The opening performance of the Recording Academy’s two-hour television special A Grammy Salute to the Sounds of Change was a curious reminder of the state of the world exactly a year ago.
Cynthia Erivo delivered a rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” — discussed at this time last year as the choice song of celebrities who began losing their grip on reality in quarantine less than a month into the COVID-19 pandemic. Her soaring piano ballad bore a stark contrast to the clips of actors and musicians delivering the song’s lyrics in the Frankensteined viral video. For a moment during the salute, Lennon’s political messaging of progress towards peace and unity was restored.
This was the overarching goal of the Grammy Salute, which aired on CBS Wednesday night (March 17), 72 hours after the 63rd annual Grammy Awards. Hosted by Common, the program presented performances from more than a dozen musicians across genres to highlight the songs, old and new, that inspire equality, social justice and change.
Touching on themes of race, gender equality, political commentary and LGBTQ+ rights, it offered a little bit of everything while trying to not stretch itself too thin. But airing so close to the Grammys ceremony, the salute was muddled by the still-wet paint of the Recording Academy’s shortcomings and complicity in the same topic areas it centered in the program.
Earnestly, a portion of the special discussed the women in music who have used their voices to emphasize empowerment. Appearing after LeAnn Rimes took on Loretta Lynn’s 1975 classic “The Pill” in a bright pink setting, it was one of the few moments that lingered before dashing into the next segment. “Women have also taken to the Grammys stage to come together in times of tragedy,” a narrator boasted. “Inspired by her personal struggles with sexual and emotional abuse, Kesha’s powerful performance of ‘Praying’ detailed her pain, and also her strength.”
The clip of the singer leaving her heart on the stage at the 2018 Grammy Awards was a reminder that Kesha’s alleged abuser — producer Dr. Luke, who denied the allegations — was up for record of the year on Sunday for his work on Doja Cat’s “Say So” under the pseudonym Tyson Trax.
During the program, Leon Bridges delivered a soulful performance of “Sweeter,” written in response to the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last May. He crooned: “I thought we moved on from the darker days / Did the words of the King disappear in the air / Like a butterfly?”
One of four artists who performed an original song during the Grammy Salute, Bridges provided a successful example of approaching the topic of Black social movement through the moving immediacy of the record’s reference point. Still, in trying to highlight its own progress, the Recording Academy ignored and glossed over the current criticism it faces, especially as it pertains to race.
Brad Paisley’s performance of “Welcome to the Future,” meanwhile, fell on the opposite end of the spectrum. The song was introduced with the anecdote that he was inspired to write its lyrics after Barack Obama became America’s first Black president and features the statement: “Wake up Martin Luther / Welcome to the future.” Its inclusion offers a disconnected white perspective that ignores the continued struggle faced by the Black community on a daily basis regardless of milestones and accolades.
The Grammys — which have been called out recently by Tyler, the Creator, The Weeknd, Zayn and more for its shortcomings in the nomination, voting and category naming process — function in a similar way. Beyoncé was praised throughout Sunday’s ceremony for becoming the most awarded woman, and one of the three most awarded artists, in Grammy history with 28 career wins. But of those trophies, only one came from a major category win — and that was 11 years ago. The same night, Taylor Swift won her third Grammy for album of the year, the same amount as all Black women in the ceremony’s history have collected combined (as lead artists). While celebrating the Black musicians who set the standard for modern music, the Recording Academy continues to overlook them in favor of white artists in the most coveted categories.
The Grammy Salute performances lacked the faux intimacy of Sunday’s ceremony, but there were moments when its distance and disconnection worked to the benefit of the artist. Andra Day delivered a chilling performance of “Strange Fruit” with an eerie, bare forest broadcasted on the screen behind her. She recently received an Academy Award nomination for her depiction of the song’s original singer Billie Holiday in The United States vs Billie Holiday, though she wasn’t in character for this jazzy rendition. It’s one of the few songs performed that deeply embody the theme of justice and change, but the special didn’t spend much time interrogating the ideas it pulls to the surface.
Ahead of each performance, Common threw out a slew of facts and musical statistics relating to the forthcoming topic point and the artists being honored: Grammy wins, social impact, generation-spanning influence. There weren’t more than a few seconds allocated to confronting the change caused by the selected songs, and most of the artists barreled through their portions without speaking. Hearing Gladys Knight open her performance of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” with a statement about his lasting influence was refreshing given its rarity. “This is one that is really relevant even today,” she said. “We need to say to the rest of the world that we can love each other and we need to bring forth what’s going on today.”
The moments that left room for conversation, like Emmy Award-winning performer Billy Porter’s reflective interview with Gayle King about acceptance ahead of his take on Sylvester’s “You Are My Friend,” brought warmth to the Grammy Salute. Nearly all of the performances throughout the special shone, from Patti LaBelle singing Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to Yolanda Adams closing the program with an invigorated, choir-led rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” But the added element of context, or even the simple acknowledgement of the purpose behind the special, was an uncommon occurrence, despite the show’s ample run time. That calls to question whether two performances from John Fogerty and a rendition of Motown classic “War” from Eric Church were necessary, and what could have appeared in their place.
Ahead of her performance of the original song “This Is What (for Justice Sonia Sotomayor),” Common led into Emily Estefan’s segment as “introducing the next generation of music.” At 26, Estefan — the daughter of longtime Grammy favorites Gloria and Emilio Estefan — was the youngest performer on the special, which interestingly lacked the presence of the young artists who make up this new generation of musicians. The Grammys made room for some of these artists on Sunday, with Lil Baby graphically highlighting police brutality while performing “The Bigger Picture” with an appearance from activist Tamika Mallory. But the Salute leaned most heavily on older, more inoffensive performers singing the protest songs of their time.
Despite the quality of the performances and the talent of the featured musicians throughout the Grammy Salute, the Recording Academy is still learning how to best use its platform to move the needle forward on the social issues it tackles and call attention to the conversations that need to be held in order to enact lasting change. It seeks refuge from criticism through being able to say that it was present for the conversation, and one can only hope that the recent addition of more than 1,000 mostly diverse new Academy members will inspire it to be more involved.
At one point towards the end of the salute, Common stated that “every day is a revolution.” While that may be true, it doesn’t seem like this institution possesses the self-awareness needed to participate in any meaningful way, yet.
A Grammy Salute to the Sounds of Change was produced by Jesse Collins Entertainment. Jesse Collins, Dionne Harmon and Jeannae Rouzan-Clay were executive producers. Chantel Sausedo and Rob Paine were producers. Adam Blackstone served as the musical director.