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Old School Archives

The reason Will Smith boycotted the Grammys

Will Smith achieved many fantastic feats early in his career and proved himself an exceptionally versatile entertainer. Seamlessly transitioning from rapping to acting with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith became one of the world’s most prevalent young black actors with roles in films such as Independence Day and Men In Black. However, as one half of the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Smith was a star way before he hit the big screen. 

In 1989, due to the burgeoning popularity of hip-hop music in America, The Grammys (begrudgingly) gave rap its own category. For the first time, the establishment acknowledged figures within hip-hop and among the nominees were DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, but the duo chose not to attend the award show.

In his 2021 autobiography, Will, the rapper writes about his early success as part of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Acknowledging and appreciating the untold amounts of praise he received. In the book, Smith explains why he and his friend decided to boycott the 1989 Grammy Awards.

1989 was a year full of fantastic music. Smith highlights how it was the year Bobby McFerrin won ‘Record of the Year’ at The Grammys for his happy-go-lucky single, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ and stresses how that year, George Michael and Tracy Chapman had ruled the charts. However, when it came to the rap category, Smith admits he had a bit of an issue.

Detailing his issue, Smith wrote, “It was announced that the 31st annual Grammy Awards would be the first to include a rap category, and ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ was nominated alongside Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Push It,’ ‘Going Back to Cali’ by LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee’s ‘Wild Wild West,’ and ‘Supersonic’ by JH Fad.”

The rapper didn’t have a problem with the nominees, though. That year would be a moment in hip-hop history, the first-ever presentation of a rap Grammy Award. Yet, the establishment had chosen that (the hip-hop award specifically) would not be a televised category. Smith declared he did it not for himself but on behalf of hip-hop.

Explaining his frustration, the actor wrote, “We ultimately ended up boycotting the actual ceremony because NARAS, the Grammy committee, refused to televise the presentation of the rap award. We felt like that was a slap in the face. Rap music had outsold the industry that year. We deserved to be there [on screen].”

Smith explained how the whole of hip-hop pulled together to make sure the boycott got media attention, writing, “Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen organized the boycott, along with Salt-N-Pepa, Ice-T, Public Enemy, Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, Stetsasonic, and many others, so even though we weren’t at the Grammys, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were everywhere else.”

The duo did win two American Music Awards (AMAs) that year and were in attendance. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince won America’s ‘Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artists’ and ‘Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Album’. You can watch footage of Smith and his partner receiving their 1989 AMA in the video below.