As in almost every show in this volatile awards season, political protest was all over the Grammys this year. From subtle and poised to outraged and esoteric, resistance came from artists of all genres and will likely be a major part of what this contentious Grammy ceremony will be remembered for.
Far from avoiding the obvious tension in American political life, Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich encouraged artists before the show to say as much about it as they could during their sets.
“If you have record labels and such to thank, please thank them later backstage with the press and say something important,” he said. “We’re expecting it.”
Many accepted his invitation. In an awards season marked by political activism — at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep lectured President Trump on civility, Screen Actors Guild Awards winners denounced Trump’s travel ban — no doubt more than a few viewers tuned in to see what the music community, long outspoken on leftist causes, would have to say.
When it came to speeches, the artists at the prime-time Grammy telecast were relatively subdued. They seemed to heed the words of Recording Academy board member John Poppo, who in the early afternoon at a preshow said, “People can have ideologies that are so different that they’re willing to wage war over them, and yet very often they’re singing the same songs on both sides of the battlefield.”
So they let the music do the talking.
At night, there was A Tribe Called Quest’s absolute demolition derby of a live performance. Joined by Busta Rhymes and Anderson .Paak, they coined a new, instantly trending epithet for Donald Trump (“President Agent Orange”). And that was maybe the softest blow the combo struck.
“I just want to thank President Agent Orange for perpetuating all of the evil you been perpetuating throughout the United States,” Rhymes snarled.
The centerpiece of the act’s set was the comeback single “We the People,” which hit with a whole new fury in the wake of current events: “All the black folks, you must go/ All the Mexicans, you must go/ All the poor folks, you must go/ Muslims and gays, we hate your ways.”
Tribe founder Q-Tip put it even more succinctly: “Resist! Resist!”
Katy Perry didn’t come with quite the same rage, but the longtime Hillary Clinton supporter did perform with a stiffer political spine than fans have ever seen from her. Dressed in a “Persist” armband and a Clinton-inspired white pantsuit, she played “Chained to the Rhythm,” her most overtly topical single to date: “So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble/ So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble.”
In front of a Constitution graphic with collaborator Skip Marley, it wasn’t subtle, but it was a new kind of Katy Perry.
And of course, there was Beyoncé.
Her performance of “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” was immediately, universally lauded for its psychedelic religious imagery. But the act of performing on the Grammy stage while reveling in her pregnant form was itself a work of performance-art resistance.
Her follow-up speech didn’t mention the specifics of our political climate, but it didn’t need to: “My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that would give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history,” she said. “To confront issues that make us uncomfortable.”
She added, “I feel it’s vital that we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes.”
Many Beyoncé fans will feel that not awarding her album of the year is another example of the Grammys repeating past mistakes. But as is usually the case, Beyoncé had even bigger things on her mind that night.