Commentary Strange Fruit

What was the best, biggest, most important album released in 2016?

Last weekend at the Grammy Awards, that honor went not to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” but to Adele’s “25,” leading many of us to wonder what Adele herself asked backstage: “What the f*** does she have to do to win album of the year?”

But it was Adele’s comments on stage, while accepting the award, that got most of the attention. She praised “Lemonade” and called Beyoncé “the artist of my life.”

And then she said this:

And the way that you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. And you make them stand up for themselves. And I love you. I always have and I always will.

While the speech sounds complimentary, there’s history behind the phrase “black friends” coming out of a white person’s mouth. It’s been called the “some of my best friends” defense, deployed in response to accusations of racism. Like, “I can’t be racist. I have black friends.”

For some viewers, who’ve heard that tired phrase a time too many, Adele’s remark provoked a knee-jerk reaction.

“I was trying to understand the context where she was coming from,” Kaila explains in this week’s episode. “I didn’t like that response.”

Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper wrote about the speech for Cosmopolitan. She had a similar reaction to Kaila’s — at first: “I was like, why’d she have to say it like that?”

But she says upon reflection, Adele’s comment made sense.

“If you are going to be a white person who invokes your black friends, this is the way that you do it,” Cooper says. “She stands up and says, look, I felt lots of things about this, as an artist, as a woman, but I celebrate the fact that it did particular kinds of emotional work for my black women friends.”

So while Adele may be off the hook, the Grammy Awards themselves are not. The awards show’s producers love to have black artists perform during the broadcast, and they regularly book musicians of color. But the Grammys seem to have less love for actually giving awards to those black artists.

“They really just want the visibility and ratings of black folks,” Cooper says. “They want the cultural labor that we do, but they want all the awards for themselves.”

Laura is the producer of Strange Fruit, a weekly talk show focusing on race and gender, and oversees WFPL's Curious Louisville project.