Oscars: Inside Will Smith's Boycott of the 1989 Grammys
The rapper and DJ Jazzy Jeff refused to attend and accept their award for best rap performance when they learned the new category wouldn't be televised, something Smith referenced when he first appeared on a Grammys stage in 1998, accepting an award from Chris Rock while his wife, Jada, beamed with pride in the audience.
Will Smith confirmed last month that he would be joining his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, in not attending this year's Oscars due to the lack of diversity among this year's acting nominees, saying "We're uncomfortable to stand there and say that this is OK."
But this isn't the first time the rapper-actor has skipped an awards show on principle. In 1989, Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff boycotted the Grammy Awards after learning that the presentation of the award for the new category of best rap performance wouldn't be televised.
Smith and Jeff were nominated, and ultimately won the Grammy, for "Parents Just Don't Understand."
"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 Entertainment Tonight in a 1989 interview that the show recently unearthed. "We chose to boycott. We feel that it's a slap in the face."
"They said there wasn't enough time to televise all of the categories," Jeff added. "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." Salt-N-Pepa, Russell Simmons and LL Cool J, who would go on to become a frequent Grammys host, all joined Smith and Jeff in boycotting the show, with Salt-N-Pepa saying in a statement at the time, "If they don’t want us, we don’t want them.”
Smith and Jeff were also invited to appear during the televised ceremony but refused.
"It was almost like, you kind of want us to be the token," Jeff told BET in 2014. "This is our contribution to hip-hop on the Grammys, but it's not big enough for us to televise the category."
Kool Moe Dee took Smith's spot, presenting the award for best R&B male vocal and using his airtime to perform a short rap, which he said was "here to stay," the Los Angeles Times reported. The rapper criticized the boycott backstage — explaining that Smith and Jeff's management company, which also handled Salt-N-Pepa and LL Cool J, started the whole thing.
"It was wrong. They were trying to turn it into a race thing. … I felt it was a negative move not to come to the Grammys — like crying over spilled milk," Kool Moe Dee said, according to the L.A. Times.
For his part, Smith said he disliked the message Kool Moe Dee sent by showing up.
"Kool Moe Dee is the outcast of the rap industry. 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," he told ET.
Smith told the L.A. Times after winning that he was "more than happy to accept it." But, he added, "I'm not as happy as I could have been. … [The presentation not being televised] detracts from the excitement of the award."
And he said he had no regrets about his decision to boycott: "Absolutely no second feelings. The way it happened was exactly the way I wanted it to happen."
Smith told ET that he hoped the boycott would lead to a greater understanding and role on the Grammys for rap music.
"They don't know anything about rap music," Smith said of the Recording Academy. "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."
Indeed, the next year the Grammys televised the best rap performance award presentation, with Young MC winning for "Bust a Move." But despite televising some of the rap categories, others were still handed out in the pre-telecast and boycotts continued from artists like Public Enemy and Jay Z, who famously skipped a number of ceremonies.
“I didn’t think they gave the rightful respect to hip-hop,” Jay Z told MTV News in 2002 of why he's avoided the show since 1999 despite multiple nominations and a best rap album win by that point.
“It started that they didn’t nominate DMX that year,” he said. “DMX had an incredible album. He didn’t get a nomination. I was like, ’Nah, that’s crazy.’"
Smith also went on to win three more Grammys, including the award for best rap solo performance for "Men in Black," which Smith accepted — incidentally from 2016 Oscars host Chris Rock and co-presenter Vanessa Williams — on TV in 1998 after opening the 40th annual Grammys with a performance of "Men in Black" and "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."
During his acceptance speech, he referenced the boycott, pointing out that "This is actually the first time that I've ever been on a Grammy stage." He also noted that he didn't attend the Grammys in 1992, when he won again, because "I ain't think we was gonna win so I ain't come."
"Now if you guys'll bear with me, I want to give my speech from ['89], then ' and then we'll go into it," Smith joked.
Following the outcry over the lack of nonwhite Oscar nominees, the Motion Picture Academy has already unveiled a number of reforms to diversify its membership, and Smith recently told the U.K.'s Graham Norton that he was optimistic that more good would come out of the Oscar controversy.
"It always does," Smith said. "As my grandmother said, that's the only thing that can come out of it. If you lead with love and light, good is only going to come out of it."