After a year of video conference-styled awards shows in the pandemic, the 2021 Grammy Awards are aiming to be a breath of fresh (COVID-free, socially distanced) air on March 14. With artists on-site, performing outdoors and watching each other’s sets, first-time Grammy host Trevor Noah has his fingers crossed we will look back on this as “the beginning of when we got to start living our lives again.”
Even if the COVID-19 pandemic never happened (or if it, ahem, had been handled properly), the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards would still look different, considering that longtime producer Ken Ehrlich retired from his Grammy duties after a whopping 40 telecasts, leaving new blood Ben Winston running the show. With a new executive producer, a new host and pandemic precautions, it’s safe to say Music’s Biggest Night will look a bit different this Sunday (March 14).
In the midst of preparations, the Daily Show host hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss crafting a TV event that feels like a “respite” from the pandemic, awards show inclusivity and what the Grammys meant to him growing up in South Africa. As for what he’s most excited about? “I’m excited to get out of the house,” he jokes.
So you’re hosting an awards show in a pandemic that’s already been postponed once. No pressure. How are the preparations going?
It’s going well. The Grammys choosing to postpone the awards was the right choice especially considering that now it looks like America is on the right track. Numbers are down across the country, vaccinations are going up, it feels like life is slowly getting back to normal. Hopefully this can be a moment of hope. We’ve gone March to March and I’m as exhausted as everyone else of not living life. Hopefully this can be a respite from that for a moment and then we’ll be like, “oh yeah, that was the beginning of when we got to start living our lives again.”
When I spoke to [executive producer] Ben Winston in December, he said the plan was to have artists performing on multiple stages and watching each other. Is that still the plan?
Yes, that’s still the plan. It’s going to be multiple stages, everything is happening outdoors and socially distanced. It’s almost taking on the feel of a music festival but designed for an audience at home, which is really cool. That’s one of the reasons I decided to jump on. I love working with Ben and the Grammys is a dream, but I was interested in, “How do you do an awards show that doesn’t feel pandemic-y?” It’s music and great performances done in a stylistically fresh way and that’s what I’m excited to see.
Will there be an audience of regular people involved?
I know until the day [of the show] they’re going to be making decisions about who is where and how. The number one thing is safety. I don’t think you’re going to be seeing an audience in that way, but you may be seeing the artists gathered or the artists getting ready or a few people who are there with them. I can’t speak to that.
It will look different from most pandemic awards shows we’ve seen.
Yes, that’s my favorite thing. This is an awards show, it’s a celebration of music, so if you’re watching at home you can combine it with all your favorite concert series. That’s what this is, essentially. In my opinion, it won’t have that depressing, “oh man, look at all of us stuck at home.” I’m so tired of that imagery, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s everywhere. Some TV shows have adopted it for their dramas or whatever. If it’s not current affairs, I’m like “take me away on whatever flight of fantasy you can.” Luckily the Grammys can.
In your book you write about deejaying and selling mix CDs when you were growing up, but you’re not a musician-musician. Where you surprised when they asked you to host the Grammys? Any trepidation?
Trepidation, definitely. That’s more nerves for me. But in terms of surprise, no. I grew up watching comedians hosting awards, so whether it was the Oscars or the Grammys or the Emmys, I’ve grown up watching standup comedians run that stage. The likes of Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. For me it was more like, “wow, okay, we’re doing this thing, how are we going to do it in the pandemic?” Luckily Ben had a plan and it’s looking like that plan will be executed on March 14.
Obviously, The Daily Show is very political. Should we expect you to bring more political humor to this show than past hosts?
I don’t know. Everyone has a different definition of ‘political,’ funnily enough. I find what Americans consider political, South Africans consider general banter. Let me put it this way though: comedy is something I use to express myself in all ways, shapes and forms. I’ve had people come to my standup shows, my live standup performances, and they go, “oh, I was expecting you to only make jokes about Donald Trump.” And I’m like, “yeah but that’s not what I do.” The Daily Show is a satirical news show, so we’re covering the news, so everything is going to be about the news and politics. But believe me, in my life, I have a broad sense of what I enjoy and what I don’t. When I’m sitting with friends, we don’t only talk about politics. Sometimes we only talk about music, sometimes we’re just talking about life, or talking about food. I look at these opportunities as wonderful moments to take a break from the incessant news cycle.
You had a great joke on The Daily Show recently about how there were probably more Black people in the Proud Boys than the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. That did remind me of #GrammySoWhite. Now that you’re involved a bit with the Recording Academy preparing this this, do you see them working to make things better?
I haven’t heard of #GrammySoWhite. I’d heard of #OscarSoWhite. Forgive me if I’m wrong, I’ve not seen that.
It’s not as prevalent on Twitter, but it comes up.
I think across the board, whether it’s the Grammys or Oscars or whatever it is, awards shows are slowly, slowly coming to the realization that they oftentimes do not represent the people who are consuming the mediums and the people who are creating the mediums. What’s been really good is seeing, on the Grammys side — look at who’s in charge, who’s on the committee. The Grammys were one of the first to say, “let’s get the people who are in this industry to make some of the decisions. Let’s get the people making the music to make the decisions.” So hip-hop is not going to be decided by some random old white dude who has nothing to do with hip-hop. It might involve an old white dude who has a lot to do with hip-hop, and that’s cool, because that’s what makes music amazing, the wide range of people who are in it. I think every single awards show is striving to be better. I think people say “more inclusive,” but I think it’s about being less exclusive. You’re showing your audience and your fans for who they are. You see it in the nominations, when you have your first female [solo] Black country star being nominated, those are moments even from the voting side you think “wow, some amazing things are happening.” Hopefully we get to a point one day where it’s not even a conversation. Everyone is being acknowledged in some way and they’re not being excluded because they don’t fit into a certain group.
Any nominees you’re particularly excited about?
I don’t think I’m allowed to say. I’m supposed to take the position of ‘above the fray.’ I have my favorites, but I’m like a Supreme Court justice. We all have our music we think is better than other people’s music, but those people think the exact same thing about theirs. That’s what makes a night like the Grammys fun, is you get to see other people’s music next to yours and sometimes you walk away becoming a new fan.
As a comedian, writer and host, can you compare preparing for Daily Show versus the Grammys?
It’s completely different. An awards show is very different from the Daily Show. We’re speaking to a broader audience, it’s not politics. I’m not there to do politics, I’m there to do music. That’s what being a comedian is. When I’m in Tampa, I’m not doing jokes about Pennsylvania; when I’m in South Africa I’m not doing jokes about another place. That’s how I am. This is a night for music, so that’s a big difference in the preparation. You also don’t do the stuff on the day, every day. I’ve hosted music shows in South Africa — I love music shows, I love hosting, it gives me an opportunity to flex a different set of muscles.
Growing up in South Africa, did you care about the Grammys at, say, age 12 or 13?
Oh yeah. The interesting thing about the Grammys is that unlike many awards show, they do have an international significance. I remember when Ladysmith Black Mambazo was winning Grammy Awards — it never felt like an unattainable world. It felt like this magical thing that was happening in America but touching the rest of the world because music touches the rest of the world. We were listening to Lionel Richie in South Africa. When I was watching the Oscars growing up, there were a lot of movies where I was like “I’m sorry what is this, who is this movie?” I think that’s a big difference with the Grammys versus other awards shows. At the Grammys, it’s music that people listen to. Even now, sometimes I’ll watch the Oscars and be like, “What movie is that? I guess I should watch it?” Whereas with the Grammys it’s more like you’re going “ah yes, there’s my favorite song,” “oh man there’s my favorite artist,” or “I remember rocking out to that song six months ago, three months ago, right now.” I think that’s what makes it more universal. Music goes from Japan to New York City, Johannesburg to Cairo. Music is music.
Finally, when you think of Grammy performances from years past, which ones jump out to you?
Let me think… there’s been a lot, so my mind will be inundated with the most recent ones. The Run-D.M.C. Aerosmith, that was really fun, especially if you were in the room. People joke like “oh, the old men” but these guys were rocking it, man. And it took people back. Billie Eilish really brings it at the awards shows, she’s phenomenal. Bruno Mars has put in some of my favorite performances, he’s in my top 5 Grammy performances, hands down. Kendrick Lamar’s performance a few years ago was really powerful. I’m sure if I went through the archives, I’d come back at you with a completely new list of favorites. That’s what makes the Grammys amazing. I don’t care who you are, you are going to have a favorite performance during the course of the show.