When Black Women’s ‘Excellence’ Isn’t Good Enough

Beyoncé accepts Best Dance/Electronic Music Album for Renaissance during the 65th Grammy Awards on Feb. 5 in Los Angeles. With 32 Grammy wins, Beyoncé has set a new record: most decorated artist in the awards’ history. But the ceremony failed to award her with Album of the Year, instead giving the award to Harry Styles. (Emma McIntyre / Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

We can always rely on Black Twitter to aptly summarize a cultural moment. So, when pop star Beyoncé lost for the fourth time the coveted and most prestigious Grammy award (Album of the Year) for her 2022 culture-resetting seventh solo album Renaissance—during the same ceremony when she made history as the most decorated artist with 32 Grammy wins—the suggestions started pouring in on what she needs to do to secure the top prize.

Why not just resurrect the sonic ghost of a jazz great and produce some standards?

As absurd as this sounds, there is some historical weight to it, considering how legendary soul singer Natalie Cole became the first Black woman to receive Grammy’s Album of the Year award in 1992 doing just that for her album Unforgettable … With Love, featuring her singing “duets” with the recorded voice of her long-deceased celebrated crooner father Nat King Cole. Nothing like nostalgia for the genres of Black music—often vilified before their eventual acceptance as American “standards”—to appeal to the majority of voters.

Of course, this did not stop the multicultural comedy show In Living Color at the time from parodying the moment as Natalie Cole was depicted as simply parroting her father “karaoke” style. In Loving Color made a mockery, less of Cole’s talent and more of the absurdities of the Grammys as a prestigious academy defining the musical tastes of a culture that is often full-speed ahead of their musically-confining curve. 

The social media sarcasm “suggesting” what Beyoncé should do to win Album of the Year is based on the idea that Grammy awards are rather formulaic, focused on popularity with a mix of “merit” thrown in. The great Whitney Houston (recently named as the second greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone, behind “queen of soul” Aretha Franklin) was the second Black woman to win Album of the Year in 1994 for the record-smashing The Bodyguard, the soundtrack to her blockbuster hit movie.

Perhaps there is a pattern here: Black women must ride on the coattails of protective manhood—a respected dad, a Hollywood white male “bodyguard”—to secure the top prize, something that goes against the ethos of the feminist-minded, Black-pride, queer-respecting artistry of Beyoncé. Hip-hop and soul-singing legend Lauryn Hill may have ridden the coattails of her male posse The Fugees to success, but it was her solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill that stood on its own merit, and indeed, has stood the test of time, since it was the third and last time a Black woman had won Grammy’s top prize.

Even then, Hill stepped back from her mainstream success for her own peace of mind and has yet to offer a follow-up album. Both Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston were plagued with drug addiction, which eventually claimed Whitney’s life in 2012 on Grammy Awards weekend. And despite their abilities to set the musical standards across popular culture, there are too many great Black women artists in music who have never been awarded the top prize for their culture-changing albums: Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Sade, Anita Baker, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey.

Her influence is unquestioned, but her greatness often is.

All is not lost however. At the same ceremony this year, Bronx-based jazz newcomer Samara Joy won the coveted Best New Artist award (a pity she only performed at the pre-broadcast and not during the ceremony’s live telecast), and Lizzo became the first Black woman to win Record of the Year since Whitney Houston in 1994 for her catchy hit, “About Damn Time.” They were wonderfully grateful and humble for their wins, as was Beyoncé when she accepted her Grammy Award for Best Dance/Electronic Music, the win that cemented her “most Grammys” status.

But one cannot help but think of the anonymous voter quoted in a Variety article who picked someone else for Album of the Year because “With Beyoncé, the fact that every time she does something new, it’s a big event and everyone’s supposed to quake in their shoes—it’s a little too portentous.” As if she were not humble enough, not grateful enough, a little too “uppity.” This voter said nothing of the merits of her album.

At least another voter, quoted in the same article, cast votes for Lizzo because she plays the flute and, thus, demonstrated her musical “craft.” And there is the rub: playing musical instruments as a sign of “craft,” not vocal talents, not music sampling (the core of hip-hop culture, which had a big night celebrating its 50th anniversary), not musical collaboration—all present in Beyoncé’s superb Renaissance and her magnum opus Lemonade six years before that.

If access to learning and performing on musical instruments (a continuous struggle that many have combatted by donating these to low-income public schools) is a sign of musical genius, then we are hard-pressed to define the success and revolutionary impact of the music of marginal communities, shaped by vocality, sampling and collaboration. These are the cultural biases that often lead many to make dismissive remarks like “Beyoncé is overrated”—an assessment that rarely applies to most male artists, no matter how much they too are propped up by their various hype machines and their own self-aggrandizement.

In short, Beyoncé, whose music has remixed the great music cultures from the margins, has the most Grammy wins because she is repeatedly recognized for her contributions to R&B (the majority of her awards) and other music genres. Her influence is unquestioned, but her greatness often is. When Michael Jackson was denied Grammy’s Album of the Year for what many considered to be his magnum opus, Off the Wall, he went to work to make sure that didn’t happen again when he set the world on fire with the indomitable Thriller. Some have said Beyoncé needs to have her own “Thriller” album (as if Lemonade doesn’t qualify; at the least, it’s her own “Miseducation” moment).  

As the most recognized public Black woman—hence, the charge that she is “overrated” because she is often hyper-visible—many of us who watched her ascendancy to stardom recognized how, in addition to her own talents and work ethic, she was privileged as a conventionally attractive, light-skinned woman who was palatable for global crossover success. Her feminist credentials often take a hit because she doesn’t shy away from leaning into her beauty, her sexiness, and even weaponized colorism privilege to lift up her darker-skinned sisters in her Afro-beat song  “Brown Skin Girl.”

Her staying power, however, rests on her artistry, her business acumen, and her willingness to push herself beyond the confines of musical categories—which is why her albums never sound the same. For conventional academies that give out awards like Grammys, this will always be a challenge.

For those of us who value art, we can only sit on the sidelines and cheer on a Black woman who has reached the kinds of heights where she can change the paradigm of album drops (as she did with her self-titled project in 2013), where she can command the cameras to focus solely on her live performance (as she did at the 2017 Grammy Awards show), and where she can charge $35 million to grace the opening of a luxury hotel in Dubai with a one-hour performance.

Who else has that pull in 2023? Surely, she can haul the most Grammy awards, but the top prize? For that, she must be humbled. “She already has Grammy wins,” another anonymous voter said in the Variety article. She doesn’t need the most prestigious award, it is implied. She already has enough. What is this need to place a ceiling on her success?

And that is why, during Black History Month—a month that celebrates unsung Black heroes who demonstrated Black excellence throughout history—we must reiterate and redefine what our standards of excellence are: not just for our survival but for our thriving in a world, framed by white supremacist and patriarchal logics, that believes the most celebrated Black woman in the culture may be recognized as the most decorated winner but not the most prestigious winner.

Some might call that a micro-aggression. It’s a subtle dig that props up the more blatant attempts to diminish Black women’s contributions, as was recently demonstrated when Black feminist voices were taken out of an AP African American Studies course in the state of Florida.

In the grand scheme of things, Beyoncé, as part of a billionaire couple with her three children, will be more than fine. She has already promised Acts II and III with her Renaissance project, and she’s gearing up for her world tour. Her tour tickets are pricey, but her years in entertainment have validated why her fans will pay top billing to see her live, her music providing the soundtrack to so many of our lives.

In a world that constantly tells women in general, and Black women specifically, that we just might be “imposters,” Beyoncé affirms us and allows us to luxuriate in a Black woman defiantly and truthfully announcing that “I’m the bar.” We revel in her excellence, even if some would try to diminish that greatness as “not good enough.”

It’s just as well. When has the risky boldness of greatness ever been able to compete with the safety of mediocrity?

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.