|Music’s biggest night on Sunday, Feb. 9 turned into a globally-watched stage for activism. The 57th annual Grammy Awards were held at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, with artists speaking out against big issues like racial inequality, police brutality and domestic abuse.
At the annual awards night celebrating over 80 different categories in music, superstars Pharrell Williams and Beyonce incorporated subtle racial protest themes in their respective performances, with dancers raising their arms in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose made popular after the police-involved shootings in Ferguson, Missouri.
The protest comes amid the growing “Black Lives Matter” movement in the US, in response to a string of high-profile killings of African Americans by cops.
Pharrell’s global hit “Happy” took a more political than joyful direction, with minor-sounding, dark classical strings from film composer Hans Zimmer and a piano interlude by Chinese sensation Lang Lang. Dressed as a hotel servant in the style of the irony-rich film “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Pharrell and his dancers raised their arms in tribute. The dancers wore black hoodies, a likely reference to black teenager Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he was shot in February 2012.
Beyonce’s performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” towards the end of the show also took a similar tactic, with her dancers putting up their hands in the dramatic defense pose as she crooned the Gospel ballad.
She then gave way on the stage for artists Common and John Legend, who performed their Oscar-nominated song “Glory,” from the civil rights movement film “Selma”(2014). Rapper Common directly referenced the recent tensions with Ferguson police, saying, “Hands to the heavens / no man, no weapon / That’s why Rosa sat on the bus / That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.”
Singer-songwriter Prince, presenting the prestigious Album of the Year award, also offered his comments on the movement when he said, “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”
In another planned effort, the Recording Academy collaborated directly with the White House, having President Barack Obama speak in a video message broadcast about the seriousness of domestic abuse and sexual assault.
“Right now, nearly one in five women in America has been a victim of rape or attempted rape And more than one in four women has experienced some form of domestic violence,” the president said.
The video was followed by a spoken word performance by a domestic violence survivor and activist Brooke Axtell, who took to the stage to tell her harrowing story of abuse by a “passionate, charismatic” boyfriend.
“I believed he was lashing out because he was in pain and needed help. I believed my compassion could restore him and our relationship. My empathy was used against me,” Axtell said. “I was terrified of him and ashamed I was in this position.”
Axtell later told reporters that it was critical to have male allies and to work with people who have committed abuse in the past, and voiced her hope that the use of music to highlight the issue would “reach people in a way that moves past the mind and to the heart and soul.”
“I am hopeful that it will inspire people to take action,” she said.
The performance finished with a moving song from pop singer Katy Perry, who recently took the stage at the Super Bowl halftime show and is known for her cheery, sometimes controversial performances. She performed her ballad “By the Grace of God,” a song about a troubled relationship.
Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy which runs the Grammys, said that the award show’s activism theme was not surprising, considering the nature of the different genres of music in competition this year.
“We’re at a time when musicians are thinking about the world, our society, and you see that in the songs,” he said.
(With reports from Yahoo News, AFP)