If you believe that music is the greatest thing that human beings ever came up with, then a night when everyone across this country listens to the same music should feel something like fun. Yet somehow, Grammy night remains cruel, or at least unusual — even when it’s as passable and semi-coherent as the one we just experienced. But as the dust settles, here’s one way to know that the Grammys are still pure madness: The most clarifying, truth-to-power moment of Sunday night’s telecast belonged to Drake.
Yeah, Drake, that sayer of only the sweetest nothings, the most obsequious superstar that rap may ever know, the guy who actually made a music video where he just goes around giving people free hugs and money. That video was for “God’s Plan,” and when this year’s Grammy electorate decided that it was worthy of being named best rap song at the 61st Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Drake, who traditionally goes AWOL on Grammy night, surprised us all by showing up to grip his golden gramophone in person. Then, with his new trophy sparkling in his well-moisturized hands, he talked about its worthlessness.
“I wanna take this opportunity while I’m up here to just talk to all the kids that are watching this that are aspiring to do music, all my peers that make music from their heart, that do things pure and tell the truth,” he said. “I wanna let you know we’re playing an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport. So it’s not the NBA, where at the end of the year you’re holding a trophy because you made the right decisions or won the games. This is a business where sometimes, you know, it’s up to a bunch of people that might not understand, you know, what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say, or a fly Spanish girl from New York [pointing to Cardi B] . . . Or a brother from Houston right there, my brother Travis [pointing to Travis Scott].”
He continued, “Look, the point is, you’ve already won. If you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown — look, look — if there’s people who have regular jobs, who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows? You don’t need this right here. I promise you. You already won.”
He wasn’t finished speaking, but Grammy producers don’t like it when Grammy winners tell Grammy viewers that the Grammys themselves don’t matter — so someone in the CBS control room cut him off and rolled into a commercial break. (And let’s hope Drake was about to give a shout-out to 21 Savage, a Grammy nominee who was arrested and detained last week by ICE officials in Atlanta. Instead, the only person to mention 21’s name from the Grammy stage was Childish Gambino’s Swedish producer, Ludwig Goransson, because, you know, this is America.)
Even if Drake hadn’t fully completed his point, he’d already landed a few important punches. First and foremost, he was rightfully ripping the Grammys for its abiding race problems — the fact that rap music has been the dominant music of our time for quite some time, but only one rap act has ever won album of the year (OutKast in 2004). On top of that, it has now been 11 years since a black artist won album of the year (Herbie Hancock in 2008).
But while he was demystifying the industry-blessed hardware, Drake was ultimately suggesting that true prestige is conferred on the community level — in New York, Houston, Canada and everywhere else. If you were already a “hero in your hometown,” you needn’t worry about this annual farce of a television show making you feel like a loser. “You already won.”
That’s an incredibly potent message to send from the industry’s most hallowed halls on Music’s Biggest Night — the idea that music should unify neighbors and galvanize communities, the idea that music can help you find your people, and that it can help your people find you. It should, it can and it does. Music’s true value is decided on that level, not on this “higher” plane where the Red Hot Chili Peppers are forced to sing with Post Malone in the dark.
It’s also a completely insane message to hear from one of music’s biggest names. Has the 21st century experienced a more smothering pop omnipresence than Drake? His music has long had a flattening effect, dominating radio stations from sea to warming sea, making every city, town and exurb in between feel a little more the same.
And on Sunday night, this guy was our hero, speaking either his most self-aware or most oblivious truth — a righteous, upside-down moment that could only materialize in the thick, confused, perfumed fog of the Grammys.