This year's Grammy Awards featured plenty of history-making achievements and thought-provoking performances.
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion gave a provocative performance of their hit single “WAP” that featured the two rappers grinding together on a massive bed, flying money and Cardi B pole dancing on the heel of a giant stiletto. The performance sparked discussion about whether it was inappropriate for prime-time network TV or an empowering performance by two strong women.
Ivie Ani, cultural critic and editor in chief of AMAKA Studio, says she’s surprised people are still hung up on this age-old, “cyclical” debate. Both conservatives and non-conservatives are questioning whether the performance belongs on prime-time TV and if the Grammys are appropriate for children, she says, while some people are desensitized to sexual imagery.
“I think it's just a testament to the fact that any time Black women express themselves in any capacity — especially in a sexual manner, especially within hip-hop or music in general — there always will be that level of criticism, questioning, concerns and everything in between,” she says.
Before the performance aired, Jenna Wortham wrote in The New York Times Magazine that “WAP” immediately sparked outrage: “Men whined in interviews about its moral bankruptcy — nothing more than thinly veiled respectability politics meant to police Black women’s sexual appetites…”
The music industry has come a long way since the Grammys banned Janet Jackson from attending after Justin Timberlake tore off part of her top during their 2004 Super Bowl performance, Wortham says. The co-host of the “Still Processing” podcast says the Grammys need Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion more than the artists need the awards show, noting that Cardi B didn’t submit “WAP” for consideration this year.
“Cardi B and Meg don't tone it down for anybody,” Wortham says. “And [The Grammys] were lucky to have that performance because otherwise it probably would have been a really dry evening, pun intended.”
Singer and songwriter H.E.R. won Song of the Year for her track “I Can't Breathe.” She told People magazine that this song is dedicated to George Floyd and protesters fighting for social justice.
The Grammys are making an effort to listen to public concerns around how the institution treats Black artists, Ani says. Regardless of intent, giving a song like “I Can’t Breathe” one of the biggest awards of the night shapes music history.
“At the end of the day, the Grammys still has very material and tangible influence on Black artists’ lives and careers and on the way that history is documented, on the way that music history is documented,” Ani says.
A long-running trend continued on Sunday when Billie Eilish won Record of the Year for the second straight time for her song “Everything I Wanted.” During her acceptance speech, Eilish said that she felt embarrassed that she won instead of Megan Thee Stallion, laughing that she believed the rapper would win. The moment is reminiscent of Adele’s tearful acceptance speech in 2017 when she won Album of the Year for “25” over Beyonce’s “Lemonade.”
For Wortham, Eilish’s speech about Megan Thee Stallion felt performative compared to Adele’s more sincere sentiment. She also recalls Macklemore posting a screenshot of the text he sent to Kendrick Lamar after “The Heist” beat “Good Kid, m.A.A.d City” for Best Rap Album in 2014.
This performative pattern speaks to how white artists feel embarrassed by the way awards institutions elevate their work over Black artists, Wortham says. White artists need to consider “reframing that apology as a criticism of the institution,” she says.
“I do think these artists need to consider the institution that they're part of and why they feel that way,” she says. “And what does it mean that they keep winning these awards over these Black women, you know, and these Black artists in general?”
Lil Baby's performance of his song “The Bigger Picture” theatrically depicted police brutality and featured the activist Tamika Mallory.
Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, who was killed by Cleveland police in 2014, criticized Mallory and the performance. Rice said, “We never hired them to be the representatives in the fight for justice for our dead loved ones murdered by police” and that the performance felt exploitive to her.
A thin line separates performance and protest, Wortham says, and audiences can tell when a performance feels honest — which Lil Baby’s didn’t. Artists need to respect the pain the families and mothers of victims of police brutality experience, she says.
“It really just speaks to a desire that artists and organizers, they have to work with the community because that's what matters,” she says. “[The community has] to feel like people are working with them and for them. If they don't, then all is lost.”
The Grammys can’t remove itself from the real criticism that artists and institutions are profiting off of the deaths of Black people, Ani says. It’s difficult to distinguish whether the Grammys’ effort to engage with activism is sincere or an attempt to keep alive the cycle of using social issues to draw in viewers, she says.
“The bottom of celebrity activism is falling out,” she says, “and people are able to spot it.”
This segment aired on March 17, 2021.