It’s been 25 years since a Black woman won album of the year. Will SZA change that?

The artist with the most Grammy nominations this year, nine, is a Black woman.

Here’s why that is significant.

Back in 2017, there was a lot of discussion about the Recording Academy and race after Adele topped Beyoncé and three other nominees to win the prestigious album of the year Grammy.

Beyoncé had been widely considered the favorite for her album, “Lemonade.” Even Adele thought Bey should have won, and said so, tearfully, in her acceptance speech.

“The artist of my life is Beyoncé, and this album to me, the ‘Lemonade’ album, was just so monumental,” Adele said.

The Bey Hive, Beyoncé’s hardcore fan base, agreed. Former Recording Academy President Neil Portnow addressed uproar at the time that racism was behind Adele winning.

“No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all,” Portnow said in an interview with Pitchfork.

Try telling that to Black people.

The 2024 Grammy nominees for album of the year are sure to stir the conversation about race once again. While #GrammysSoWhite may not have caught fire the way #OscarsSoWhite did, there is still the perception that Black artists, especially women, have a tougher time securing Grammy wins.

Which is why all eyes will be on the album of the year category in February given that three Black artists are nominated, SZA, Janelle Monáe and Jon Batiste. It would be quite the feat if Batiste wins as he took home the album of the year Grammy in 2022 for “We Are,” making him the first Black artist to win since Herbie Hancock in 2008 for “River: The Joni Letters,”

If SZA wins, she will become the first Black woman to triumph in the category since Lauryn Hill in 1999 for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Monáe would become the first Black and nonbinary artist ever to win the category. In the 66 years of Grammy ceremonies, Black performers have only won the event’s top prize 11 times.

In addition to Batiste, Hancock and Hill, Stevie Wonder won album of the year in 1974, 1975 and 1977; Michael Jaackson won in 1984; Lionel Richie in 1985; Quincy Jones in 1991; Natalie Cole in 1992; Whitney Houston in 1994; Outkast in 2004; and Ray Charles in 2005.

SZA and Janelle Monáe - Getty Images
SZA and Janelle Monáe - Getty Images

Neith SZA nor Monáe have shied away from their Blackness in their art or in interviews.

SZA, who has shared about sometimes being the only Black girl competing in gymnastics as a child, talked to Complex magazine in 2016 about the cultural influence of Black women.

“I feel good being a black woman; I’ve always felt good. But to be a black woman right now, it definitely feels like I have back up,” she said. “That’s a good feeling. I’ve never felt like that before.”

Monáe, too, stands strong in her identity.

In a 2020 interview with Harvard Business Review, Monáe said, “Early in my career I would show up at a photo shoot, and stylists would say, “Hey, you’re in this tuxedo, and you’re wearing your hair natural. It’s a bit avant-garde. How can we sell that? Perhaps you should look like this.”

“Or record label execs would say, ‘You’re this Black girl talking about science fiction and technology. It’s not marketable. How about you just get a more simple song and not have your work be so dense?,’” Monáe recalled. “Those conversations made me think, Okay, if I don’t find my voice, if I don’t speak up for myself, somebody else is going to do it.”

Both artists have successfully found their voices. It remains to be seen if the Grammys voters will hear them.

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