On a purely artistic level, Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance almost felt like a preemptive reaction to the night’s awards. Kendrick brazenly displayed his greatness, with the whole world watching, on an evening where that greatness would go largely unrewarded.
In an era when music award show moments tend to generate attention based on throwing shade (re: Miley Cyrus vs. Nicki Minaj) or personal grandstanding (Kanye West: pick a moment), what Lamar pulled off was astonishing. As he took the stage clad in chains, the energy tangibly shifted — even through a television screen. It felt like the start of something historic.
On a cultural level, it was something else entirely. It seems fitting that on a night riddled with technical difficulties, Lamar’s voice literally and figuratively cut through the noise.
Lamar subverted expectations the moment he opened his mouth. While the politically-charged, crowd-pleasing hit “Alright” was perfectly suited for a large scale award show performance, Kendrick instead opted to start with the intensely introspective “The Blacker the Berry.”
Sequencing was key. By performing the more personal song first, Kendrick demanded people recognize the complex, conflicted individuals who compromise any critical movement. By the time Kendrick launched into “Alright,” it was a full-blown protest anthem for people, not just a feel-good idea.
Kendrick then gave a glimpse into exactly what he was protesting. As he has done on a couple of other televised occasions, he unveiled an unreleased verse. This time he focused on Trayvon Martin’s murder, and began to break down ways this country breeds violence inside of the inner-cities.
In essence, Kendrick distilled hundreds of years of America’s systemic racism into a five minute performance.
Beyoncé had played a similar gambit a week earlier with her “Formation” video and Super Bowl performance. Lyrically, Bey used the song to proudly spotlight her own individual Blackness. Then, as a performance, she fell into formation, so to speak, amid something much larger.
Performing a Super Bowl set that was unapologetically reminiscent of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers didn’t simply challenge people to grapple with their perception of Beyoncé as an entertainer — it added dimension and truth to people’s understanding of Beyoncé Knowles as a Black woman.
The much discussed “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag,” line wasn’t just a moment of bravado, it was one of humanity. Bey was showing American who she is so she could show you what she stands for.
The fact that Lamar and Beyoncé’s transcendent moments came in such rapid succession cannot be overanalyzed. As seen by the Academy Awards not just this year, but any year, if you’re non-white you’re lucky to get an invite to the party.
Then, once there, you’re expected to silently do what’s expected, say “thank you” and quietly slip off stage.
This is the system that tells Cam Newton he needs to be quiet and gracious while he plays a game meant for children. This is the system stating Nicki Minaj should not respond when a famous white women takes shots at her in the press. Kendrick and Beyoncé’s moments represented a refusal to silently bask in the spotlight.
Lamar closed his Grammy performance with the line “Conversation for the entire nation, this is bigger than us.”
People have turned a deaf ear for generations. 2016 is the year that millions of people sat down on their couches and were told to start listening.
Music Desk, Josh Buck
I’m an almost annoyingly outspoken feminist who loves writing about gender and race in mainstream art. I once had to be almost physically removed from Disneyland because my friends said it’s not cool to be the very last person in the park. I can’t wait to graduate in the spring so I can point my car West with no money and no plan, and spend months seeing the country, writing and meeting people.