Woke: A state of enlightened understanding, particularly related to issues of race and social justice. Someone who is woke is aware of issues of injustice and inequality, unlike those who might say they are color blind. (urban dictionary)
So I started with a definition from urban dictionary, just incase you aren’t up on your slangs. There are a number of definitions for woke but I found this the most elegant. I understand that this might be considered cultural appropriation but please don’t come at me if I extend the boundaries of woke beyond race as black and white in this post.
On January 12th 2017, Adele’s album, 25, won the Grammy for album of the year. My reaction when I found out was, “Cool, good for her.” Then the internet happened, article after article (maybe 5) calling for Adele’s head (not literally) and proclaiming Beyoncé’s god status (indirectly) flooded my timeline. My disclaimer is I have never been a Beyoncé fan, she’s never appealed to me. However, I have always respected her as a performer who delivers 100% and a smart business woman. When she has beat a preferred song or artist out of a category it’s never merited more than a side thought. So this vitriol against Adele, who I love, calling her album mediocre amongst other things surprised me.
One phrase that struck a chord with me was when a friend said, “I will pick an album that uplifts people and is woke over an album that makes me think about it an ex.” I began to wonder if I was not being woke and selling out on black culture by believing Adele should have won? I am not African-American, but I am black and a lot of the commentary does say “black” so I feel qualified to speak.
I have listened to Lemonade and read the lyrics, they simply don’t appeal to me. I appreciate the rhythm and visuals in the videos but the story she tells does not resonate with me. Yet, the commentary around the event made me wonder if it should. I have zero doubt that institutional racism exists and that there are still a ridiculous amount of battles for people of colour. Myles Johnson in a New York Times opinion piece described Adele’s win or Beyoncé’s loss, depends on how you see it, as what happens when “a black person does not try to be palatable for a white audience but instead focuses on your own culture and experience.” This homogenous presentation of white audience versus black culture is one of the points that disturbed me the most regarding the post-award conversation. There is so much more nuance and variation in human experiences that cannot simply to narrowed down to black and white. I understand the current political and sociopolitical climate has people frustrated, but care should be taken with presenting perspectives as fact.
So should Beyoncé have won because she was a “better artist”? For me that includes the songwriting, musical arrangement, global reception and of course personal taste. Or should Beyoncé have won because has embraced “African culture” , for example her incorporation of Osun (misspelled Oshun in many articles) in the Grammy performance? I digress for a quick PSA on the myth of a singular “African Culture”, it doesn’t exist. Or because she has been “denied” this specific Grammy multiple times? If the argument is that her album was just flat-out better, showed more artistry, covered multiple genres, then I have no argument against that. It was obviously a stellar album, so preference comes down to taste. However, if your argument is hinged on the fact that her album had “relevance”, then this raises more questions for me.
Does art need to be a political statement for it to be relevant? Regardless of the craziness around us political or otherwise, do we stop falling in love, breaking up, graduating from college,falling sick, enjoying brunch, dying? Shouldn’t relevant art start from a place of authenticity? Let’s face it, regardless of how woke, rational and open-minded you are no one is uniformly woke on all issues of social justice, inequality and race. So how do we define relevant art as art that speaks to one element of a complex world. Do the Grammys, other award shows, and the entertainment industry in general need a shake up? Is there a need for greater diversity in the old white men’s club? Is there some inherent and overt racism? Yes.Yes.Yes. Truthfully a change is long overdue. However, if all these changes had been in place would that have meant a victory for Beyoncé over Adele? I don’t know.
I can only hope that Adele, Beyoncé and every other artist continues to, or begins to, write and perform music they are passionate about, regardless of whether it gets classified as woke or not. Now back to my 25 playlist as I get ready for a journey to dreamland.