The 2018 Grammys started off with a bang Sunday night—the opening performance for the award show’s 60th run featured Kendrick Lamar, flanked on all sides by backup dancers dressed in modern military uniforms, the image of the American flag flowing behind them.
Lamar, center-stage, launched into a verse from his track “XXX.”, in which the rapper offers advice to a friend whose called him after his son was shot. “He was lookin’ for some closure / Hoping I could bring him closer,” Kendrick explains, but his advice is far from holy. “I can’t sugar-coat the answer for you / This is how I feel: If somebody kill my son / That mean somebody’s gettin’ killed.” Throughout the verse, Kendrick cleaned up the lyrics, adding Grammy-friendly, PG-13 substitutes for his R-rated language (“messed up” instead of “fucked up”). He stopped, notably, just before a lyric that asks the listener to consider this nation’s stance on gun control (“Alright kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control”). Instead, the music cut out, the stage went black, and the flag behind them was replaced with the words “THIS IS A SATIRE BY KENDRICK LAMAR.” Comedian Dave Chappelle showed up before Kendrick reappeared to perform “DNA.” No one really understands why.
Kendrick, surrounded by black and brown soldiers before the American flag, is certainly a striking visual, one that could, under different circumstances, make a crucial point about racial inequality in America. But Kendrick was robbed of the opportunity to start a real conversation, as the Grammys strived to maintain an even-handed, sanitized image in the face of rising political and cultural tension, and avoided saying anything outright that would make the institution look bad. Throughout the night, the Recording Academy sent artists who were women, people of color, or both, to the stage—like Kesha, Camila Cabello, Janelle Monáe—and had them speak about change and progress, while those who presented the night’s awards got away with rewarding the same people the Academy always does: artists who make music that white people can really get into.
Too often, in moments of social unrest, those who are not in positions of power are the ones tasked with speaking up about injustices and advocating for change. It comes at a great cost to those who suffer at the hands of racist and sexist systems, as they are potentially asked to relive their pain every time they have to explain it. And yet, this is exactly what the Grammys did last night by having Camila Cabello, a Mexican-Cuban immigrant, introduce the night’s immigration segment; by having Janelle Monae, a black woman, give the sole speech on the #MeToo movement; by having Kesha, the subject of the music industry’s perhaps most high-profile case of sexual abuse, perform a song that is almost definitely written about her alleged rapist.
I cannot stress how shitty this is. It sucks to be reduced to just one aspect of your identity—your birthplace, your skin color, your gender, your sexual assault—and then only invited onto your industry’s biggest stage when the conversation turns to whatever social issue you’re most closely aligned with, even if it’s the one you didn’t ask to be implicated in. It does everyone wrong; it deprives others in the community of a chance to participate in a meaningful conversation about the issues that affect all of us; and it, most importantly, makes it easier for the Recording Academy to continue giving awards to its favorite just-progressive-enough men, instead of using its influence to create an industry that treats all genders and minority groups with equality.
It’s unfair that Kendrick Lamar is put into a situation where he is forced to be the one rapper to speak out about police brutality or Trump’s America. His music is radical in its message, but he has also been awarded enough critical acclaim to be deemed acceptable to take the stage at the Grammys. Which means that, when he performs, the Academy can feel good about itself for giving black people a platform, and then turn around and present a completely apolitical figure like Bruno Mars the Grammy for Album of the Year (and Song of the Year, and Record of the Year). Similarly, Kesha gave the most emotionally charged performance of the night, and lost in both of the categories she was nominated in to Ed Sheeran.
Things will never change as long as the Recording Academy continues to avoid questions of sexual abuse in the music industry, gender and racial inequality, and even gun control. There was one portion of the night dedicated to the victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting, which took place at a country music festival. It was a chance to send a powerful message about gun control, which the National Rifle Association, an organization that occasionally does promo for country artists who agree to work with them, has failed to do. But the song chosen for the tribute was very specifically about the death of Eric Clapton’s 4-year-old son. There was no call for gun control—no mention of gun violence whatsoever.
Of course the Academy would want to start the night off with Kendrick. When Lamar raps in “XXX.” about someone looking to him for guidance, for some semblance of closure, it’s a line that could just as well apply to the industry heads who looked to Kendrick to help boost the image of Music’s Biggest Night in the eyes of young people. It’s unfortunate that the only thing that could really alter the show’s image is what the Grammys refused to do: put more people like Kendrick and Kesha onstage to accept awards for their work, instead of asking them to merely perform.