Can Beyonce (‘Lemonade’) overcome Grammy bias against black women for Album of the Year?

The 59th Annual Grammy Awards are set to be telecast live, February 12, on CBS, with Beyonce leading the way with nine nominations for her most critically acclaimed album to date, “Lemonade.” While many consider Queen B the clear frontrunner to take the evening’s top prize, Album of the Year, it is worth examining the terrible track record the Grammy Awards have had with women — specifically, women of color.

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As main album artists, black women make up less than nine-percent of all Album of the Year nominees in the 59-year history of music’s most prestigious event. Of those nominees, only three women were able to pull off a win (five-percent of all winners). So while Beyonce may be leading on our Gold Derby racetrack with 4/9 odds, I can’t help but hear Kanye West chanting in my head, “The Grammy Awards don’t care about black women.”

The first black woman to win the top prize was Natalie Cole in 1992. At the 34th Annual Grammy Awards, Cole made history with an album dedicated to her late father, Nat King Cole, “Unforgettable…with Love.” Cole was no stranger to accolades at the time – she was named Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards in 1976 and had a couple of other wins throughout her career for vocal performances. But her tribute album to her father struck gold with Grammy voters who not only named it the best album of the year, they also awarded her single, “Unforgettable,” Record of the Year as well.

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Just two years after that glass ceiling had been broken Whitney Houston took home the night’s highest honor for her undeniable smash album “The Bodyguard.” After breaking sales records across the world it was difficult to deny this soundtrack album was in a class of its own in 1994. It also spawned one of the most successful singles in history, “I Will Always Love You,” which gave Houston two more wins that night for Record of the Year and Best Pop Female Vocal. Houston had been twice nominated for Album of the Year prior to winning – for her debut album, “Whitney Houston” (1986), and the follow-up, “Whitney” (1988). Then after “The Bodyguard” she was nominated again in 1997 for the “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack. With four noms, Houston remains the most nominated black female artist in this category to date.

Five years after Houston’s win, Lauryn Hill broke onto the scene with her winning debut solo album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Many critics considered Hill a total game-changer and cited the album as one of the greatest in music history. Her fusion of R&B and hip-hop, along with her unique voice, impeccable lyrical skills and self-produced tracks allowed her to stand out from the pack on a night that made history for another reason – that entire Album of the Year category was female. She won out over Madonna (“Ray of Light”), Sheryl Crow (“The Globe Sessions”), Shania Twain (“Come on Over”), and the female-led band Garbage (“Version 2.0”). Hill also took home four other Grammy Awards that night including Best New Artist.

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After three women of color took home Album of the Year in a single decade, it seemed that the veil had been lifted and Grammy voters were finally more inclusive of different music styles, genders and backgrounds. But if you look more closely, Hill was the only winner with a truly R&B/hip-hop album. Cole’s was classic pop music — a recreation of a legend’s music catalog. Houston’s was a contemporary pop tour de force and one of the biggest-selling albums in history. Only Hill’s was truly rooted in R&B and hip-hop, making it the closest among the three to Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” at least from a genre perspective. And nearly 18 years after Hill’s win there has yet to be another black woman to claim Album of the Year.

History shows us that the Grammy Awards have a sketchy past with black female artists when it comes to the biggest prize of the night. The snubs are even more substantial when those women release R&B albums, so the fact that “Lemonade” is perhaps Beyonce’s most eclectic album (even earning her a nomination for Best Rock Performance) could be her saving grace. Including Cole, Houston and Hill, the number of black women who have even been nominated for this award is short enough to list in this article:

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Ella Fitzgerald (“Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook,” 1959)

Roberta Flack (“Killing Me Softly,” 1974)

Donna Summer (“Bad Girls,” 1980)

Tina Turner (“Private Dancer,” 1985)

Whitney Houston (“Whitney Houston” in 1986, “Whitney” in 1988, “The Bodyguard” in 1994–won, “Waiting to Exhale” in 1997)

Janet Jackson (“Control,” 1987)

Tracy Chapman (“Tracy Chapman,” 1989)

Mariah Carey (“Mariah Carey” in 1991, “Daydream” in 1996, “Emancipation of Mimi” in 2006)

Natalie Cole (“Unforgettable…with Love” in 1992–won)

Lauryn Hill (“The Score” in 1997 with the Fugees, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999–won)

TLC (“FanMail” in 2000)

India.Arie (“Acoustic Soul” in 2002)

Missy Elliott (“Under Construction” in 2004)

Alicia Keys (“The Diary of Alicia Keys” in 2005)

Beyonce (“I Am…Sasha Fierce” in 2010, “Beyonce” in 2015, “Lemonade” in 2017)

Rihanna (“Loud” in 2012)

Alabama Shakes (“Sound and Color” in 2016)

Will Beyonce’s third nomination in this category finally be the one that breaks her into music’s most exclusive club? Gold Derby readers predict there is about a 70% chance she will win. But history says there is a 95% chance she won’t.

Make your Grammy predictions now; change them till Feb. 12

Gold Derby readers just like YOU often turn out to be our smartest prognosticators, so it’s important that you give us your predictions. You can continue to update and change your forecasts as often as you like before winner are announced on Feb. 12.  Just click “Save” when you’ve settled on your choices. You’ll compete to win a $100 Amazon gift certificate, bragging rights and a place of honor on our leaderboard. Our racetrack odds change as you make your predictions, just as they do when you bet on the Emmys, Oscars, Golden Globes and more. Be sure to read our contest rules and sound off on the Grammy race in our music forum.

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