The music industry harkened back to its activist roots at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, peppering the three-and-a-half-hour extravaganza with powerful political and social messages. While the refrain at the music fete was the upbeat celebration of award winners — Bruno Mars won six Grammys including “Record of the Year,” “Album of the Year,” and “Song of the Year” and Alessia Cara won “Best New Artist” — the chorus was a somber arrangement of protests through imagery, statements, and music.
Almost every artist wore a white rose or a #TimesUp pin, symbols of support for the movement to stomp out sexual harassment. The white rose was chosen by Voices in Entertainment because of its representation of “hope, peace, sympathy, and resistance.” The #TimesUp pin, which debuted at the Golden Globes, is the icon for the women in the arts-led legal defense fund to help less privileged women come forward with their #MeToo sexual harassment stories.
The Grammys were big for women making powerful statements and performances. Onstage, Havana-born Camila Cabello made a plea to support the ideals of immigration and the Dreamers. Kesha delivered the powerhouse performance of the night, singing “Praying,” an emotional ballad about leaving an abuser in the dust and embarking on a brighter future, written in the wake of her own abusive relationship. Kesha was joined onstage by her Greek chorus of female artists including Cyndi Lauper, Bebe Rexha, Andra Day, and Julia Michaels who hugged and wept, making for a moving moment of solidarity. Ironically, it wasn’t such a big night for women winning the top awards, with SZA, Lorde, and Kesha all losing out in the big categories.
The protest that pushed the envelope the most was loosely wrapped in comedy. James Cordon helmed a sketch featuring various artists (Cher, Cardi B, John Legend, Snoop Dogg) reading passages from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, ostensibly auditioning for the audiobook. The surprise auditioner: Hillary Clinton. This spoof drew a swift reaction from Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on Twitter:
”I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.”
Haley’s missive that the skit was off pitch fired up the social-verse, with a cacophony of voices chronicling the long and storied marriage of art and politics. One tweet provided a particularly pointed fun fact about the song entitled, “Ain’t Got No Home”:
“Grammy lifetime achievement award winner Woody Guthrie once wrote of his contempt for his bigoted landlord. That landlord happened to be about @RealDonaldTrump’s own father, Fred Trump.”
The Twitter crowd had it right. Music has had deep links to protest from pre-Civil War roots music to Beyonce’s “Formation.” Standing before the Lincoln Monument during the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King delivered his stirring “I Have A Dream” speech, calling for the end of racism. That protest is also notable for the iconic musical performances: Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over,” Marian Anderson’s “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” Joan Baez’s “We Shall Overcome,” Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In,” “Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and Odetta’s “I’m On My Way.”
Clearly, the music industry chose to use the Grammys — the broadcast of its premiere awards ceremony — as an activist platform. (That worked out pretty well for Twitter, too.) But in the future, will we see a new wave of protest music with artists infusing more messages in their songwriting about the wall, travel bans, Confederate statues, sh*thole countries, trans bathrooms, and #MeToo?