Race and scandal grab spotlight at the usually frothy Clive Davis pre-Grammy gala

Sean "Diddy" Combs accepts the Industry Icon award at Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy gala on Saturday night at the Beverly Hilton.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

One sign of how deep the music industry’s troubles go right now? Clive Davis, of all people, got right to the point as he welcomed guests to his annual pre-Grammy gala at the Beverly Hilton.

“This is clearly a very tumultuous time for the Recording Academy,” the famously prolix record executive said to begin his remarks Saturday night in a ballroom full of A-list artists and behind-the-scenes power players. He was referring, of course, to the ongoing battle between the academy and its recently ousted chief executive, Deborah Dugan — and to the many questions the conflict has kicked up regarding the academy’s handling of gender, race and the integrity of its own nominating process.

As at other parties in the run-up to Sunday’s Grammy ceremony, the Dugan affair cast an unavoidable shadow over Davis’ typically glitzy celebration, which the 87-year-old presents in cooperation with the Recording Academy and which this year honored Sean “Diddy” Combs as the recipient of the group’s Industry Icon award.

Faith Evans, from left, Lil' Kim, Mase, Carl Thomas and Christian "King" Combs perform during a tribute to Sean "Diddy" Combs.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Accepting the prize before a crowd that included Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Lana Del Rey, Jimmy Iovine, Cardi B, Janet Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Naomi Campbell and Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi, among others, Diddy gave a long, rambling speech that climaxed with a passionate appeal to the academy to repair its problems, beginning with what the rapper and producer views as hip-hop and R&B’s history of neglect at the Grammys.


“Every year, y’all be killing us,” he said, before going on to declare, “Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be.” As many in the audience applauded, Diddy told the academy — whose interim chief, Harvey Mason Jr., had earlier appeared onstage — that he and the other artists in the room demand transparency and diversity; he pointed out that the nonprofit’s board members “work for us.”

Beck performs.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

He closed by evoking the image of Michael Jackson holding the eight Grammys he won at the 1984 ceremony — Jackson’s “revenge,” according to Diddy, for being overlooked with “Off the Wall” a few years before — then dedicated his award to a handful of artists, including Beyoncé and Kanye West, whose classic projects weren’t named album of the year at music’s most prestigious awards show.

“My goal used to be about making hit records,” he said. “Now it’s about ensuring that the culture moves forward. My culture. Our culture. The black culture.”

Before his address, the Bad Boy Records founder was toasted in a lively musical tribute by several acts he helped make stars, including Faith Evans, Mase, Carl Thomas and Lil’ Kim. It was one of a dozen or so performances Saturday that, despite the heavy energy in the room, sought to “remind us all why our lives have been so deeply enriched by our lifelong careers in music,” as Davis put it in his characteristically high-flown language.

Cyndi Lauper
Brandi Carlile, left, and Cyndi Lauper sing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Beck did funky renditions of his mid-’90s alt-rock hits “Loser” and “Where It’s At,” while Carlos Santana teamed with Ryan Tedder for “Smooth,” Santana’s turn-of-the-millennium comeback. Chance the Rapper performed “Sun Come Down,” one of the many sappy if well-meaning songs about his wife on last year’s “The Big Day.” Adrienne Warren, the actor who plays Tina Turner in Broadway’s “Tina” musical, sang two of Turner’s signature tunes, “What’s Love Go to Do with It” and “Simply the Best”; Brandi Carlile kept the covers coming with an affectionate take on Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” as did Cynthia Erivo in a salute to Janet Jackson that featured “Together Again” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You).”

Apart from the spirited Bad Boy medley, though, the night’s only other can’t-miss musical moment happened when Cyndi Lauper climbed atop Usher’s table to revive “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” with help from Carlile, who looked like she’d never been asked in her life to do something so wild.