" to make moving statements on patriarchy and racism while celebrating the power and influence of black women.
The edgy work scored the 2017 Grammy for Best Music Video — but Beyonce was snubbed in the major categories in favor of British pop balladeer Adele.
In 2018, rapper Kendrick Lamar, seen by many critics as an industry visionary, took home the award — but he also has yet to win a prize in major categories.
Thompson says a music video "doubles the senses" in terms of political or sociocultural expression.
"There are political messages being expressed all over the place by black musicians," he said. "It seems to be in this particular Grammy category that we're seeing concentrated recognition of that."
"The sad thing is four of them aren't going to win."
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