The press room at Staples Center doesn’t often go quiet during the Grammy Awards, but as the show opened Sunday at the end of what host Alicia Keys called “a hell of a week, damn — and a serious one,” even experienced reporters were feeling the cumulative effects of Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s death and a Recording Academy on fire.
In the second row was a Bloomberg reporter wearing a Lakers jersey over his black dress shirt. And near the back, local online reporter Rocky Harris wiped a tear during Keys’ emotional opening.
As Keys began the show with a tribute to the basketball superstar killed that morning with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others in a Calabasas helicopter crash, the gathered press watched in silence on several video screens backstage. After Keys noted, “We’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built,” one veteran radio reporter-producer acknowledged the “lump in my throat.”
“These are a lot of cynical people,” said the reporter, who asked to remain anonymous as he covered his 34th Grammys ceremony, “and, well, it’s unusual.”
Harris, a young journalist for the Baller Alert TV website, was already prepared to again mourn the death from nearly a year ago of rapper Nipsey Hussle, who won a posthumous award for best rap performance Sunday and was honored with a Grammys tribute. “It changes the celebratory moment,” Harris said. “We’re so excited to see all these artists win for the hard work that they’ve done, and it’s tough.”
The backstage reporters had walked through hundreds of mourners for Bryant gathered outside Staples Center. And during the Aerosmith/Run-DMC performance of “Walk This Way,” a jersey with Bryant’s name was raised high, as reporters reacted audibly backstage. Shortly after, Lil Nas X opened his set-hopping performance of “Old Town Road” in a mock living room with a Kobe jersey draped over a chair.
The 62nd Grammys were already set to unfold under a cloud after the Recording Academy put its new president and chief executive, Deborah Dugan, on administrative leave after an allegation of misconduct just 10 days ahead of “Music’s Biggest Night.” Dugan responded with explosive allegations against the academy involving irregularities in the awards nomination process, financial waste, a charge that her predecessor, Neil Portnow, had been accused of sexual assault and an allegation that she had experienced a sexual harassment incident involving powerful entertainment lawyer Joel Katz. Portnow and Katz denied any wrongdoing.
While the Recording Academy declared in a statement that Dugan was removed “to restore the confidence of the Recording Academy’s membership,” the timing had the opposite effect, most reporters agreed.
The awards ceremony has been shaken before by breaking news. One dramatic moment came in 2009 when a planned performance by Rihanna was canceled at the last minute after the singer was beaten by boyfriend Chris Brown while en route to Staples Center.
In a normal year, the drama over a lawsuit filed last week against Aerosmith by longtime drummer Joey Kramer ahead of the classic rock act’s performance on the telecast would have dominated the news. Kramer, who missed performances with the band last year due to an injury, accused the band of blocking him from playing on the Grammys stage now that he says he is recovered. (The band did invite Kramer to join them in receiving the Recording Academy’s MusiCares person of the year award on Friday.) But this week’s events and accusations were apocalyptic by comparison.
Variety reporter Michele Angermiller recalled how the death of Whitney Houston on the eve of the 2012 ceremony shook the music world. In 2020, the full day of reporting she thought was ahead of her took an unexpected turn.
“The whole game had already changed with all the drama with the Dugan story,” Angermiller said. “You would hope that it wouldn’t [change] for the artists — they’ve worked so hard to come here. And with Kobe dying there’s just a lot of sadness.”