Much of the Grammys skirted around the current politically fraught climate, despite the entertainment world having no shortage of liberal performers.
Host James Corden made a tepid joke at the top of the show about President Trump. Jennifer Lopez quoted Toni Morrison on the importance of art “at this particular point in history.” An Internet investigation was launched to figure out what word adorned Katy Perry’s armband (“persist,” not “resist”).
Such niceties and innuendo were blown out of the Staples Center during the second half of the show by A Tribe Called Quest and fellow performers Consequence, Anderson .Paak and Busta Rhymes.
“We’d like to say to all of those people around the world, all those people who are pushing people who are in power to represent them, tonight, we represent you,” Q-Tip said before launching into the song “Award Tour,” which he dedicated to the late Phife Dawg.
Then Busta Rhymes appeared to join them for “We the People,” from the group’s latest album. And he laid it all out: “I’m not feeling the political climate right now. I just want to thank President Agent Orange for perpetuating all of the evil that you’ve been perpetuating throughout the United States. I want to thank President Agent Orange for your unsuccessful attempt at the Muslim ban. When we come together — we the people!”
The rest of the performers burst through a wall, including Q-Tip, who held the hand of a young woman wearing a hijab. A group of people diverse in gender, race and religious garb marched to the stage to join them. Protest signs reading “No Wall No Ban” and passport photos flashed in the background.
That the most politically confrontational moment at the Grammys came from A Tribe Called Quest performance isn’t surprising. While their three-decade history includes a variety of songs, from party anthems to “conscious” raps, they also come from a hip-hop tradition that doesn’t shy away from directly addressing politics. “We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” serves as both their farewell and protest album. “We the People” is among the most charged tracks, with a chorus that includes lyrics such as “all you Mexicans, you must go” and “Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways.”
At the end of the performance, Q-Tip repeatedly chanted “Resist!,” echoing a common rallying cry of the anti-Trump movement.
Prior to the Tribe moment, Katy Perry appeared to be the most openly political performer of the night. A vocal Hillary Clinton supporter, she strolled out on stage in a white pantsuit, wearing a sparkly armband that said “persist,” in a nod to Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. At the end of her performance, she yelled “no hate!” and stood in front of an image of the U.S. Constitution.
Earlier in the evening, Perry said on the red carpet that she hoped her new single “Chained to the Rhythm” helps bring people together.
“There’s so much divisiveness… and people on one side or the other,” Perry said. “I think we just need to listen to each other.”
Other specific causes were also mentioned. Paris Jackson, the daughter of Michael Jackson, introduced the Weeknd and Daft Punk’s performance. When she arrived on stage to cheers, she mentioned the Dakota Access Pipeline: “We can really use this kind of excitement at a pipeline protest, guys,” she said, adding the hashtag, “#nodapl.”
Later, “Orange is the New Black” star and presenter Laverne Cox (the first transgender actress to earn an Emmy nomination for acting) told the audience to “please Google Gavin Grimm. He’s going to the Supreme Court in March. #standwithgavin.”
She also gave a shout-out to “all my gender non-binary peeps watching tonight” when introducing Lady Gaga and Metallica.
And then there was Beyoncé, known for carefully crafting any message that could be taken as controversial. She received some backlash for her “Formation” music video, received as anti-police in certain conservative circles, as well as her 2016 Super Bowl performance that featured dancers in Black Panther-inspired garb.
She read from a card when delivering her best urban contemporary album acceptance speech:
“We all experience pain and loss and often we become inaudible. My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that will give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history, to confront issues that make us uncomfortable. It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror, first through their own families, as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House, and the Grammys, and see themselves and have no doubt that they’re beautiful, intelligent and capable. This is something I want for every child of every race, and I feel it’s vital that we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our own mistakes. Thank you again for honoring ‘Lemonade.’ Have a beautiful evening. Thank you for tonight. This is incredible.”
But most of the night, the Grammys focused on the musicians in the room, and those who had passed away. This was no Golden Globes. There was no three-minute takedown of the president that wound up eliciting a response from Trump himself. Well, at least not yet.