Domestic abuse survivor and advocate Brooke Axtell captivated audiences watching the Grammy Awards on Sunday with a stirring spoken-word piece before Katy Perry's performance of her ballad "By the Grace of God" at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Axtell's monologue chronicled Axtell's year-long romance that turned violent. Her lover, she said, threatened to kill her. She then urged victims to reach out for help if they experienced similar circumstances.
"Authentic love does not devalue another human being," the 34-year-old said. "Authentic love does not silence, shame or abuse."
The concept for the performances came to fruition after Grammys telecast producer Ken Ehrlich visited the White House and had an idea to do a segment about violence against women.
"He reached out to Katy Perry to see if she would be interested in collaborating on a piece and they wanted to have a survivor voice and an activist perspective," Axtell told reporters backstage. "So they asked me to write a speech and share it with them and they were excited about the message I was sharing and it evolved from there."
The Austin, Texas-based activist, who is a director of communications for anti-human trafficking nonprofit Allies Against Slavery, believed that the minimalism of Perry's performance -- minimal for a woman who'd blown out the Super Bowl halftime show on the back of a giantic robotic lion just a week earlier -- did the social message justice.
"I was deeply moved by her performance. I know just from watching some of the other artists backstage, they were tearing up," Axtell said. "LL Cool J was tearing up, so I think that's probably a good test of whether it reached people."
Axtell and Perry, who met and discussed the performance only days before the awards, shared a passion about the issue and the prospect of reaching millions of people on that platform.
"She was just very kind and encouraging," Axtell said. "She was really happy that we had the opportunity to raise awareness."
Axtell hoped that her speech would "translate" to those in abusive relationships and encourage them to seek help and feel "the freedom to voice their own experience."
"I think there's a tremendous power in the performing arts and spoken word to reach people in a way that moves past the mind and to the heart and soul. I'm hopeful that it will inspire people to take action and reach out for help. And also for the global community to really look at how they can make a contribution to end gender violence."
Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, was proud of the women's performances as well as proud of doing a show "that means something and says something."
"So much of the repertoire for this year was really about various issues. In this case, there's a song that Katy did and it allowed us to broaden the platform to talk about an issue that we think people are concerned about," he said. "Maybe next year there will be none of that, but this year it was important."
The awards show now has an unfortunate connection with domestic violence, taking into account Chris Brown and Rihanna's infamous 2009 row on their way to Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy bash. The R&B star's felony assault conviction is still reverberating with him six years later. Brown, who was nominated this year for three Grammys, was in the audience Sunday night.
Portnow said they did not consult Rihanna before green-lighting Axtell and Perry's segment.
"We didn't, we wouldn't. It wouldn't be appropriate for the academy to build a show based on conversations with artists about what we might be doing."