EXCLUSIVE: Will Smith Explains Why He Boycotted the 1989 GRAMMYs
By Meredith B. Kile
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This year’s Oscar boycott won't be the first time Will Smith has stayed home on awards night -- and ET has uncovered his blunt take on black performers being left out of another big Hollywood moment back in 1989.
Smith and his musical partner, DJ Jazzy Jeff, won the first ever GRAMMY Award for Best Rap Performance for their hit “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” but didn’t attend the awards show because the new rap categories weren’t being televised.
“We don't have the problem with the GRAMMY as an award or the GRAMMYs as an institution, we just had a problem with the 1989 design of the awards show,” Smith told ET at the time. "We chose to boycott. We feel that it's a slap in the face.”
More than two decades ago, Smith didn't mince words with ET when it came to the GRAMMYs. Though Smith and Jazzy Jeff -- real name Jeffrey Allen Townes -- said that they were “ecstatic” to be nominated and win the award, the disrespect shown to the rap categories caused them to lead a genre-wide boycott, which led to most rap artists skipping the GRAMMYS.
“They said there wasn't enough time to televise all of the categories,” Townes said of the official explanation he was told by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the GRAMMYs' governing body. (The GRAMMYs present awards in almost 100 categories every year.) “They televised 16 categories and from record sales, from the Billboard charts, from the overall public's view, there's no way you can tell me that out of 16 categories, that rap isn't in the top 16.”
Rapper Kool Moe Dee was one of the few artists who didn’t participate in the boycott, taking Smith’s spot as presenter for the Best R&B Male Vocal and using his televised moment to perform a short rap about his fellow nominees, declaring the genre “here to stay.”
“Kool Moe Dee is the outcast of the rap industry,” Smith said, unimpressed by the performance. “What he's teaching younger kids is, look, don't stand up for what you believe in. He's teaching them if you work hard all week for $200 a week, look if the boss only gives you $150, just take it. You know, we're not teaching that. You stand up for what's yours, you stand up for your rights.”
Smith told ET that the goal of the boycott was to raise the profile of rap music and boost its recognition in the industry as a whole.
“They don't know anything about rap music,” he said of NARAS. “Our boycott was to open their eyes to rap music so next year, some rapper will be able to perform at the GRAMMYs and the awards will be televised because the music is large enough and important enough to be on the show.”
In that way, it worked. The 1990 GRAMMY Awards not only aired the awards for Best Rap Performance -- Young MC took home the golden gramophone for “Bust a Move” -- it started a trend that continued for the next 25 years. Since then, the GRAMMYs have since televised one category from the rap field every year except 2012 and 2015.
So, what would Smith have said if he accepted his GRAMMY back in 1989?
“This award is for Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, but it's for everybody,” he told ET. “It's for Salt-N-Pepa. It's for Kid 'n Play. It's for everybody in the rap industry and this is a milestone in our career and it's a milestone in the history of rap. We're just happy to make history and we just wish it could have gone down differently.”