Tonight is the biggest night in music. Hosted by Alicia Keys, the 61st Annual Grammy Awards is underway with the potential to be a big night for a few R&B divas. This year, veteran vocalist Toni Braxton and newcomers Ella Mai and H.E.R. are all likely to make history at the ceremony should they snag the coveted Grammy for Best R&B song.
Winning this award would establish one of them as a history-maker at the Grammys. They would join the ranks of singer Beyoncé, who was the last female performer to do so — with no feature — when her hit record “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” won in 2010. It would also add one of their names to the shortlist of female performers who have won this award in the entirety of its 50-year existence.
Soul legend Betty Wright became the first female performer to break this glass ceiling with her 1976 single “Where is the Love.” Donna Summer soon followed with her 1979 hit “Last Dance,” but because she wasn’t credited as a songwriter, the Grammy went to Paul Jabara who penned the track. This has proved to be a major hurdle for many of R&B’s leading women. Ask the Queen of Funk Chaka Khan (“I Feel for You”), or The Voice, Whitney Houston (“Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”), whose respective awards for Best R&B Song were both handed to their respective songwriters: Prince and Babyface. This has been a particular issue for Toni Braxton, whose comeback solo “Long As I Live” earned her nomination at the upcoming ceremony.
At the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards, Braxton’s feisty uptempo “He Wasn’t Man Enough” landed a nom in this category, as did her 1995 and 1997 singles “You Mean the World to Me” and “You’re Makin’ Me High.” But when it came time to receive awards, Braxton wasn’t listed as a songwriter on her megahits. Again, a slew of A-list writers, including Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, were the lyrical powerhouses behind the tracks.
So this year, Braxton’s nomination comes as a career highlight. It is her first time landing in this category as a songwriter.
Interestingly enough, however, if Braxton does leave empty-handed on Sunday in the Best R&B Song category, newcomers Ella Mai and H.E.R. are still in the running to make history by beating out performers Miguel and Childish Gambino. Both of the singers have had an incredibly successful year. From Mai’s summer bop “Boo’d Up” beating out industry veteran Mary J. Blige by a week when it totaled 16 weeks on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, to H.E.R. earning a number one gold-certified R&B hit with “Focus.” For these singers, their 2018 impact is undeniable.
Should Braxton, Mai, or H.E.R. succeed in breaking the glass ceiling at the Grammys this year, it is important to note that these accomplishments would be coming off the wind of the larger push for gender equality within the Recording Academy.
According to a report from October 2018, the Academy invited 900 music creators — all women, people of color, and/or under 39 — to join as voting members. Led by diversity expert Tina Tchen, their mission was simple: to diversify the industry and push for more inclusive practices.
The development of the task force rose to the top of the Recording Academy’s agenda after the President/CEO Neil Portnow made an insensitive remark that women executives and musicians need to “step up” for recognition in the workplace. The hashtag #GrammysSoMale that went viral on Twitter during last year’s show undeniably influenced the decision too.
In wake of the diversity and inclusion debate, the Recording Academy announced nominations for the 2019 Grammy Awards and as expected, female artists ruled the once male-dominated lists of honors at the upcoming ceremony.
While Mai stands behind many artists who demand the Recording Academy to consider practicing unbiased approaches during their nomination process, she expressed to Julie Adenuga of Beats 1 that attending the show is a greater protest. “I feel you have to go to make that change,” she said. “I feel like protesting and not going isn’t the right way to do it. And to me, the Grammys are still super important. So, I feel like it’s super important for us to go to be a part of that change.”
Even though the last decade of Best R&B Song winners has been dominated by its male contenders like Bruno Mars, Maxwell and Miguel, Mai, H.E.R., and Braxton, each has a good chance of snagging the top honor. One critical question, however: will the Recording Academy vote on nostalgia (“Boo’d Up”), sophisticated jealousy (“Long As I Live”), or the heart-tugger (“Focus”)?
To find out, make sure to watch the 61st Annual Grammy Awards, hosted by Alicia Keys, tonight at 8 p.m. PST / 5 p.m. PST on CBS.
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