The 61st Annual Grammy Awards appeared to be an exemplary model of diversity and progress as an unprecedented number of female artists — including Cardi B, making history as the first solo woman to win for rap album and Kacey Musgraves, who won the night’s album of the year prize — dominated the evening’s live performances. Alicia Keys (not LL Cool J or James Corden) hosted. And a notable number of African American artists were nominated in mainstream categories outside of rap and R&B.
But it was clear from who wasn’t at the Staples Center on Sunday that all was not well. The Recording Academy’s fraught relationship with women and artists of color played a starring role during a ceremony that was as much an ode to diversity as it was a reparation effort.
What were they making up for? More than a half a century of operating like most other entertainment mediums until movements such as #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo and #TimesUp forced the first real signs of change in the TV and film industries.
The music industry has been slow to catch up. Last year just one woman won a solo award during the telecast. And it didn’t seem the organization felt any pressure to change things up when the chief executive of the Recording Academy, Neil Portnow, said women in music should “step up” to advance their careers.
It was the same year that Kendrick Lamar was passed over by the academy for an album that went on to win a Pulitzer. His Grammy snub followed a pattern of rappers such as Jay-Z being asked to perform, making the show look diverse, only to be passed over for wins in pop and mainstream categories.
This year, the Grammys became the latest awards show to visibly struggle with the overwhelming calls for change. Childish Gambino, who won in three major categories including best record, wasn’t there to pick up his awards. Neither was Ariana Grande, who won in the pop category. It was as if they were taunting academy voters when, during commercial breaks, emojis of both artists appeared in separate ads for Apple Memoji and Google Playmoji, singing the songs they probably would have performed on the Staples Center stage had they agreed to appear.
Best album nominee Lamar, who led with eight nominations, also refused to attend. Drake, up for best album and six more awards, surprised everyone when he showed up to receive his award for rap song. But he took the opportunity to voice the frustration of a generation of artists locked out by a mainly white, mainly male voting body.
“This is a business where it’s up to a bunch of people who might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada is saying, or a fly Spanish girl from New York … The point is, you’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown. Look, if there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain and snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to your shows, you don’t need this [Grammy award] right here. I promise you. You already won.”
Grande tweeted that she had a dispute with producers over what she wanted to perform. “It was when my creativity & self expression was stifled by you, that i decided not to attend,” she posted.
The Grammys did make changes after last year’s ceremony to be more inclusive and representative of today’s music industry. On Sunday, eight acts rather than five competed in the top four categories of album, record, song of the year and best new artist.
The three-and-a-half-hour show opened with the Latin music number “Havana” led by Camila Cabello and featuring Colombian rapper J Balvin and Ricky Martin.
But it was clear the show had a female empowerment theme when Keys opened things alongside Michelle Obama, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga, who shared what music meant to them. They kicked off one of the more spontaneous ceremonies in memory, which included 20-plus performances by artists ranging from Dolly Parton with Miley Cyrus to best new artist winner Dua Lipa with St. Vincent.
Not everyone, however, appeared comfortable. And after Janelle Monae’s bombastic performance of “Django Jane” — in which she shouted the lyric, “Let the vagina have a monologue!” — there was no way the agro funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers could look anything but out of place.
The major artists who didn’t show spoke volumes with their silence, but the effort to make the Grammys relevant and representative of the artists it’s supposed to honor might have been better served if, say, Donald Glover (aka Gambino) had been there to take the mike. His winning number, “This is America,” speaks for itself, as does the “Black Panther” soundtrack by Lamar.