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2019 Grammys: Alicia Keys, Michelle Obama and others issue call for unity

Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- The music community offered a state of the union address of its own on Sunday at the 61st Grammy Awards ceremony. After months on defense, artists positioned music as a unifying force and healing salve for a deeply polarized world.

The task of opening the evening fell to Camila Cabello, who delivered her hit single "Havana," which celebrates her Cuban American heritage, telegraphing an opening salvo of acceptance and inclusion regarding the immigrant experience in U.S. history. She was joined by Latin pop star Ricky Martin in a production number that emphasized Latin music and dance.

Immediately afterward, host Alicia Keys was joined by a quartet of high-profile women that included actresses Jennifer Lopez and Jada Pinkett Smith, music superstar Lady Gaga and former First Lady Michelle Obama.

"Whether we like country or rap or rock, music helps us share ourselves," Obama said. "Our dignity and its sorrows, our hopes and joys, it allows us to hear one another, to invite each other in. Music shows us that all of it matters. Every story within every voice, every note within every song -- is that right, ladies?"

By way of many of the live performances and songs honored with awards, the ceremony attempted to provide some degree of counterbalance to criticism leveled at the Recording Academy, which bestows the Grammys, during the past year.

The academy has been in regroup mode since criticism arose last year on a number of fronts, notably including findings of a 2017 USC study that highlighted extreme gender imbalances among award winners in top categories in recent years.

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Additionally, in response to a question about the male-centric results in top categories last year, academy President Neil Portnow said the time had come for women to "step up" to receive their due, igniting a firestorm of negative reaction. Portnow will step down when his current contract expires at the end of July.

In the past year the academy assembled a task force, under the guidance of Tina Tchen, formerly Michelle Obama's chief of staff, to identify and address conscious or unconscious biases in the areas of gender and race that might be creating imbalances in the nomination and awards processes.

Consequently, Sunday's Grammy show appeared in many ways to be a response to blowback it had weathered from musicians, record executives and the public.

A segment paying tribute to country star Dolly Parton, who also had been feted on Friday as the year's MusiCares Person of the Year, opened and closed with her 1980 hit "9 to 5" from the hit film Parton starred in with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin about sexism in the workplace, and which is slated to be the subject of a four-decade later sequel.

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