Some awards shows inspire annual think pieces questioning whether or not they have a race problem. And sometimes those awards shows are produced by a company co-owned by a guy who donates to anti-LGBT and climate change-denying organizations. Isn’t it fair to assume that the commercial spectacle of an awards show like this won’t concern itself with precipice-of-apocalypse American politics? But hey, last night were the Grammy Awards, and if pre-Grammys clickbait was any indication, politicize we must. So moving past the empowertising and the brands embracing performative wokeness: were the Grammys political?
Certainly, some of the artists attending tried to pull us in that direction. Early in the night, Jennifer Lopez quoted Toni Morrison in a rallying cry for artists to use their voices, which “at this particular moment in history […] are needed more than ever.” Paris Jackson, who introduced the Weeknd and Daft Punk, used her stage time to tell audiences, “We could really use this kind of excitement at a pipeline protest,” ending her speech by shouting out #NoDAPL. Recording Academy president Neil Portnow called upon both Trump and Congress in his annual speech, asking for a defense of music education, a commitment to supporting the arts and an update on music laws. (Absolut, one of the show’s chief advertisers, sponsored some kind of “feminism handbag” for a singer whose name I have already intentionally forgotten; she referred to the Grammys as her own women’s march. So, there’s that too.)
Busta Rhymes took a less centrist approach, thank god, calling out “President Agent Orange” and thanking him for “his unsuccessful attempt at a Muslim ban.” This was part of a moving performance by A Tribe Called Quest, in which a prop wall bust apart onstage and the audience was incited to chant “resist.” Beyoncé, donning a gold halo headpiece that looked straight out of a 14th century triptych, accepted Best Urban Contemporary Album by expressing her desire to showcase “the profundity of deep Southern culture,” and to help kids of all races feel represented, whether at the Grammy awards or in the White House. She also delivered breathtaking, complex performances of “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles,” which was surely no small feat while carrying twins. It’s been eight years since M.I.A. performed the Grammys on her actual due date, but it still feels radical for an expectant performer to showcase and even center her maternity in a pop performance.
Margaret Cho, who hosted the pre-telecast Premiere Ceremony, was nominated for Best Comedy Album. She didn’t win in her category (that honor went to Patton Oswalt), but she made sure to tell the pre-show audience that if she had won, her award speech would have been “Fuck Donald Trump.” The pre-cast is also a precarious clusterfuck of hidden identity politics; 70 awards are delivered during the pre-show, many of which celebrate the music that speaks most directly to social instability in America and genres that operate outside of a white majority. All of the awards under the Latin, R&B, American Roots and Reggae categories—and most of the Rap category—were relegated to the off-air segment of the evening, including blues veteran William Bell’s first ever Grammy win for Best Americana album, though thankfully he delivered a fantastic performance alongside Gary Clark Jr. during the televised event.
Most of the Rock awards were announced in this portion of the night, as well, and while David Bowie justifiably swept most of the awards his posthumous Blackstar were up for, it is somewhat telling that there were only three women musicians represented in the rock nominations—Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, Beyoncé, and PJ Harvey—out of 25 acts proposed in those categories, the rest of whom were white men.
Adele teared up while accepting Album of the Year and then claimed Beyoncé and Lemonade were more deserving. Well, no shit.
Back at the main event, Katy Perry literally wore her politics on her sleeve with an armband reading “PERSIST”—presumably a ready-to-meme reference to Elizabeth Warren. There was a Planned Parenthood logo on her lapel, too, and she and Skip Marley ended their performance of “Chained to the Rhythm” in front of a projection of, yes, the United States Constitution. Subtle. Lady Gaga, fresh off a Super Bowl halftime appearance that was either patriotic or parodic depending who you ask, headbanged in tandem with Metallica a pyrotechnic and glitchy version of “Moth Into Flame.” Best Country Solo Performance winner Maren Morris performed her song “Once” wearing a sparkling onesie that looked straight out of Stevie Nicks’ swimwear line (please make this swimwear line, Stevie); she brought Alicia Keys, who very recently spoke at the Women’s March on Washington, onboard for added vocal acrobatics. Keys, coincidentally or not, also wore a sparkling onesie, although hers had flared bell bottoms that might’ve been a good fit in the Grammys’ Beegees tribute, which, by the way, was a thing, for some reason?
And speaking of tributes, Morris Day and the Time paid tribute to Prince, as did Bruno Mars, whose shredding through “Let’s Go Crazy” in copycat Purple Rain regalia felt somewhat untimely. In a Tumblr diss directed at longtime Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich, Frank Ocean, who conscientiously opted out of the Grammys nomination process this year although his gorgeous 2016 effort Blonde was eligible, suggested that his independence as an artist was his own best tribute to Prince. “I bought all my masters back last year in the prime of my career, that’s successful,” he said. “I am young, black, gifted and independent… that’s my tribute.” (Those same claims could also be made by Chance the Rapper, who opted into the Grammys, and walked away with his first three, somehow managing to thank God and Chicago and Soundcloud in the process.) And while over the course of his career Prince amassed many Grammy nominations and a handful of wins, too, they were almost always in the R&B category; he never won Album or Song of the Year. Indeed, Album of the Year has only been won by 10 black artists in the Grammys’ history, and not since 2008. Some of the most poignant and politically charged albums of the past few years have been nominated for Album of the Year only to get passed over for largely apolitical efforts by white artists—notably, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Beyoncé.
It was hard not to keep those memories in mind when Beyoncé and Lemonade lost out on all of the biggest categories to Adele and 25. While Adele is undoubtedly a singular talent who wrote and performed a moving album, Lemonade worked uplifting magic in the face of 2016’s horrors, and it did so on Beyoncé’s own unwavering terms. It is an album that is pro-blackness and pro-women in a country that refuses to recognize that Black Lives Matter and can’t stop scheming legislation against women’s bodily autonomy. Lemonade, a manifesto swirling with black girl magic, was accompanied by an unerring, visually poetic video that further highlighted the deliberate mastery of the artist who made it. It’s not a wonder that Adele teared up while accepting Album of the Year and then claimed Bey and Lemonade were more deserving. Well, no shit.
Black Lives Matter. Black art matters too. If we expect our awards shows to be politicized, perhaps it’s time they start rewarding the albums that are political. And perhaps it’s time we start tuning out if they don’t.