Institutions are scrambling to get on the right side of history right now. Our collective dialogue on social media around how these establishments, now more than ever, need to align with the conversations that we’re having are obviously being heard and considered. Last night’s 2018 Grammys were an attempt to make good on the public’s outcries for equal representation in the mainstream but, the show felt more like a temporary solution to criticism concerning race and gender without doing the real heavy lifting that would ensure viewers that the ceremony actually reflected what people thought and felt.
In the latest episode of their Still Processing podcast, New York Times writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris pointed out that Ed Sheeran’s Divide being left off of the Album of the Year nomination and his record-breaking “Shape of You” single not being considered for Song of the Year felt like timely, yet preventative omissions. In fear of backlash from black twitter for leaving artists of color off of nominations, the Recording Academy actually slighted a deserving song. That same short-sighted effort, in which optics overruled practice, could be felt throughout much of the show as well.
Kendrick Lamar built on his reputation for politically-charged openers when he kicked off the show with DAMN.’s “XXX.,” backed by a digital waving American flag, surrounded by masked soldiers, who were shot down one-by-one after U2 added their contributions to the song. Dave Chappelle also popped in to remind the crowd that "The only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America." Bruno Mars and Cardi B gave a vibrant, 90s-inspired performance of their “Finesse” collaboration. SZA played “Broken Clocks” towards the night’s end, decked out in a Matrix-like ensemble with a computerized set design to match. Childish Gambino gave a dreamy performance of selected tracks from Awaken, My Love! And Rihanna wowed the crowd as usual when she took the stage for “Wild Thoughts.” Hell, even Miley Cyrus kept it fairly chill when she joined Elton John’s tribute set later in the night.
All of these were moments to be proud of for viewers who’ve been unhappy with the depth of which black artists and artists of color have been showcased at awards ceremonies throughout history. But much of last night’s show felt like a cheap way to keep viewers quiet, while not getting to the true root of the issue, which is that more of these artists need to be championed for their work.
Janelle Monae gave a moving introduction to Kesha’s performance, echoing sentiments of both the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in which women across industries and on social media have courageously come forward to share traumatizing experiences they’ve suffered at the hands of powerful, abusive men. "Just as we have the power to shape culture we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us," she said before Kesha took the stage to deliver a moving, and presumably difficult, performance of “Praying,” the song about her trying to get on with her life after years of alleged abuse from producer Dr. Luke. It was the night’s most emotional moment as Kesha’s conviction transcended the performance’s sonic quality in order to deliver in a space full of people who may not have been initially supportive of her. But at the end of the night, Alessia Cara was the only solo woman artist awarded in the entire ceremony.
U2’s repeated insertion into the ceremony was painfully tone-deaf as well. Shortly after Camila Cabello’s speech about dreamers, the legendary Irish band randomly played in the middle of the Hudson River with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as a backdrop. Bono bellowed into a bullhorn decorated by the American flag, standing square in the middle of an ambiguous pair of eyes. What the set design and location were supposed to symbolize weren’t exactly clear at any point, but last night’s efforts by the Recording Academy shouldn’t have been tainted by a false sense of togetherness and patriotism.
Symbols will not save us. They have not saved us at any point in American history because what many people who are not oppressed cannot seem to get through their heads is that, in most cases, the markers for their optimism and pride in this country are often simultaneously images of terror for others. Not ever in the history of America has an oppressed group spent their precious time and energy expressing their struggles only to be flashed an image of Lady Liberty, and thought to themselves, “You know what, everything is gonna be okay.” The shit does not work that way. A more progressive stand would have been to let performances like Kesha and Kendrick’s exist on their own without an empty gesture of togetherness. The public should have been made to reconcile with those messages.
None of these missteps come as a surprise. The Grammys have been historically out of touch. Music that takes on the country’s political climate with any form of radicalism or skepticism is rarely rewarded and even more often, outstanding work by black artists and artists of color is overlooked. Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is one of the most celebrated rap albums of all time and was never nominated for a Grammy. Prince, who was nominated Album of the Year for both Purple Rain and Sign ‘O’ the Times never won the award. If the Recording Academy wants viewers to feel valued, we are going to need more than just see black people, people of color, and women be given the space to perform and nominated for awards.
Cynicism runs parallel with these cultural moments for many of us. Every year, as members of oppressed groups, we convene in our feeds, group chats, and living rooms to ask the age-old question: Why do we continue to concern ourselves with being validated by majority-white institutions? Because we contribute to this country’s entertainment industries just as much, if not more, as everyone else. Greatness from our communities needs to be championed because when generations after us look back to inform themselves of where they stood in history, it is crucial that we are included in that conversation because of how we continue to dictate much of popular culture. This is less about being validated by whiteness than it is about having our own excellence archived in our country's most esteemed records.
Representation matters on all levels. Young girls and people of color who tuned in with their families last night were likely not critiquing who took a trophy home as much as they were enjoying the opportunity to see live renditions of their favorite artists, like a relatable figure like SZA. But this is just one layer. The true victory would have been if the Recording Academy reflected their newfound concerns of representation in the voting. One solo woman artist winning a Grammy after the ceremony exhausted women’s struggles is not progressive. Having politically-charged rap performances that mirror so many of our thoughts and feelings like Kendrick Lamar’s is great but it’d be greater to see that translated into awards that are not specific to his genre. Last night, the Grammys may have taken a step in the right direction, but their missteps are still glaring.
Lawrence Burney is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.