Grammy Producer Ken Ehrlich Talks Kendrick Lamar's 'Provocative' Performance, Smacks Down 'All-White Tribute' Criticism

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Kendrick Lamar performs at Terminal 5 on Nov. 2, 2015 in New York City.

In the days leading up to the 2016 Grammy Awards on Monday night (Feb. 15), the issue of race has been at the forefront of the conversation around the ceremony: LL Cool J said Kendrick Lamar’s performance will be “very controversial,” and a New York Post report claimed that the show is under “huge pressure to diversify its all-white tribute lineup and honor the late Maurice White,” founder of the legendary R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire, who died Feb. 4 at 74.

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It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to conclude that Lamar, whose second full-length album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is nominated for 11 Grammys, and whose songs have been embraced by the Black Lives Matter movement, will be addressing racism forcefully in his Grammy performance. Just how comfortable the Grammys and their network partner, CBS, might be with it was a question Billboard posed to show producer Ken Ehrlich and Recording Academy CEO/chairman Neil Portnow separately on Sunday night.

Billboard: LL Cool J has described Lamar’s performance as “very controversial.” Do you think that’s accurate?

Ehrlich: Controversial… I’m not sure that’s the right word. Certainly it’s provocative. One of the things that’s important to us with the show and I think to the Academy is that we encourage artistic freedom and artistic license. Two years ago we had Macklemore and Ryan Lewis perform “Same Love” while we married 35 couples of varying genders. That was a pretty good example of the freedom that we encourage artists to exhibit on the show. In this case, Kendrick came to us and said that we live in a time where these issues confront us every day and that it’s important that they be given a public forum, and he would like to use his x number of minutes to create a great performance that is consistent with his this year. It is overtly political and it is overtly provocative, and I think if nothing else it’s going to give people something to think about and talk about.

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Portnow: I don’t know that I’d say controversial; I’d say powerful. There are some artists that have a point of view in terms of bringing things to the public for conversation and creating awareness and a dialogue, and we happen to think that’s healthy. Obviously we’re on primetime TV and we have to be respectful of the laws, but I think it’s going to be a very powerful performance.

So Lamar’s statement is one that you don’t necessarily support but are comfortable providing with a platform?

Ehrlich: That’s a very important difference. It’s not necessarily that we endorse what’s being said, but we believe that it’s our right and responsibility to allow artists to express their visions.

Do you think a certain percentage of the audience will be offended by the performance?

Ehrlich: I suspect there will be a portion of the audience that… I don’t know that I’d use the work “offended,” but certainly will be provoked by it.

Is he performing “The Blacker the Berry”?

Ehrlich: Yep, “The Blacker the Berry” and “All Right” -- obviously very provocative songs. Now, I made a point with a writer I spoke with the other day and I’d almost like to reiterate it because I think it’s important, especially for Billboard. A lot of attention is being focused on this issue of race as it applies to awards shows, certainly with regard for the Oscars [which have been widely criticized for a lack of diversity], which certainly lit the fuse for a lot of this [discussion] this year, not that it didn’t exist before. I think it’s important to understand that at its root, film and its relationship to the African-American culture is significant but it is not a dominant from its roots, from the beginning, whereas popular and contemporary music is rooted in African-American culture as much as anything. So when we do a music show we by definition reflect multiculturalism maybe more than a film awards show. I’m not speaking of where things stand today, but just the foundations. I’m looking at the rundown of our show and I see incredibly vivid examples of multiculturalism that we can be very proud of -- the Hamilton segment, the Kendrick performance, The Weeknd. I think it’s important that the public understand that it’s more to do with the roots of these particular art forms.

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There’s been criticism that the show’s tributes are “all-white.” What do you say to that?

Ehrlich: I’d rather speak generally about this subject. It’s very unfounded. We’re doing a B.B.King tribute; the last I looked he wasn’t an old white man. We’re doing a Natalie Cole tribute that happens to be part of the “In Memoriam” segment, but people will understand when they see the clip why we chose it and why we didn’t do a live performance. And there’s a live performance component to the Maurice White [tribute], and I can tell you that the members of the group are really pleased and happy we’re doing it. I’m looking at [the show lineup] now, and of course we have Lady Gaga paying tribute to David Bowie, and of course three hours ago I rehearsed the Eagles singing “Take It Easy” for [founding member] Glenn Frey. There just isn’t any kind of basis in fact for people who don’t know what we’re doing to speculate about what we’re doing. There are probably four to five segments at least where … we have Andra Day and Ellie Goulding performing together; Bonnie Raitt and Chris Stapleton with Gary Clark Jr.; we have Stevie Wonder and Pentatonix -- again, we’re not being reactionary, this is what we do every year. We believe that music brings people together.

Stevie Wonder and Pentatonix are performing together?

Ehrlich: Yes.

Is that the Maurice White tribute?

Ehrlich: I’m gonna let you guess on that one.

2016 Grammys