Does the Academy prefer their black artists to be heard and not seen?
In the long history of the Oscars snubbing minorities, one micro-trend bucks that shameful tradition: minorities winning in music categories. In the 1980s, the Academy nominated or awarded statuettes to a spate of nonwhites for music. During that decade, which saw 72 minority noms overall, the Academy nominated nonwhite songwriters or performers in the Best Original Song category 11 times. Five of those times, they took home the trophy.
And those five wins went to some of the most legendary artists of our time. Lionel Richie scored three nominations—one in ’82 and two in ’86, with one of the ’86 noms earning him a win for the song “Say You, Say Me” from “White Nights.” Quincy Jones racked up three Best Song noms that decade but didn’t take home a statue. And Stevie Wonder won for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” from “The Woman in Red.” (Stevie is nominated again this year, for “Faith,” a duet with Ariana Grande, from the movie “Sing.”)
Why do minorities shine in music categories? Because white audiences prefer their black artists to be heard and not seen.
Whites have a demonstrated lack of interest in black cinema. Andre Seewood writes in IndieWire that this is largely due to a lack of empathy: White audiences “…lack the empathy necessary to identify with Black characters which in turn affects their ability to ‘suspend disbelief’ and surrender to the narrative of a Black film.” This lack of empathy directly correlates with whites’ reluctance or inability to enjoy art that depicts black people in a way that’s not subservient or deferential. Like so many of the deeply-rooted race issues plaguing America today, it has its roots in slavery.
“Such expectations hearken back to the plantation,” writes Brandon Patterson, formerly Chairman of the NAACP’s Political Action Committee, at Politic365. “Black slaves weren’t expected to read or write, display any sort of mental capacity, or exercise any kind of agency that wasn’t directly to the benefit of their masters.” It follows, then, that white audiences evince a dearth of interest in black film characters: If we don’t have empathy for them, we’re not emotionally invested in them. We can’t ride that emotional story arc that follows a character’s fall from grace to their redemption.
Music, on the other hand, doesn’t challenge our ideas about black people because we stole it from them and repackaged it in white, thereby making it more familiar and easier to award.
African slave spirituals, work calls and chants begat blues music; blues begat jazz; jazz influenced swing, soul and rock. Seminal bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones often credited “early 20th century American music such as blues for their inspiration,” according to PBS.
And it doesn’t stop there. As PBS notes, African American gospel music gave birth to soul music and rhythm and blues. Rhythm and blues boy bands created the new jack swing movement: “A fusion of hip hop and R&B, new jack swing helped laid the groundwork for the next two decades of popular music.” By the end of the 20th century, hip-hop and rap emerged as dominant genres.
Nearly every genre of music popular in America today can trace its roots back to the plantations. And music is, perhaps, a safer space for white people, allowing us to consume black art while eliminating that one pesky element that would trigger our deep-seated (in many cases, unacknowledged) guilt: black bodies. This explains Jones’, Richie’s and Wonder’s multiple recognitions by the Academy in the 1980s.
My own consumption of material by black entertainers, though limited, is peppered with far more musicians than actors. I know about Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. I listen to Sam Cooke, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder regularly. One of my most-belted shower songs is “Listen” from the stage-musical-turned-feature-film “Dreamgirls.”
Why the disparity between my consumption of black music vs. my viewing of black films? I think The Guardian’s Josh Manasa is right: “Whenever we [black people] create work that pushes the boundaries of what white people expect us to be able to do, they rush to contain our creativity and redefine it in ways that don’t challenge their ideas about us.”
Black bodies on film screens, portraying non-slave roles, present a direct and uncomfortable challenge to white viewers to confront their internalized racism. And if we aren’t in the mood to be challenged, we can always just turn up the volume on whatever music we’re playing and drown it out.