Let’s revisit this critical moment in history!
The musical contributions of Black people in America cannot be understated. It is deeply woven into the fabric of our culture and born from trauma pathways that created the ultimate form of resistance: joy. One of those musical forms is hip-hop, the youngest of the Black musical genres, set to celebrate its 50th birthday this August. While hip-hop is now a global phenomena and nearly synonymous with popular culture, it wasn’t always accepted. Many artists sacrificed moments to speak up and force the genre forward. Nowhere were these types of protests more evident than at major award shows like the Grammys. In 1989, emerging hip-hop pioneers Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff decided to boycott the Grammys after winning the very first Grammy Award for rap music. Let’s look back on exactly why that happened.
Today, Smith is known as a legendary actor, producer and all around entertainer. However, in 1989, he was just one half of an emerging rap duo who went by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, monikers that would catapult them both to superstardom. According to The Hollywood Reporter, after releasing the Billboard-charting single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” Smith and Jeff were nominated and ultimately won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance. Although elated, the moment was overshadowed when the two learned that the presentation of the award wouldn’t be televised.
“They said there wasn’t enough time to televise all of the categories. They televised 16 categories and, from record sales, from the Billboard charts, from the overall public’s view, there’s no way you can tell me that out of 16 categories, that rap isn’t in the top 16,” Jeff told reporters at the time.
Smith echoed those sentiments, asserting that the art form of rap was so big, it should have been given equal representation on the stage, especially with the history-making moment of them being the first artists to ever win an award in the category. They were equally upset that while their award wasn’t televised, they wanted them to still appear during the ceremony.
“We chose to boycott. We feel that it’s a slap in the face,” Smith told reporters.
Some of their peers agreed, hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa, executive Russell Simmons, and rapper LL Cool J, following suit with the boycott.
“If they don’t want us, we don’t want them,” Salt-N-Pepa said in a joint statement.
While the group was happy to accept the award, they felt a statement needed to be made if the hip-hop genre was ever to receive its respect. By refusing to show up, they sent a clear message that institutions wouldn’t be allowed to benefit from the semblance of inclusivity without actual equal and inclusive treatment in the industry. Smith and Jeff were also critical of rapper Kool Moe Dee, who took their place on the Grammys stage to present the award for Best R&B Male Vocal; the duo felt it sent the wrong message to supporters of hip-hop. For Smith, the Recording Academy lacked an understanding at the time of the importance of hip-hop music to the cultural conversation.
“They don’t know anything about rap music. Our boycott was to open their eyes to rap music so next year, some rapper will be able to perform at the Grammys and the awards will be televised because the music is large enough and important enough to be on the show,” said Smith.
Their protest had an impact. The following year, the Grammys televised the Best Rap Performance Award presentation, giving it to artist Young MC for his single “Bust a Move.” Smith eventually went on to win multiple Grammys, even opening the 40th annual Grammy Awards in 1998. There, he made sure to give his speech from the 1989 and 1992 shows that he didn’t show up to.
Other artists continued to follow in Smith’s footsteps, Jay-Z boycotting the show for years because of what he considered a lack of respect for hip-hop.
“I didn’t think they gave the rightful respect to hip hop…It started that they didn’t nominate DMX that year. DMX had an incredible album. He didn’t get a nomination. I was like, ‘Nah, that’s crazy,’” said Jay-Z.
Over the years, the Grammys have still struggled to get it right, but they’ve come a long way from where they once were and a lot of that has to do with the sacrifices of artists like Smith and Jeff. They set the tone and took a stand to open the door for other artists. For that, we are thankful.
Because of them, we can!
Here’s why Will Smith & DJ Jazzy Jeff boycotted the Grammy Awards after winning the first rap Grammy/Photo Courtesy of Ebet Roberts/Redferns