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Collaborations And Congratulations: Navigating The Grammy Crossover

Kendrick Lamar and Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons onstage during the 56th Grammy Awards.
Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images
Kendrick Lamar and Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons onstage during the 56th Grammy Awards.

At the beginning of the 2014 Grammy Awards show, it seemed that one story would dominate the night. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the Seattle duo whose highly accessible take on hip-hop became last year's indie-to-mainstream success story, took home three awards during the ceremony's pre-telecast portion. This predictable event incensed many longtime hip-hop fans, who view Macklemore's rise as another sad chapter in popular music's long saga of white opportunists stealing the spotlight from African-American originators. Macklemore himself (whose real name, Ben Haggerty, shows his Irish roots) has used the word "robbed" repeatedly to describe besting Kendrick Lamar, the Compton rapper widely acknowledged as the biggest pure talent the genre has produced in years and also nominated in multiple Grammy categories. By the end of the night, Macklemore had four Grammys. Kendrick had none.

Arguments are now raging across social media about Macklemore & Lewis, entitlement, and the ethics of industry prizes. It's come to light that some voting members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the Grammys, attempted to block the duo from the rap category altogether, arguing that the Top-Ten singles off The Heist, are pop, not rap. That they come out of a specific community that isn't central to hip-hop's most familiar histories is baked into their very existence. "Same Love," the rapper's Song-of-the-Year-nominated meditation on his own privilege and hip-hop's homophobia, did real political work when Washington State's successful 2013 campaign for marriage equality adopted it as an anthem. Macklemore & Lewis donated the profits from the song to the campaign — one of several ways that this longtime Seattle hip-hop fixture has done his due diligence at home.

"Same Love," however, can be viewed as another kind of appropriation; that of a straight artist benefitting from the pathos of another group's oppression. Sunday's performance of the song made this tension palpable. The rapper-diva Queen Latifah, whose own privacy about her sexuality is a sore point for some, officiated the legal marriage of 33 straight and gay couples in the Nokia Theater aisles while Madonna, in an outfit she might have borrowed from one of The Isley Brothers circa 1971, duetted with the songs original hook singer, the very feminine lesbian Mary Lambert. The camera seemed to dwell on the heterosexual couples in the group. Madonna carried a "pimp" cane, adding a frisson of minstrelsy to the scene.

It was a mess. Yet for all of its tacky mixed signals, the wedding scene expressed the spirit of this year's entire Grammy ceremony — just as Macklemore embodies the central questions popular music raises today: What is a meaningful alliance, and what is tokenism? Who gets to occupy the limited crossover spaces reserved for artists from niche communities in the mainstream? Does it make any difference if an artist means well? And what progress has been made on the endless wheel of struggle?

White appropriation of black self-expression has been the essence of pop since before the Civil War, but we are not living in that moment, or even in 1956, when Elvis blended moves he learned from blues men, rockabilly women and white gospel quartets and shook the world. On the surface, opportunity abounds. Hip-hop is a black art form whose leading voices are openly proud race men like Kanye West and Jay Z, and no white rapper can change that.

Yet where it matters — in positions of power held within the music business, in what gets played on the radio, and in how legitimating rituals like the Grammys play out — those old race-based patterns endure. Inequity is built into a recording industry that was formally segregated for decades and which continues to push white and black artists into different streams. The Top 40 format, which generates hits, still favors white artists. The margin held by LGBTQ artists throughout the creative industries is expanding but still shaky. All of this is public knowledge, endlessly discussed. But change is grindingly slow.

That's why Macklemore's story is simply one small part of the bigger story of the Grammys, and of post-millennial pop. Artists of color won in two televised categories — Jay Z took home a statue for "Holy Grail," a song dominated by the voice of the blue-eyed soul king Justin Timberlake, and Bruno Mars, the Filipino-Latino-Jewish heartthrob who quietly represents America's emerging multiracial majority, won Best Pop Vocal album for Unorthodox Jukebox. The other top winners were all white and, perhaps not incidentally, publicly heterosexual. Each found success with sounds obviously rooted in black or queer sources. What distinguished one from the other during the telecast was the way in which each acknowledged this fact.

Daft Punk, the veteran French electronic duo who won Album and Record of the year, wear helmets when they perform, assuming robot identities, so they brought up singer Pharrell Williams and venerable funk guitarist Nile Rodgers, whose riffs powered Daft Punk's hit "Get Lucky," to stand in the spotlight. This made Daft Punk's victories seem like what they were: wins made possible by the African-American geniuses the duo employed. Lorde, the teenage New Zealander whose Song of the Year "Royals" caused a Macklemore-like stir for its use of hip-hop beats and critique of hip-hop culture, took the opposite approach. Looking utterly gothic in dark lipstick and black-and-white clothes, she suppressed any signals of hip-hop being part of her palette. Country artist Kacey Musgraves used costume in a different way, to subtly acknowledge a debt, this time to queer culture. The spangly cowgirl dress she wore while singing "Follow Your Arrow," a queer-spirited ode to persona exploration, had the flair of drag; later, her openly gay producer and co-writer Shane McAnally stood by her side as she accepted her award for Best Country Album for Same Trailer, Different Park.

These moments proved how skilled pop stars are becoming at stepping through the landmines of race and sex. The erasure of a source puts the issue of appropriation on the back burner; tacit acknowledgment can forestall any arguments about it. What resonate most are the confrontations that occur within music-making itself, which lend depth and energy to the anger, resentment, guilt and hope that people on the different sides of these arguments are expressing. One outstanding performance Sunday channeled fury, another cultivated happiness. Both offered ways to stop and recharge in the midst of these ongoing conflicts.

Kendrick Lamar, the great robbed hope of 2014, delivered a fiery performance that was its own (sadly, only symbolic) victory. He did so while Imagine Dragons, winner of the Grammy for Best Rock Performance, played behind him. Lamar's charisma was no surprise; his talent is that big. But the involvement of a critically reviled rock band from Utah seemed incongruous — at first.

Imagine Dragons currently rules alternative rock, not a scene known for interracial collaborations. Yet the Utah band's producer and mentor is Alex da Kid, a biracial British beats-maker who established himself working with Eminem, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. As the rapper spit his rhymes and the rockers pounded out a massive beat on theatrically huge drums, the deep connection between their disparate musical approaches became clear: The shock of it felt cleansing.

The seamless blend of Lamar's words and the Imagine Dragons thump was one of the Grammy telecast's most electric moments. The other came when Daft Punk performed a medley with Stevie Wonder, the living spirit of pop eclecticism and politically fearless grace, that generated a massive dance party in the aisle. The robots stayed behind a screen for most of the song, letting their hero lead the way. These contrasting moments of rage and joy didn't minimize the debates that defined this year's Grammys; they engaged with them and broke through to some kind of momentary freedom. Maybe that's all the peace pop can offer right now.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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