Last Sunday, February 12, 2017, 26.05 million people around the world gathered around their TVs expecting to be, once again, disappointed by the obviously manufactured and highly aristocratic sense of musicality that is the Grammy Awards. What they got, however, was an often funnier, more eventful, and certainly more political iteration of the Recording Academy’s award ceremony than had been seen in recent memory.
The 59th Grammy Award Ceremony was full of political tension from the start, following the passionate speeches from Meryl Streep and Stranger Things’ David Harbour at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, respectively. Host James Corden, cracked a joke about President Donald Trump and Jennifer Lopez threw in a quick Toni Morrison quote. For a while, it seemed as though the Grammys would beat around the political bush, a la Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show. That notion was dispelled the second Katy Perry walked onstage with a pantsuit that evoked the seemingly long-forgotten image of Hillary Clinton with a Planned Parenthood pin and an armband that read “persist”, a slogan recently ascribed to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was silenced on the Senate floor while reading Coretta Scott King’s letter regarding Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The rest of Perry’s performance was just as political, as a massive image of the U.S. Constitution was displayed behind her while she performed with Skip Marley. The song itself was nonpolitical, a new single titled “Chained to the Rhythm,” which was a relatively straightforward dance pop tune.
This performance by itself might’ve been enough controversy to wrap things up, but, to the surprise of many, the fun was just getting started. Towards the end of the ceremony, historic jazz rap outfit A Tribe Called Quest, featuring Anderson .Paak, brought out the big guns. Q-Tip started the performance by saluting all those working to push “people who are in power to represent them”, stating that Tribe would represent them for that moment. He then kicked off the first song, “Award Tour”, performed in memory Phife Dawg, who passed away last march. Then, seemingly out of thin air, Busta Rhymes and Consequence, longtime collaborators with A Tribe Called Quest, appeared onstage to pivot into a rendition of “We the People”, an inclusion anthem from the group’s most recent album. Busta Rhymes set the tone for this track with a vitriolic indictment against Donald Trump, or “President Agent Orange”, as Rhymes addressed him. What followed was an incredibly passionate rendition of the song that wrapped up with a group diverse in both gender and ethnicity walking onstage holding signs with the mantra “No Wall No Ban”. As the song ended and applause rang out, the solitary voice of Q-Tip echoed across the crowd, shouting, “Resist! Resist!’, a slogan for the growing anti-Trump sentiment in the U.S.
Moments like these raise a question that always surfaces in times of division: Should artists express their political views in settings like these? There is no question that they will, as history will show, but many have made the point that artists should allow politics to take a backseat at these venues, so that honor might be peacefully bestowed upon those who have earned it. This argument, however, fails to recognize that music, like all other art forms, is inseparably intertwined with culture, which inevitably brings it into conflict with opposing ideologies in that culture. Art acts as a balance to the current political climate, an outlet through which meaningful criticism of all sides of an argument can be made, and there are few more important places to do this than in front of a 26 million member audience. Echo chambers benefit no one, and A Tribe Called Quest, and others like them, provide the valuable service of informing what is currently a global debate, a clash between radically different ideologies. More, importantly, they do this in a peaceful and effective way, which are often mutually exclusive terms in political discussion. So, do I believe it is ok for artists to express political views on the stage of an awards show? No, I believe it is necessary for them to do so.
– Noah McCarty