Nicki didn't lie: MTV has a race problem, and we have the numbers to show it.

As you all probably remember, in late July, Nicki Minaj took to twitter about the 2015 Video Music Awards (VMA) nominations and her snub for Video of the Year.
This tweet, which had the potential to start an actual conversation about the imbalance of recognition for black female artists, turned into a β€œtwitter feud” after Taylor Swift responded to the message, thinking it was directed at her.

This ignited an exchange of tweets between Nicki and Taylor, in which Nicki and her following raised very real and very valid points about racism in the music industry, the disregarding of white privilege, and the non-inclusive/toxic nature of white feminism.  Unsurprisingly, the media (and a handful of celebrities) failed to see any of these actual points.  

Although in the end Taylor did apologize for misspeaking (not really adding anything else to the conversation), the whole fiasco showed that a lot of people are either ignorant, ambivalent or dismissive to issues of racism within the music industry.

Which brings us to this project: instead of just telling you about the racial discrepancies, we decided it might be more effective to show you MTV's racial bias -- one that dates back to the very beginning of the VMAs -- through hard numbers.  To do this, we explored race-related data about VMA nominees from the first awards show in 1984 up to this year's show, which will happen on Sunday night. 

  First, a bit about the VMAs: 

The MTV Video Music Awards are an annual ceremony that honours the best in the music video medium. For many North American teens and 20-somethings, it's a cultural touchstone for what’s hot in music pop culture. Think: Madonna and Britney's kiss,  Lady Gaga's meat dress, Fiona Apple's iconic speech, and where the future Rihanna, Nicki and Beyonce will debut their first single off of their collaborative album. (...We can dream, right?)

How the VMAs are selected is a complete mystery. MTV is very secretive about their selection process and their voting committee that decides the winners of the 6 "Professional categories" (Best Direction, Best Art Direction, Best Choreography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects).  For the "Major Categories", MTV picks the nominees and open voting decides the winners - these include: Video of the Year, Artist to Watch, Best Male Video, Best Female Video, among a slew of other genre-specific categories (Best Rock Video, Best Hip-Hop Video, etc...). 

It’s important to note that although these categories are opening voting, MTV has final say over who actually wins - no matter what. So essentially MTV picks, MTV decides, MTV awards. Everyone else is just along for the ride. 

  What kinds of artists does MTV decide to recognize at the VMAs? 

To answer this question, we looked at the nominated artists for the Major Categories, coded for the race of each nominated artist, and then compared the overall number of nominations for black artists to white artists through the last three decades.  What we found was striking: except for a brief period between 2003 and 2007-ish, where the ratio of black-white nominations is roughly equal, more nominations consistently go out to white artists than black artists.

Skeptics might be tempted to argue that perhaps the fact that there are more nominations for white artists simply reflects the quantity, or popularity of music by black artists being produced and consumed in popular culture. In other words, one possibility is that black artists aren’t being under represented at the VMAs - just that there is just less music by them out there being enjoyed.

To see if this was the case, we decided to look for an approximate index of popularity of music that was being consumed by the American masses each year. We used the Billboard Hot 100 list, because the rankings take into account many factors of a particular song: specifically - sales, airtime on the radio, and how often it’s streamed online.  This makes it a pretty good index of popularity and success of an artist in the American music industry.

To narrow the data set down to a manageable size, we looked at the #1 single for each week from 1984-2014. We then coded for the race of the artist, and then looked at the total number of weeks a black artist was at #1 for each year, and the total number of weeks a white artist was at #1 for each year.
Although white music was more popular in the late 1980's, black artists generally dominated radio stations and record sales from the early 1990's to the late 2000's. Take a look at 2004, which was apparently the year that the world really loved listening to Usher, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg & Pharrell, and Ciara.

In any case, this graph really doesn't seem to suggest that music by black artists wasn't consumed by the American public for a large portion of the last few decades.  So while music by black artists was way more popular, way more successful, and way more highly consumed than music by white artists for most of the time period between 1992 and 2008, fewer VMA nominations were still going out to black artists during these same years.

The next thing we asked ourselves was: what happens if we pit popularity (indexed by percentage of Billboard #1 spots) directly against formal recognition by music industry giants like MTV (as indexed by percentage of VMA nominations)?  How does the pattern differ between black and white artists?

If we look at the data for black artists:

This would suggest that for the larger part of the last thirty years, black artists are almost consistently more popular in the music industry than they are recognized by MTV (the light blue line is almost always greater than the dark blue line). Even during years where almost exclusively black artists are dominating the #1 spots on the billboard charts, they less than half of the VMA nominations go to black artists.

If we do the same comparison for white artists:

This suggests that white artists are consistently more recognized by MTV than they are popular. (The light pink line is almost always underneath the starred, maroon line).

Before we draw grand conclusions, however, we do need to stress that the VMAs are not necessarily a popularity contest - for either white or black artists.  While there is overlap between radio hits and VMA recognition, a close comparison between the Billboard and VMA data sets indicated that there is often little correlation between popular success and award nominations for individual artists. Take 'The Power of Love' by Celine Dion, for example; this was #1 for 4 consecutive weeks, but received zero nominations (except in our hearts).

Nevertheless, what we can conclude is that the VMAs have a history for under-representing black artists; even during epochs where music by black artists is heavily consumed and enjoyed by the general public.

So why was Nicki demonized by multiple media outlets for shining a light on what is clearly a long-standing issue?  Even with her platform and status, she is still being held to a stricter standard than her white counterparts. Good thing she's a BOSS and handling everything like a class act.

All this being said, if and when you tune in to watch the VMAs this Sunday night, consider what factors are really at play when MTV decides which artists deserve recognition and which artists do not.

  Methodological details: 

VMA Data: We included only categories that had to do with the artist β€œin front of the camera” (Major Category Awards), and excluded β€œbehind the scenes” categories like art direction and cinematography that generally belonged to the "Professional Categories". 

Coding for Race: We manually coded for the race of artist for each VMA nomination and Billboard Hot 100 song. We gauged racial category from Google and Wikipedia descriptors.  Biracial Black/White artists were categorized as black. Non-Black artists of colour and groups with a mixture of people from different racial backgrounds were categorized as Other.  Collaborations done by black and white artists together were also categorized as Other. To simplify the data visualization, we only compare Black and White artists (and not Other) within the scope of this blog-post.

  • Access our Billboard Hot 100 data set  here.
  • Access our MTV VMA data set  here.
  • We're new to this data journalism thing. So, please feel free to suggest additional visualizations, or point out anything we may have missed or improperly coded!
This post was co-written by TK  Matunda and Lorraine Chuen.