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  • Aadit Manyem

Unpacking Bias in the Music Industry: Frank Ocean's Impactful Silence

In a move that was equal parts blonde ambition and artistic integrity, American singer and songwriter Christopher Breaux, commonly known as Frank Ocean, decided to skip the Grammy party. In August 2016, Ocean released his second studio album, Blonde. Immediately after its release, Blonde was hailed as among the most critically acclaimed albums of the year and even the decade by some. As the 2017 Grammy Awards approached, Ocean was poised to win big. Grammy predictions almost unanimously forecasted Frank Ocean to win awards in several categories, including Album of the Year, Best Urban Contemporary Album, and Best Music Video. However, in a move that sent shockwaves throughout the music industry, Frank Ocean chose not to submit Blonde for Grammy consideration. This decision left critics, listeners, and artists alike asking, "why"? The answer is simple: the Recording Academy consistently miscategorizes and misjudges work made by people of color. In a comment made to the New York Times, Ocean stated, "[The Grammy Awards] certainly have nostalgic importance; it just doesn't seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down."

Between the accolades and the silence, Frank Ocean's decision to withdraw from the Grammy Awards stirred a quiet revolution. It was a fearless act that not only amplified the voices of artists of color but also exposed the cracks in the system that overshadowed their contributions. By casting a spotlight on the heart of the issue, Ocean illuminated the path to a more inclusive and equitable music industry—one where talents from every background can thrive without the limitations imposed by long-standing biases.

The Grammy's have a history of marginalization against people of color, frequently miscategorizing black artists' work as "Rap" or "R&B," even if the elements of the music itself would fit better into another category. Ocean is not alone in noting this disparity in the Recording Academy. Ocean's long-time friend, collaborator, and fellow person of color Tyler Gregory Okonma, stagename Tyler the Creator, described his win in the "Best Rap Album" category at

the 2020 Grammy Awards as a "backhanded compliment" due to the album’s prevalent alternative, pop, and funk elements. Okonma went on to state, "it sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that's genre-bending…they always put it in a rap or urban category". The issue of racial bias and misrepresentation in the music field is not a new issue, with artists in previous decades, such as India Arie, Will Smith, and Nina Simone, voicing similar concerns.

Julia Fox

That being said, in recent years, the Recording Academy has made efforts to increase diversity in the nomination and award process. To address criticism regarding inadequate representation within the organization, the Academy created the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. The Academy further established a Diversity and Inclusion Summit, which brings together esteemed members of the music community to address equity issues. Additionally, the Academy renamed the "Best Urban Contemporary Album" category to "Best Progressive R&B Album" to better align with the evolving genre of contemporary R&B music. Ultimately, the underlying issue is not who wins or loses at the Grammys but rather the need for greater diversity and equity in the music sector as a whole.

Despite the Recording Academy's initiative to become more diverse and inclusive, the reality remains that artists of color face continual neglect in the arts. The music industry has a long way to go before it can say it truly represents all voices and perspectives fairly. While artists like Frank Ocean have chosen to take a stand and reject the status quo, it will take a collective effort from all stakeholders in the profession to bring about meaningful change.

In the vibrant landscape of music, Frank Ocean's decision has become a powerful catalyst, encouraging fellow artists to join in addressing the issues of racial bias and underrepresentation. Visionaries like Janelle Monáe, Kendrick Lamar, and Solange Knowles have embarked on their own journeys, navigating the intricate complexities of genre, race, and identity through their groundbreaking music and activism. Their combined efforts create a chorus of solidarity, inspiring a new generation to redefine the boundaries of what's possible in the industry.

Until then, it is essential to continue to bring attention to the issue of racial bias and underrepresentation in music and to support and amplify the voices of artists of color who are working to make their mark on the music world. In a society where the music industry still struggles with issues of diversity and representation, it is up to all of us to turn up the volume of change to ensure that every artist's voice is heard loud and clear.


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