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.

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.

The performance also included collaborations with a number of other female artists including Katy Perry, Kacey Musgraves, Miley Cyrus, Maren Morris and singers Kimberly Roads and Karen Fairchild of country-pop quartet Little Big Town.

Hip-hop recent arrival Cardi B performed her hit "Money" in a production that carried echoes of pioneering Jazz Age film and nightclub star Josephine Baker.

Later, after her win for rap album with "Invasion of Privacy," she told of her struggle to finish the album after becoming pregnant, a tale of the balancing act facing working women that further echoed a theme of female empowerment running through the show.

Among the awards distributed early in the show, the high-profile song of the year award went to actor-musician Childish Gambino's "This Is America," his bracing critique of racism, sexism, commercialism and other isms prevalent in contemporary American life.

Another sign of academy voters' intent this year was a trio of Grammys awarded to jazz musician John Daversa for his album incorporating performances by several young people in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA).


The album, "American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom," won for large jazz ensemble album, while Daversa's wildly imaginative arrangement of John Philip Sousa's 121-year old iconic march "The Stars And Stripes Forever" earned him the instrumental or a cappella arrangement award. The track "Don't Fence Me In" collected a third for improvised jazz solo.

Diana Ross sang her 1970 hit "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," yet another plea for unity, triggering a sea of waving hands from the Staples Center audience.

Lady Gaga teared up when her song "Shallow" from "A Star Is Born" won for pop duo or group performance, lauding the film for the spotlight it shines on issues of alcoholism and suicide.

"If I don't get another chance to say this," she said, before learning whether the song might also collect the record of the year award, "I am so proud to be part of a movie that addresses mental health issues.

"They're so important. A lot of artists deal with that and we've got to take care of each other. If you see somebody that's hurting, don't look away. And if you're hurting, even though it might be hard, try to find that bravery within yourself to dive deep and go tell somebody and take them up in your head with you."

It was Gaga's third Grammy win at that point in the evening, after she'd previously won with her song "Joanne (Where Do You Think You're Goin')" for pop solo performance, and a songwriting award for "Shallow," the breakout hit from "A Star Is Born" that took the Grammy for song written for visual media.

More recognition to art of inclusion and diversity was evident in three awards to Texas singer and songwriter Musgraves, a winner for country solo performance with her hit "Butterflies," country song for "Space Cowboy" and country album for her genre-testing collection "Golden Hour."

And yet Grammy officials still couldn't avoid controversy: During rehearsals early in the week, pop star Ariana Grande -- coming off a difficult year that included the 2017 terrorist attack at her concert in Manchester, England, and the accidental drug overdose death in September of her ex-boyfriend, musician Mac Miller -- declined overtures to appear after reaching an impasse over song choice.

"I know i'm not there tonight," she tweeted Sunday to her 60.7 million Twitter followers, adding, "trust, i tried and still truly wished it had worked." Still, the artist was awarded the Grammy for pop vocal album for "Sweetener."

Awards are determined by about 13,000 voting members of the Recording Academy. They cover recordings released during the eligibility period of Oct. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2018.

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