At Sunday’s Grammys ceremony, Cardi B and Donald Glover both made rap history with major wins that upended decades of tradition.
However, only one of them was on hand to actually celebrate.
“I can’t breathe,” an emotional Cardi said after collecting the trophy for rap album, the first time the award went to a female solo artist. (Lauryn Hill took the honor with her group the Fugees in 1997.)
It was a breakthrough moment for the self-described “regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx” born Belcalis Almanzar who went from reality television scene-stealer on VH1’s soap “Love & Hip Hop: New York” to rap superstar in a year’s time, and a major watershed moment for hip-hop — a genre long dominated by men that has sadly ignored the game-changing women that help define its sound when it has come to rewarding its talents on the Grammy stage.
Cardi’s win — and a sizzling, triumphant performance of her smash “Money” — was a highlight of the show, but it was the complete absence of Glover, who performs as Childish Gambino, that was the talk of the night.
Glover became the first musician to win song and record of the year for a rap track with his poignant “This Is America,” but he chose to sit out music’s biggest night, along with Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift and, to much controversy, Ariana Grande.
“It’s a pretty significant moment,” Glover’s collaborator Ludwig Göransson said backstage on Sunday. “[‘This Is America’] speaks to so many people. It talks about injustice and celebrates life and unites people at the same time. There aren’t a lot of songs that do that.”
“I was surprised [a rap song] hadn’t won” record and song of the year, Göransson added. “I assumed rap songs have won these awards because every time I see this show there’s rap on this stage with big performances. So it is a surprise. If you listen to the radio or watch our culture, you see that rap is at the top. But it’s about time that the Grammys has caught up.”
The no-shows pointed to the challenges that face the Recording Academy every year, but it was Gambino, Lamar and Drake’s decision to turn down performance offers from Grammy producers that reignited the decades-old debate about how the Recording Academy rewards hip-hop across major categories.
Despite its continued prominence and growing influence, hip-hop and R&B continues to be a sore spot for fans of those genres when it comes to the Grammys — and Sunday was no different, albeit for far different reasons.
From the decision to allow pop star Jennifer Lopez to anchor a medley of hits celebrating the great history of Motown (that one went over terribly online) to the dearth of rap performances on-air, there was lots to pick at.
Heading into this year’s ceremony, the producers knew eyes were watching and waiting to criticize the show for its long-perceived exclusion of rap and hip-hop from major categories.
Producers angled to stack the show with performances from hip-hop titans Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Glover.
Glover was offered a spot on the show to perform “This Is America,” a record that was a potent meditation on the commodification of black suffering in this country, but he turned producers down.
Lamar, whose multiple snubs in album of the year have sparked fury in music community, was also a no-show. His work on the “Black Panther” soundtrack landed him his fourth nod for album of the year, but he lost to front-runner Kacey Musgraves. And Drake too failed to win in the song, record and album categories.
Drake, who has long been absent from the major awards show circuit, surprised the Grammy audience by showing up to collect his award for rap song.
In his speech he alluded to his beef with the Grammys, mentioning that his win was “the first time in Grammy history where I actually am who I thought I was for a second, so I like that” before telling his peers that they shouldn’t look to Grammy statues for validation.
“We play in an opinion-based sport, not a fact-based sport. It’s not the NBA where at the end of the year you’re holding a trophy because you made the right decisions or won the games. This is a business where sometimes it’s up to a bunch of people who might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say or a fly Spanish girl from New York or a brother from Houston.
“The point is, you’ve already won if you have people singing your songs words for words, or you’re a hero in your hometown and people coming out in the rain or snow to your shows. You don’t need this right here,” he said before he appeared to be cut off, which infuriated many in the audience.
Backstage producers said they believed Drake’s pause in his speech was an indicator that he was finished so they cut his microphone. They offered to allow him to return to stage, which he declined by saying he was happy with what he said onstage.
“Some of the pushback that I've found in recent years with regard to the show not only has to do with the nominations, but in some cases the results of those nominations. Whether they won or lost,” the show’s longtime producer Ken Ehrlich said in the days leading up to Sunday’s show. “Am I sorry that Drake is not on this year? Yeah, I am. I wish he was. Am I sorry that I don’t have Gambino? I am. They’ve both made incredibly relevant music this year and they should be on this stage.”
At last year’s Grammys, the narrative was tightly focused on rap’s prominence among nominees in the major categories after historically being overlooked. However, Lamar was eclipsed by the retro R&B of Bruno Mars.