Grammy Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich on How the Alicia Keys & Boyz II Men Tribute to Kobe Bryant Came About

Alicia Keys and Boyz II Men
Francis Specker/CBS via Getty Images

Alicia Keys and Boyz II Men give tribute to Kobe Bryant at the Grammys at the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles on Jan. 26, 2020.

Ehrlich responds to allegations that he has the power to get an artist nominated for a Grammy

In 2012, longtime Grammy Awards executive producer Ken Ehrlich had to alter the show with less than 24 hours notice following Whitney Houston’s death. This year, he and his staff had even less time to make significant changes following the passing of Kobe Bryant on Sunday (Jan. 26), the morning of the Grammy Awards, which broadcast live from Los Angeles’ Staples Center. 

Ehrlich, who is stepping down from his role after 40 years, spoke to Billboard about adapting the show, how host Alicia Keys’ tribute performance with Boyz II Men came about, and responds to allegations that he can determine who gets nominated.    

Billboard: How did you find out about Kobe Bryant’s death? 

Ehrlich: It was some time between 10 a.m. and 11  a.m. because we were already into the rehearsal and the rehearsal started about 10. Somebody put their phone in my face and on the phone it said that TMZ said 'Kobe Bryant [had been] killed in a helicopter crash.'

This was very different from 2012 when Whitney Houston died the day before the show and you amended the ceremony. What made you decide that Bryant needed to be part of the show? 

We were at Staples, we were at his house. We're sitting there looking up at [his] two [retired] jerseys that are on the wall there. So there was no way we could not do it. And, secondarily, he [wasn’t] necessarily that close to a lot of musicians, but everybody looked up to him. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing number 24.

How quickly did the idea to incorporate Boyz II Men into Alicia’s intro come together?  They were there to perform with Tyler, the Creator. At that late point you have to work with what you've got, you can’t bring someone else in, right?

No. That we couldn't have done. Alicia was on her way to the stage. It was probably noon, maybe 12:30 p.m. I took her aside and said I have some terrible news, but I have to tell you that you need to keep your focus on what we're doing here and let us come to you with some thoughts. She was obviously visibly shaken by [the news]. Then we went on with the dress [rehearsal]. We started coming up with a plan and it was basically [Grammy show executives] David Wild, Ben Winston, Garry Hood, who’s my lead stage manager, and myself, and we went into her dressing room. Alicia and I primarily were thinking about songs and we went a little gospel. I never said it, but I was thinking about Boyz II Men. I left and about five minutes later I got a call from one of her people saying, “Hey, can we find Boyz II Men to do “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” We found them and they went into her dressing room. It was about 15 minutes before showtime. They spent probably 10 minutes working it out and then it was there. 

Bryant’s jersey or image was also in the Lil Nas X, Nipsey Hussle and Aerosmith performances, in addition to Lizzo’s opening shout out.

I made a few calls and then there were others who had already decided they wanted to do something. I did have a conversation with Lee Zeidman, who runs Staples, and he said, “Whatever you need—jerseys, equipment.” I think we did get a couple and a couple of the [performers] had them already. 

Was Camila Cabello always set to do “First Man” about her father?  It added so much poignancy knowing that Bryant and his daughter had just perished. 

Absolutely. I heard that song about four months ago, and I just said, “Don't do that song anywhere. I want that shot.” That was always the plan to do that song… The truth of the matter is, you know, we were just basically trying to get the show together.

Billboard posted a story this afternoon about how tunes performed on the Grammys collectively saw a sales increase of 266 percent compared to the previous day.

I'm very happy to hear that. I honestly believe, and I could be wrong, that viewers watch the Grammys because they are going to see something that's different and not like maybe some of the other shows.

In the 10 days leading up to the Grammy Awards, the Recording Academy placed CEO/president Deborah Dugan on administrative leave and she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the Academy, accusing the organization of several things, including rigged Grammy voting and financial improprieties. Did Alicia plan to address any of that in her intro beyond the hints that we saw?

I will tell you Alicia is a very strong-minded person, whose instincts about herself are extremely well-placed. Her philosophy has been “Look, I'm here because I want to represent the artists. I don't want to misrepresent the Academy, but the fact of the matter is I need to be comfortable in my own skin as to what I'm saying because when I'm on that stage, I am representing the Academy.” Without going into great detail, I would tell you that what we rehearsed her [opening] on Saturday morning, honestly, it was probably, I don't want to say substantively, but there were definitely more things that she was going to say that, without addressing the specific, spoke to what was happening at the Academy. But when Kobe's helicopter went down, we all collectively felt that Kobe's death certainly brought [the realization] that it would've been more difficult to maybe keep the same tonality of what we were going to say with what she did say last night. Alicia made some changes in her copy that did not lose the the sentiment of what she was saying, but maybe tempered the verbiage.

As you know, in her EEOC complaint, Dugan claims that the Recording Academy board manipulates the nominations process to ensure that certain songs or albums are nominated when you want them performed on the show. How do you respond to that?

Well, I deny it. If that were true, then Ed Sheeran would've been nominated for a bunch of things this year…and probably Taylor [Swift] and Beyonce would have been nominated for a bunch more Grammys. 

Do you have any sway over the nominations at all?

Absolutely not. I don't, I don't get into those conversations. Once things are nominated, we have healthy conversations about what's going on in the show, but to sway the nominations. No.

2020 Grammy Awards