This year, the Grammy Awards delivered some great highs – it certainly started with a bang. In lieu of the usual opening speech or shtick from host Alicia Keys, former First Lady of the US, Michelle Obama, made a surprise appearance. With Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Jada Pinkett Smith, she gave a pep talk on the power of music and using one’s voice. Obama almost halted the show after her very first phrase sent the audience into prolonged applause.
“From the Motown records I wore out on the (Chicago) South Side to the ‘who run the world’ songs that fuelled me through this last decade, music has always helped me tell my story,” Obama finally told the cheering celebrity audience.
The night was filled with firsts, including controversial rapper and ex-stripper Cardi B making history as the first female solo artist to win Best Rap Album, for her debut, Invasion of Privacy. The award was received by legend Lauryn Hill 20 years ago, but as part of The Fugees, not as a solo artist. The rapper seems to be following in Hill’s footsteps as she was also the “first female rapper to have a number-one song since Lauryn Hill, bringing the torch-passing full circle,” according to entertainment news site Vulture.com.
Another high was South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir winning the Grammy for Best World Music Album for their album Freedom. This is the group’s third Grammy after their 2007 and 2008 Grammy Awards for Best Traditional World Music Album for their Blessed and African Spirit albums respectively.
The awards ceremony had bittersweet moments as well. The Grammys have had a problematic relationship with Hip-Hop and Rap ever since 1989, when it finally introduced the Best Rap Performance Award, acknowledging the genre but not deeming it important enough to be televised. This resulted in rappers like the Fresh Prince and LL Cool J boycotting the Grammys and many others rappers since.
Although the culturally relevant hit song “This Is America” not only won the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration Grammy but became the first Rap track to win Song of the Year and Record of the Year. The artist, Donald Glover, chose to not attend the awards. In the same vein, Jay-Z and Beyoncé didn’t bother to turn up to collect their awards and Kendrick Lamar and Drake both turned down an invitation to perform.
The Recording Academy could unfortunately not maintain what little momentum they had gathered in giving fair recognition to these artists before they made another faux pas. Musical powerhouse Drake, one of the few artists nominated in the category Best Rap Song who showed up, had his speech cut off mid-way when he won for “God’s Plan”. Drake took the opportunity to discuss the Grammy Awards’ attitude to artists of colour and how Hip-Hop artists have pretty much given up on proper representation at the ceremony.
Tonight we’re going gold to celebrate the outstanding artists whose work makes Canada shine so brightly on the world stage. Congratulations to the nominees and winners at the 2019 Grammys! @drake @RecordingAcad @ETCanada pic.twitter.com/La2tdjq7fB
— CN Tower/La Tour CN (@TourCNTower) February 11, 2019
“We continue to have a problem in the Hip-Hop world,” said Ken Ehrlich, the show’s producer, when he was questioned about Drake, Lamar and Donald Glover/Childish Gambino’s refusal to perform. “When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the Academy and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the Hip-Hop community, which is sad.”
Fact is, if the Recording Academy fails to mend the divide, the continued absence of big stars will inevitably make the Grammy Awards seem irrelevant and out of touch.