OPINION: On the Grammys, Co-opting, and Pharrell Williams

By Joseph Molina Flynn, Executive Articles Editor, Vol. 20

On Sunday, February 8, 2015, the world watched as the 57th Grammy Awards were bestowed upon their recipients at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. Where the Grammys differ from other award shows is that unlike acting awards which are known to exclude minority actors, the music world has embraced black performers since Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie won their Grammys at the first Grammy Awards in 1959. That legacy continues today. As we learned during the telecast, Kanye West has amassed a total of fifty three Grammy nominations and twenty one victories.

For all their recognition of black artistry, the Recording Academy’s voting members have been criticized in the past for missing the mark. Notably, in recent years, they were criticized in 2014 when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a white hip-hop duo, took home the Grammy for Best Rap Album infuriating Grammy viewers. Even Macklemore recognized that Kendrick Lamar, a black rapper whose good kid, m.A.A.d. city was also nominated, should have taken home the award. Criticism over Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s win notwithstanding, the Recording Academy’s voters went on to nominate Iggy Azalea, an Australian pop performer, for the same award in 2015, risking a similar reaction had she won the award. That award ultimately went to another white rapper, Eminem, who has far more credibility within the rap community than Iggy does.

However, this year’s awards were not entirely devoid of criticism. Toward the end of the telecast fans were treated to Beyonce’s rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” a song originally performed by Mahalia Jackson and revived in popularity by the success and critical acclaim of the movie Selma. The controversy lies in the Recording Academy’s decision to have Beyonce—who is undoubtedly one of the most popular performers today—perform the song, rather than the somewhat unknown Ledisi, who portrayed Mahalia Jackson and performed the song in Selma. Ledisi was in attendance at the ceremony which made the moment slightly more awkward and tense, but she graciously addressed the controversy simply saying that since it was written the song has been performed by Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and “I was able to portray and sing my version of the song, and now we have Beyonce. [Beyonce’s] generation will now know the song.” A lot remains to be said about Ledisi’s snub; particularly, there remains an unanswered question about whether the snub could be attributed to the interplay between Ledisi’s blatant Afrocentrism, Beyonce’s popularity (which can in part be ascribed to her conformism to Anglo ideals of beauty), and society’s continued acceptance of Anglo ideals of beauty as paradigmatic.

But all of the controversy over Beyonce’s performance and Ledisi’s snub is sure to be clouded by the biggest blunder of the evening. In a year marked by controversy over race relations in the United States, and particularly the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers, it was certain that the Grammys would provide an avenue for performers to bring awareness to the issue in one way or another. Three artists chose to bring awareness to the issue by employing the now iconic symbolism of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. When Prince took the stage to award the Album of the Year Award, in one of the evening’s most poignant moments, he said, “Albums still matter, like books and black lives, they still matter.” Beyonce, during her performance of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” utilized the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture symbolic of the movement’s call to action. And somewhere in the middle of the telecast, Pharrell utilized the same “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during his performance of “Happy,” a song from the animated motion picture “Despicable Me 2.”

Pharrell’s use of the movement’s symbolism, however, has not been well received. In a controversial interview with Ebony magazine which took place prior to the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, Pharrell said, referring to Michael Brown’s behavior in the convenience store moments prior to his death, “It looked very bully-ish; that in itself I had a problem with . . . . Why aren’t we talking about that?” In a similarly unpopular soundbite, Pharrell had also expounded on his “New Black” theory which he purports “doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The New Black dreams and realizes that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on.” The inference is clear; Pharrell seemed to be suggesting that others within the black community do blame other races for their issues. To say that the suggestion that black Americans need to ignore their history of oppression and the blatant institutionalized racism they’ve been subjected to is offensive would be an understatement. For Pharrell to then go a step further and co-opt the symbolism from the same movement he turned his back on, during black history month, on the music world’s biggest stage, is patently egomaniacal and a slap in the face of the black community he was hoping to win over by using the symbolism. As if that weren’t enough, he did all this while dressed in minstrel drag.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been co-opted since its inception by those who believe its message is too narrow (see, for example, this article referring to the co-opting by white protesters of the message of Black Lives Matter by their use of All Lives Matter, a message which ignores the reality of the movement’s genesis). During a time when people may be slightly more receptive to honest conversations about race relations, institutionalized racism, and the oppression of black Americans, there is a responsibility to hold public figures to task. Pharrell, please take a seat.