Sunday, June 19, 2011

Race Card Drivers

When the 2008 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction class was announced, an op-ed piece was published called “A Walk On The White Side”, in response to the fact that all of the Performer inductees were Caucasian (though the inductees did include Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff as Ahmet Ertegun Award recipients and Little Walter as a Side-man). But the sentiment is hardly new. It seems every year that there are more White inductees than Black (there are very seldom any Hispanic nominees/inductees); and accordingly, there’re accusations regarding racism in the voting body. Those who say that are looking at the general trend in the ratio of Black to White Performer inductees over the past few years. And maybe there is some truth to it, as a greater percentage of White nominees end up making the grade than that of the Black nominees, but those who are saying these things are looking at only the inductees, which for 2011 are four-fifths White, with one Black artist getting the nod. So, let’s look at all the nominees from this year, not just the inductees. By the way, this analysis could also be applied ably to the similar argument claiming bias against women.

The White nominees include miss-outs Bon Jovi, Donovan, the Beastie Boys, Laura Nyro, the J. Geils Band; as well as inductees Alice Cooper, Neil Diamond, Tom Waits, and Dr. John. Four of nine got in this time. Looking at the Black nominees, we see that they were Chuck Willis, Joe Tex, Chic, LL Cool J, Donna Summer, and inductee Darlene Love. One of six. So while it can be argued that the percentages work out more favorably for the White artists, it should also be noted that both camps had five nominees to miss out. From a gender perspective it looks like four for eleven-and-a-half for the men, and one for three-and-a-half for the ladies, since Chic is co-ed. Percentages in that arena both run about one-third, and would both be exactly one-third if Chic was considered a male act only, which you could almost do, given that Chic probably wouldn’t even be considered if not for Nile Rodgers, who was an original member of the Nominating Committee, and is therefore very much a part of the political loop of the Rock Hall. It’s only if you play it as a game of “White men” versus “Everyone else” that it becomes skewed at four for eight versus one for seven. But even this is not a sound conjecture when played against other factors that involve past inductions and nominations. For starters, until the Class of 1994, at least half of the inductees were Black each year, and since there have seen two or three classes where the majority of the Performer inductees were minorities.

So, it seems that another explanation is needed. In light of this past year’s ballot, the clearest place to look next is the issue of number of nominations. Of the five inductees, only Darlene Love, the lone minority inductee, had been nominated before. The other four were appearing on the final ballot for the first time. Of all those who didn’t make the grade, only Donovan and Bon Jovi were newcomers to the ballot, both of which are White male acts. The other eight miss-outs were all past nominees, six of whom were ALL the women and minorities that didn’t make it. So two-thirds of the first-time nominees get in, while only one-ninth of the repeats make it, with two and eight being the respective number of miss-outs. That staggeringly favors the newcomers, no matter how you slice it.

But is it a trend? Apparently so. Four out of five for this year were first-timers. In 2009, all five inductees were first-ballot selections. In 2007, all three of the first-time Performer nominees were inducted. In fact, since 2000, 42 of the Hall of Fame’s 67 Performer inductees were first-ballot choices, almost two-thirds. Of the remaining 25 that needed more than one nomination, seven of them were second-time choices, and another nine proved that the third time was a charm. Also since 2000, there were only two years (2001 and 2006) when the first-nomination elected were less than the number of returned candidates that finally got in, and in one of those years (2006), the percentage of returned candidates that got in was 30% of those that were on the ballot, while one-third (33.3%) of the first time nominees made the cut, giving the percentage advantage once again to the rookies.

This still holds up relatively well when looked at through the eyes of affirmative action as well. When you take into account all acts that were either a minority or female (including co-ed acts), there have been eleven Black acts that have gotten in on their first nomination (one of them also all female), as well as two additional female soloists, and three co-ed acts. That means there have been 29 that were nominated for the first time since 2000, and of those 29, 16 got in on their first nomination, which from a percentage standpoint, is better than that of this millennium’s all-White-male acts that were nominated for the first time, going 27 for 52.

Now, you can argue the point that once they’re inducted, you don’t need to nominate them again, so of course more White acts get in on the first try because there aren’t as many repeat nominees to try again for, and since 2000, there have been 17 White acts (one of them co-ed) that got in on a multiple nomination. However, since 2000 there have also been 13 White, male acts that were nominated once, missed out, and to date have not been nominated again, which is pretty close to even. For minorities, the number of post-2000 minority multiple nominees to get in are 7, and their post-2000 first-time nominees that to date, have not been re-nominated after missing out that first time? Two: War and Afrika Bambaataa. On top of that, there have only been five White acts (one of them female) that have nominated for a multiple time since 2000 that still aren’t in, while there are seven in the African-American camp, three of them with four or more nominations. Because they keep getting nominated again and again.

This points to the simple notion that when it comes to Black and female acts, they keep nominating them until they finally get in, which is nice, but it seems that they often won’t nominate more such acts until they clean their plate of the current choices. That explains why the Dells and “5” Royales were never even nominated until the Moonglows and Flamingos were finally inducted, and why no other rap act was ever nominated until Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five finally made it. After this year’s election, there are now seven acts that have failed to get in after three nominations, and would have been eight if another rookie got in instead of Darlene Love. And of those seven, five of them were on this year’s ballot, four of them Black. So maybe it’s not prejudice against Black performers, but maybe just those particular artists. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not racism, but voters just genuinely feel that Chic, Joe Tex, Chuck Willis, etc. are simply not all that deserving of induction, or at least not the most deserving ones on the ballot.

I can understand trying to get your favorite acts in, and goodness knows some truly deserving artists have taken many nominations (Black Sabbath, Sex Pistols, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Solomon Burke, etc.), but if you’re going to play the race card, you’d better be able to account for the year when Bobby Womack, Run-D.M.C., and Little Anthony And The Imperials all got in on their first nomination, and Chic missed out – for the fifth time. So if you’re hell-bent on representing disco groups, maybe try nominating the GAP Band instead. If you want soul in the bowl, give Joe Tex a rest and try the Spinners, Stylistics, Chi-Lites, Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes, Lou Rawls, or even “Soul Philosopher” Johnnie Taylor. If you want a disco solo star… well Donna Summer really is the best candidate in that regard, so how about we stop including other dance/disco acts to divide the ballot against her? And failing that (and just for the sake of this article), try Chaka Khan, Janet Jackson, or Barry White, if gender is immaterial. And if the impetus is that strong to represent rap, Ice-T is eligible. Chuck Willis is probably more a victim of the fact that he hadn’t been nominated since the 1990 ballot, only to be nominated for a surprise sixth time (or fifth, depending upon which story you use) a full two decades later, but if the re-familiarization with his contributions still aren’t enough, maybe Larry Williams would be a good substitute for ‘50s R&B. But don’t blame race when a breath of fresh air, or a batch of nominees in this case, is a more likely solution.