by Yasmeen Adin
When you create from the margins, your art often refuses and revolts against the the preexisting genres and categories that were created by and for people who represent the dominant culture(s). As a result, your art may be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused. Unless the main purpose of your work is to appeal to the dominant gaze or align with its imagination, your creation is destined to be placed in the wrong genres by cultural critics at awards shows such as at the GRAMMYs.
One day before the release of his 5th studio album, Tyler, The Creator posted a precaution for people to take into consideration before listening to IGOR. He explicitly stated that no one should listen to it expecting it to be similar to Goblin, Flower Boy, or any of his previous works that were conventionally put in rap or hip hop categories. He defined IGOR as an experience of its own that crossed different genres. Out of all of the things this album represented, it was NOT a rap album. Yet, the experts writing reviews or evaluating IGOR for awards nominations flouted this vision and precaution. To them, it was not possible that Tyler, The Creator and artists who share his experiences were capable of creating something beyond rap. This phenomenon persists in the voting processes for awards ceremonies and remains unaddressed.
Tyler, The Creator did not fail to express his frustration with the process and the individuals controlling it. “I’m half-and-half on it,” he replied to a question regarding his initial reaction to winning, ironically, the best rap album at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards for IGOR. He expressed his gratitude for the acknowledgment of his work. However, to him the win felt like a “backhanded compliment.” For many years, the voting process for the GRAMMYs has been unfair to and limiting for artists of color, especially Black artists, in certain categories and genres. Tyler, The Creator accurately articulated the racism and ignorance underlying the categorization of his production, or any works by “guys who look like [him]” in rap or urban categories, even if they are genre-bending or fit in other categories, as a “politically correct way to say the n-word to [him].”
Other forms of creative expression did not survive this ignorant approach. After the release of her Netflix stand-up special, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby was described as a comedian over and over again in the majority of the articles and think pieces written about her. Although she acknowledged repeatedly her use of comedy to tell stories about her personal trauma, she maintained that what she was doing was not a stand-up comedy; it was a form of storytelling that many queer individuals grow up unconsciously adapted to. From a cis/heterosexual perspective, the way she wrapped her experiences with homophobia, sexism, and rape in jokes was quite shocking; it was a form of comedy that they had rarely (if ever) been exposed to before. However, this mode of storytelling has historically been known as queer storytelling. In fact, various queer critics and storytellers recognized her use of this mode for trauma-centered experiences, including Drae Campbell. She commented on Gadsby’s recent stand-up, and how it “subverts comedy.” She thinks that Gadsby knew her audience well and used their idea of comedy to introduce them to critical issues faced by every queer woman around the world. Gadsby is not the first to introduce this form of storytelling, but since it had been hidden from the dominant gaze, it was immediately perceived as pioneering and novel.
From Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR to Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, there is a trend of miscategorization and misinterpretation of artists' work that does not follow the guidelines and genres of the dominant culture(s). These cultures continue to push their narratives and misconceptions on these works despite the creators’ explicit disapproval of the categories they are forcefully put in. And until the experts in these culture(s) are willing to listen to and amplify the voices of these creators, this trend is not going anywhere anytime soon.