When the latest Grammy nominations were announced in November, Kanye West picked up five nods, including album of the year, teeing up a potential reconciliation between one of pop music’s most mercurial stars and the institution he has spent much of the last two decades criticizing, challenging and sometimes outright insulting — even as West has yearned for its affirmation.
But last Friday, a little more than two weeks before the 64th annual Grammy Awards ceremony, set for April 3 in Las Vegas — and weeks into negotiations over a planned performance at the show — organizers told West’s team that he would not be allowed to perform, according to a representative of the rapper and producer.
The organizers cited West’s erratic and troubling public behavior in recent weeks, according to a person with knowledge of the decision, who was granted anonymity to discuss an internal matter.
That behavior included the release of an animated music video that portrayed the kidnapping and burial of a figure who looked a lot like Pete Davidson — the comedian who has been dating Kim Kardashian, West’s former wife — and an Instagram post taunting Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show,” who is hosting this year’s Grammys, with a racial slur that resulted in West being banned from Instagram for 24 hours. (Noah said on Twitter that he had not called for West to be cut. “I said counsel Kanye not cancel Kanye,” he wrote.)
For West, music’s perennial chaos agent, the episode may have been just the latest blur of sensational headlines. But for the Grammys, it is also a setback in a campaign to lure West back to the fold. He is perhaps the most vocal of a circle of high-profile Black creators — also including Jay-Z, Drake, the Weeknd and Frank Ocean — who have condemned the Grammys for often failing to recognize the work of creators of color, particularly in hip-hop, in its most high-profile categories.
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The ceremony, originally scheduled for Jan. 31, was postponed for a second year in a row due to Covid and is now scheduled for April 3.
The Recording Academy, which presents the awards, has made extraordinary efforts to accommodate West, who has won 22 Grammys in his career. For the latest show, a last-minute rule change resulted in West being added to the ballot for album of the year.
In an interview with Billboard, Harvey Mason Jr., the academy’s chief executive, said that when the initial slate of nominees was prepared with eight contenders in the major competitions, he noticed a dearth of rap in the top categories. Within days, a proposal to expand the ballot to 10 slots in those categories was approved by the academy’s board, bringing “Donda,” along with Taylor Swift’s “Evermore,” into consideration for best album.
Since becoming the academy’s chief last year, Mason has made personal appeals to dissenting artists, including West. That outreach, and the album of the year nomination, stirred frustration and anger among some members of the academy, who have been appalled by West’s past antics, such as posting a video on social media in 2020 that shows a Grammy trophy apparently being defiled in a toilet bowl.
“How vile and disrespectful,” Diane Warren, the Grammy-winning songwriter of hits like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” said at the time.
West’s recent behavior on social media has made mending fences even riskier for the Recording Academy. Always an oversharer, West has lately used his Instagram account to air grievances over custody and child care issues amid his divorce from Kardashian. That dispute has coincided with West’s attacks on Davidson, as well as figures like Noah who have criticized the musician’s posts as verging on threats and harassment.
Still, for the Recording Academy, reconciling with West could have symbolic power, suggesting that the institution’s efforts to revamp its voting membership and adapt to a faster-moving music business with a younger, more diverse listenership were working.
West’s complaints about the Grammys go back at least 17 years. In 2005, even before that year’s nominations were announced, West was telling Grammy voters that if he did not win album of the year for “Late Registration,” his second LP, he would attribute the loss to a judgment on his personal behavior rather than his artistry.
“I don’t care if I jumped up and down right now on the couch like Tom Cruise,” he told MTV News at the time. “I don’t care how much I stunt — you can never take away from the amount of work I put into it.” (He lost to U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.”)
Since then, West’s criticisms of the Grammys have been sporadic but unrelenting. In 2015, for example, after Beck won album of the year for “Morning Phase,” West demanded that the alt-rock musician give the award to Beyoncé instead, in an echo of his infamous moment with Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. He warned that such choices by Grammy voters would alienate “real artists.”
“Because what happens is,” West said, “when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music — it’s disrespectful to inspiration.”
While West will not perform at this year’s Grammys, he is still invited to attend as a nominee — which presents a tricky problem for the academy if West wins a major award like album of the year. Would he use the opportunity of a speech on live television to make more inflammatory comments, either about his personal life or about the Grammys itself?
As a safeguard for producers of the show, and for CBS, the Grammys’ longtime broadcast network, standard editing delays are built into the show. In 2017, for example, the Grammy audience heard Adele blurt out a frustrated profanity after she flubbed the opening of a George Michael tribute; people watching at home just heard bleeps.
Joe Coscarelli contributed reporting.