How Artists of Color Put Race and Politics Center Stage at the Grammys

By Sameer Rao Feb 13, 2017

Like the Super Bowl and Golden Globes before it, the 59th Grammy Awards ceremony last night (February 13) became a platform for political and creative statements at the intersection of music, race and activism. Here are the moments where those issues surfaced: 

Frank’s Letter
Last November, Frank Ocean noted the Grammys’ tendency to overlook Black artists in the awards’ main categories, including "Album of the Year," when speaking to The New York Times about why he did not submit "Blonde" or "Endless" for Grammy consideration. "I’d rather this be my Colin Kaepernick moment for the Grammys than sit there in the audience," he said.

Grammy ceremony producer Ken Ehrlich suggested on the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast Friday (February 10) that Ocean boycotted this year’s awards over disappointment from his 2013 performance. Ehrlich produced that ceremony as well, and insisted that he executed Ocean’s performance idea "knowing that it was faulty" and despite his own objections. "[Ocean’s] feelings about the Grammys right now, I would imagine, probably go back to that [performance] in one way," said Erhlich. "But honestly, it wasn’t us." 

Ocean addressed that sentiment in a Tumblr post on Saturday (February 11), writing that the performance was "absolute shit" and plagued by "technical difficulties," but that his decision to stay away had nothing to do with that and everything to do wtih the fact that the academy consistently awards White artists over Black ones.

I’ve actually been tuning into CBS around this time of year for a while to see who gets the top honor, and you know what’s really not "great TV" guys? [Taylor Swift’s] "1989" getting "Album of the Year" over [Kendrick Lamar’s] "To Pimp a Butterfly." Hands down one of the most ‘faulty’ TV moments I’ve seen. …And if you’re up for a discussion about the cultural bias and general nerve damage that the show you produce suffers from, then I’m all for it.

Adele’s Wins

Ocean’s argument was on display when the "Album of the Year" award went to British singer Adele for "25" instead of Beyoncé for "Lemonade." Adele emotionally declared that despite her gratitude, she could not accept the award over Beyoncé: 

The "Lemonade" album, Beyoncé, was so monumental, and so well thought out, and so beautiful and soul-bearing. And we all got to see another side of you that you don’t always let us see, and we appreciate that. And all us artists here, we fucking adore you. You are our light.

And the way that you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my Black friends feel, is empowering, and you make them stand up for themselves. And I love you. I always have. And I always will.

Adele also recognized Beyoncé as her "idol" when she accepted the award for "Record of the Year." "I adore you, and I want you to be my mommy, all right?" she said at the end of that speech. Vanity Fair noted that Adele did not physically offer Beyoncé her "Album of the Year" award, and actually had it replaced after accidentally breaking it into two pieces onstage. 

Adele’s comments sparked various reactions on social media. Many expressed disappointment that she won over Beyoncé in both the "Record" and "Album" categories. Some praised her remarks as a show of solidarity, while others criticized them as tone-deaf:

Beyoncé’s sister Solange Knowles, who won "Best R&B Performance" for "Cranes in the Sky," reacted to her sister’s loss with a tweet to Ocean’s Tumblr post.

The Performances

Beyoncé invoked some of the visual motifs from the "Lemonade" visual album in her performance of that work’s "Love Drought" and "Sandcastles." Pregnant with twins, she delivered much of her performance seated.

Singer Anderson .Paak and rappers Consequence and Busta Rhymes joined A Tribe Called Quest to perform the group’s "We the People…." Rhymes called President Donald Trump "Agent Orange," and the ensemble performed the song—whose lyrics lampoon racist and discriminatory political rhetoric—as people representing the various groups targeted by the Trump Administration’s policies joined them on stage.

Bruno Mars teamed up with Prince‘s longtime collaborating band The Time for a tribute to the late artist. The Time performed a medley of their songs, "Jungle Love" and "The Bird," then Mars came on stage with a purple outfit and White guitar reminiscent of Prince’s own performance attire to sing "Let’s Go Crazy."

"Best New Artist" winner Chance the Rapper performed two gospel-inspired songs, "How Great" and "All We Got," from his album, "Coloring Book," alongside gospel singers Kirk Franklin and Tamela Mann—and several white-robed choir members. 

The Speeches
Jennifer Lopez, in the ceremony’s first pre-award remarks, quoted Toni Morrison while discussing artistic responsibility in turbulent times: 

As Toni Morrison once said, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self pity, no need for silence, and no room for fear. We do language. That is how civilizations heal."

Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris gave a shout-out to the #NoDAPL movement in her own on-stage remarks, and actress Laverne Cox ("Doubt") encouraged viewers to look up Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen challenging a Virginia school board’s bathroom policy before the Supreme Court this spring.

The speech Beyoncé delivered while receiving the "Best Urban Contemporary Album" award was not resolutely political, but it did address "Lemonade’s" themes of healing and recognition:

We all experience pain and loss and often we become inaudible. My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that will give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history, to confront issues that make us uncomfortable. It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror, first through their own families, as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House and the Grammys, and see themselves. And have no doubt that they’re beautiful, intelligent, and capable.

Read the full list of winners and nominees here