The Grammy’s almost succeeded at paying homage to Black musicians

Yes, we're talking about the show's Motown Records tribute.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for the Recording Academy
February 16, 2019

As we all know, the month of February is home to the Super Bowl and the annual Grammy Awards. It’s also recognized as Black History month. In recent years, the public’s response to both of these events has ranged from disappointment to disinterest. It’s fair to say that the month hasn’t been off to the best start — we’ve barely hit the middle of the month and social media has been abuzz with high profile instances of anti-blackness. Empire actor Jussie Smollett was the victim of an attack, motivated by racism and homophobia in Chicago, and more recently, luxury fashion label Gucci came under fire after releasing a turtleneck sweater that generated comparisons to blackface.

For the past few years, the Grammy’s hasn’t had the best track record of doling out awards to artists of colour. Many Black artists have been snubbed of well-deserved accolades, most notably Kendrick Lamar in 2014 when he lost “Best New Artist” to Macklemore, and again in 2015 when “Album of the Year” went to Beck’s Morning Phase instead of Beyoncé’s self-titled, critically acclaimed fifth album, Beyoncé.

This year, things took a turn for the better with performances by many Black entertainers: Travis Scott created an on-stage moshpit during “Stop Trying to be God” and “No Bystanders” which lit up the Grammy’s stage; tributes to Diana Ross and the late Aretha Franklin, performed by Fantasia, Andra Day and Yolanda Adams, took us all to church; Janelle Monae and H.E.R. captivated the audience with their impressive guitar shredding; and Alicia Keys was perhaps the most charming host in recent memory. Not to mention, our forever First Lady Michelle Obama made an appearance along with Jada Pinkett-Smith, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Lopez to celebrate the unity and power of music.

As I watched the ceremony I felt a sense of pride.

Throughout the awards, Black artists picked up metal: Grammys were awarded to Drake, H.E.R., Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, and Future for King’s Dead” from the Black Panther soundtrack, while Childish Gambino took home four Grammys including “Song of the Year” and “Record of the Year” for his hit “This is America.” YAAAS for representation and all, but this is long overdue. As I watched the ceremony I felt a sense of pride, especially when Bronx-native and former stripper turned three-time Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper Cardi B, took home a Grammy for “Best Rap Album.”

Despite what felt like a forward-thinking year for the Grammy’s, it’s difficult to overlook the disappointment of the show’s Motown tribute, which centred around singer Jennifer Lopez, accompanied by legendary soul singer—and former Motown vice-president—Smokey Robinson and R&B singer and songwriter Ne-Yo. Granted, others turned down performances, but it stands that Motown Records— its name a play on motor and town (Detroit’s beloved nickname)—was founded in 1959 by former songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. at the epitome of racial segregation in the U.S. and played a significant role of integrating Black singers into popular music. Known for its funky beats and melodic call and response singing styles, Motown Records was the home to several Black artists from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and The Supremes in the 60s, to Lionel Richie and the Jackson 5 in the 70s, and Boyz II Men in the 90s.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Don’t get me wrong, J-Lo is an amazing dancer and high-energy performer, but she’s not necessarily known for her musical prowess or powerful vocals. As soon as the performance aired, social media was in an uproar leaving many people wondering why the Grammy’s chose Lopez over…well, anyone else. We all know that powerhouse Black vocalists like Janelle Monáe and Beyoncé could have sung the hell out of hits such as “Please Mr. Postman” and “Money (That’s What I Want)”.

Amidst the backlash, Robinson was firm in the Grammy’s choice of selecting J. Lo to perform the tribute. “Attention, all those of you who protested a wonderful, super talented, world renowned, super star like Jennifer Lopez, showing her love and support for Motown music,” said Robinson in a statement published to Instagram. “Kids of all races, worldwide, grew up loving the music of Motown, imitating our acts. Pretending to be Diana Ross, the Temptations, Michael Jackson and so on…If you call yourself loving Motown, be happy that we reached so many people and broke down so many racial barriers and that an artist like Jennifer, even after hearing all your negative comments, still loved Motown enough to do a tribute anyway. Now, that’s love and respect.”

For many, it was upsetting that the Grammy’s neglected to acknowledge the label’s groundbreaking legacy. The Motown sound was innovative and unique, it became increasingly popular in a time where music was created and performed by Black artists. Instead, “Jenny from the Block” turned the tribute into her Vegas residency filled with salsa moves, twerking and grinding – to many, a departure from the performance aspects associated with the original Motown aesthetic. During a month created to celebrate the accomplishments of Black folks, it’s unfortunate that the Grammys didn’t prioritize selecting a Black artist to honour Motown’s many Black singers, songwriters and producers.

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