Malian pop singer Aya Nakamura was snubbed by the French equivalent of the Grammy Awards, the ‘Victoires de la Musique’, on Friday 12 February.
But major Western music award shows have had a habit of overlooking performers of African descent for several decades. On 12 February, the Victoires de la Musique celebrated the careers and accomplishments of a number of French music artists, including Benjamin Biolay and Jane Birkin, with great fanfare, despite a limited audience of 200 people in light of Covid-19.
The top music award ceremony overlooked, however, Aya Nakamura, the world’s most widely listened to French-language singer in 2020. She was nominated in the “Best Female Artist of the Year” category but lost out to French singer-songwriter Pomme.
The Bamako-born singer is not the first singer of African descent to have been robbed of an award in recent years. We’ve compiled a list of music celebrities snubbed by the Western music establishment.
Aya Nakamura: Undervalued despite her global success
This year wasn’t the first time the singer of the hit ‘Pookie’ came out of the Victoires empty-handed. In 2019, the Franco-Malian artist lost out to French hip-hop duo Bigflo & Oli in the “Best Urban Music Album” category and to pop-rock band Boulevard des Airs in the “Best Original Song” category (for ‘Djadja’). In 2020, she wasn’t nominated at all.
“These award show results are puzzling. After all, she’s the most well-known French singer in the world since Édith Piaf,” said Emmanuel Parent, a professor of contemporary music and ethnomusicology at the University of Rennes 2.
In 2018, ‘Djadja’ was the first track by a French singer to climb to the top spot on the Dutch sales charts since Piaf’s ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’. So how could an institution like the Victoires snub her?
“Abroad, she embodies post-colonial France in much the same way as the football star Kylian Mbappé. But in France, you get the impression that institutions aren’t ready to accept her as representing French culture,” Parent said.
Booba: Boycotting a two-tiered ceremony
In 2011, French rapper Booba was nominated for a Victoire award in the “Best Urban Music Album” category. After 10 years in the music business, it was the first time he was nominated for the award. That same year, he released Lunatic, an album acclaimed by critics and audiences alike: it debuted at No. 1 on the French charts and went on to sell more than 200,000 copies.
But he ultimately decided to boycott the show because its organisers were planning on splitting it into two separate evenings: one focused on new artists and urban music that would air on France 4, a French public television channel with a limited audience, and a second featuring every mainstream music category that would be broadcast during a prime-time slot on 1 March on France 2, a more popular network.
In a statement, Booba accused the organisers of “relegating non-mainstream music genres and new artists to a lesser ceremony, which is yet another demonstration of the Victoires’ two-tiered approach”. He added: “I strongly disagree with taking this kind of approach to music, as it disregards one of the most popular genres with audiences.” He went on to be nominated for a second time in 2018, but he opted to boycott the ceremony again.
Bob Marley: Recognition through his children
Bob Marley’s influence is virtually undeniable. With 200m records sold worldwide, he is also the most important artist of a music genre that he didn’t invent but brilliantly represented: reggae. Despite a string of classic hits like ‘One Love’, ‘No Woman, No Cry’ and ‘Redemption Song’, he never received the slightest nod from the major US music institution, the Grammy Awards.
Back then, reggae wasn’t considered a significant enough genre to be worthy of awards. Though Marley never received any accolades from the Recording Academy, his children have garnered award after award. Ziggy Marley won in the “Best Reggae Album” category three times (in 1989, 1990 and 1998) with his band The Melody Makers, which included his two sisters, Sharon and Cedella, and his brother, Stephen, and four times as a solo artist (in 2007, 2014, 2015 and 2017).
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His younger brothers have also been recognised by the Grammys on several occasions: Damian Marley nabbed three trophies (in 2002, 2006 and 2018), while Stephen was the recipient of two awards (in 2010 and 2012). Perhaps this is the US institution’s way of making up for its past snubs of their legendary father.
Nicki Minaj: Her successor and rival honoured
Trinidadian-American rapper Nicki Minaj has been racking up awards and trophies throughout her 14-year career. She became the first female artist to have seven songs on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart simultaneously. In 2013, the New York Times named her as one of the most influential Black women, putting her in the same category as the likes of Beyoncé and Michelle Obama.
In April 2017, Minaj broke Aretha Franklin’s record for the most Billboard Hot 100 entries for a female artist, besting the Queen of Soul by three tracks (76 vs 73). Even though the rapper has sold some 100m records worldwide, she has yet to nab a Grammy, with 10 nominations under her belt.
Ironically, her ‘successor’, Cardi B, is the one winning distinction after distinction. The two rappers share a mutual hatred for each other, to the point that Cardi B threw a shoe at Minaj’s head during a physical altercation at New York Fashion Week in 2018. One year later, for her debut effort Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B became the first woman to win in the “Best Rap Album” category. As for Minaj, the trophy continues to elude her.
Kendrick Lamar: Snubbed by the Grammys before garnering wide recognition
North American rap music had a tremendous year in 2012. Kanye West, Jay-Z and Drake all released excellent records, but newcomer Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed disc, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, was the favourite for the “Best Rap Album” award at the 2013 Grammys.
Yet none of these Black artists won the prize; instead, the hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis scored the award for their album The Heist. Macklemore was shocked by the choice.
He even sent Lamar a text message which read, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have,” later posting it on Instagram.
Though Lamar didn’t make the cut at the Grammys the first time around, he has since made up for it. To date, he has been nominated 37 times and won 13 awards, including two Grammys for “Best Rap Album of the Year”. Lamar’s 2017 record DAMN. earned an even higher honour: the Pulitzer Prize in Music. He is the first artist outside of the classical or jazz worlds to win the prize. Talk about sweet revenge.