Jail cells. Black men. The sound of shackles and chains rattling. Jazz.
The image of Kendrick Lamar and other black men linked together with chains during his performance of “The Blacker The Berry” and “Alright” at the 58th GRAMMY Awards made me tremble. I couldn’t stop shaking. I started to tear up. I couldn’t keep still and I couldn’t take my eyes off of my TV screen for too long.
This moment reminded me of the first time I interned at a Public Defender’s Office. One day while walking down an unusually quiet courthouse corridor, I heard the sound of shackles and chains rattling. I was then commanded to move to the other side of the hallway to let the inmates walk by. I remember a sea of orange and black men of various shades, men who could have easily have been my brothers, cousins, father and uncles. Some of their eyes stared at my sixteen year old self intently as I tried not to look too hard. Even though it was a brief moment in time, the encounter felt like forever, as the sound of the chains rang in my ear long after the inmates walked past me.
“Trap our bodies, but can’t lock up our minds!”
The sounds and the imagery on my TV grew more vibrant, more exciting, and even more important by the minute, as Kendrick captivated everyone on my Twitter timeline with his unapologetic and needed statement on the beauty and strength of Black folks. The reports that said that Kendrick’s performance was going to be controversial were, in my opinion, understated. His performance was inspiring, musically and visually on point, and truly powerful on that big stage. He added a bigger spark to a revolutionary movement: my generation’s Black Renaissance.
That is the type of performance I hope to see at the GRAMMYs. Unfortunately, I didn’t see that much creativity this year, and that reflected in a few of this year’s GRAMMY winners.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that every artist that was nominated this year is creative. But, when we have artists winning off of astronomical album sales, their influence/buzz, and even their skin tone, I have a problem with it. This isn’t something that solely happens at the GRAMMYs, but it’s something that artists, especially members of The Recording Academy, should think about when they vote for the winners. Winning a GRAMMY shouldn’t be about those things; it should be about the talent and creative energy of a work.
That IS what the GRAMMYs is about, right? Rewarding creative and talented artists for their work…right?
Talent and creativity should also reflect in each artist’s GRAMMY performance. Outside of Kendrick, the only performance that was captivating in every aspect was Lady Gaga’s David Bowie tribute…and I expected that from her. There were SO MANY slow song selections and not much done visually or in sound. Many of the performances were unmemorable, and a few of the ones that were memorable were memorable because of glitches and bad vocals. However, powerhouse vocals from Alabama Shakes, Tori Kelly, Demi Lovato and Andra Day kept me interested. Plus, the tributes from Stevie Wonder & Pentatonix for Earth Wind & Fire’s Maurice White, and B.B. King’s tribute done by Gary Clark, Jr., Bonnie Raitt and Chris Stapleton were pretty awesome.
But, to get back to Kendrick: this was truly his awards show this year. Leading the nominations with 11 and a growing speculation about his performance made him the main attraction. Even though Kendrick only walked away with 5 of the 11 (3 from To Pimp A Butterfly and 2 from his collaboration with Taylor Swift on the “Bad Blood” remix), it was still his night. No matter how people feel about the message, you can’t deny how memorable his performance was and how important his nominations and wins were, especially for hip-hop.
With all that said, I’m not asking for artists to make a statement that’s racially charged or even as bold and aggressive as what Kendrick did. I’m asking artists to continue honing in on their talent, go beyond their comfort zone by tapping more into their creativity for their performances, and do better in rewarding talent and creativity at the GRAMMYs. This point is even more important in rap — and even R&B –categories, where some artists are, like I mentioned earlier, winning off of popularity, not off of talent and creativity. One particular artist (*cough* The Weeknd *cough*) was nominated for and won in a category where, truthfully, all of the other nominees were better than him, but maybe that’s just me. (But seriously, we all know deep down in our hearts that The Weeknd is overrated.) I hope the GRAMMY voting members do better in nominating with their ears and heart instead of their eyes and Billboard charts, because if we’re being honest, this year’s Album of the Year GRAMMY belonged to someone else: a person who performed in chains.