The Grammys are just about the last place you’d expect to hear speeches about immigration policy or watch a major pop artist’s debut performance of their new single include the U.S. Constitution. But, Sunday night’s (Feb. 12) 59th annual Grammy Awards was the first under the Trump administration, so, in following with the Golden Globes, DGA and several other Hollywood fetes so far this year, politics were definitely in the air.
In fact, from host James Corden’s opening gag about Trump’s unpredictability to Busta Rhymes‘ vehement rant against the “Muslim ban” and “President Agent Orange perpetuating all the evil” before a performance of A Tribe Called Quest‘s pointed track about inclusivity “We the People,” this was the most politically charged Grammys in recent memory, or maybe ever.
“At this particular point in history our voices are needed more than ever,” Jennifer Lopez told the crowd while presenting Best New Artist, quoting author Toni Morrison’s plea “this is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self pity, no need for silence and no room for fear. We do language, that is how civilizations heal.”
Past Grammys have had moments of commentary, from Kendrick Lamar‘s Black Lives Matter and police brutality freestyle at last year’s show — where Pharrell Williams and his dancers did a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during a performance of “Happy” — to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” mass same-sex wedding in 2014 to Bruce Springsteen shouting “Bring ’em home!” in 2006 in a not-so-subtle message to then-president George W. Bush.
The majority of this year’s performers stuck to the music and left the speechifying to the presenters, but the night had plenty of overt signs, slogans and symbols that some of those present are not willing to be silenced. Paris Jackson, in her first major awards show appearance, introduced The Weeknd‘s performance by telling the crowd, “we can really use this excitement at a pipeline protest, guys,” adding in a “#NoDAPL” in reference to the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
The message was a bit more subtle, at least at first, during Katy Perry‘s debut TV performance of “Chained to the Rhythm,” wearing a “persist” armband in reference to last week’s attempt to shut down Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s speech against Sen. Jeff Sessions’ ascension to the post of Attorney General. The set ended with a group of dancers holding up blank protest signs that turned into a wall with a giant projection of the U.S. Constitution on it. With the words “We the People” in huge letters behind her, Perry shouted “No Hate!” Similarly, the ATCQ performance ended with Q-Tip changing “Resist! Resist! Resist! Resist!”
While introducing Metallica and Lady Gaga’s fiery performance, Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox took the opportunity to ask everyone viewing to support Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen fighting his school for the right to use the boys’ bathroom.
Fashion also played a role in the night’s events, with singer/actress Joy Villa turning heads with her “Make American Great Again” gown and Highly Suspect’s Johnny Stevens making his feelings clear with an “impeach” jacket. Skylar Grey walked the red carpet with a digital purse that flashed the words “empowerment” and “equality,” ScHoolboy Q rocked a pink sweatshirt that read “Girl Power” and Charli XCX wore giant safety pin earrings that were probably a hint to her punk leanings, but also a possible nod to the safety pin movement that took root after the election to show solidarity with people who feel threatened in the current climate.
At a show whose politics typically revolve more around who was (and wasn’t) nominated and who deserved to win, Sunday night’s Grammys was a rare moment when a variety of artists stopped being safe and spoke their minds, some with subtle gestures, others more overt. The voices weren’t all speaking in unison on one topic, and most avoided calling out any particular target by name, but the collective sound you heard was loud and clear: stand up, get into it, get involved.