The Grammys have a history of inciting controversy, but on Sunday night it wasn’t an award winner or a snub that earned the Recording Academy some heat, but rather the choice to have Jennifer Lopez perform a tribute to Motown with Smokey Robinson and Ne-Yo.
Lopez performed a medley of Motown hits like “Dancing in the Street” and “Please Mr. Postman,” complete with energetic choreography and beautiful, beautiful costumes.
However, some observers were upset by the Grammys’ choice not to have a black female singer perform the soulful pop hits, originally sung by black artists, that made Motown Records and the sound of Motown so distinct:
No shade, JLo is truly a great artist, but let's be real, this wasn't her performance to give. Plenty of other black artists could have been given this platform and moment and we need to acknowledge that. #GRAMMYs— Pero Like (@BFPeroLike) February 11, 2019
Why was JLo doing the Motown tribute? Did she not thank...Berry Gordy? Was that...Luther Vandross she shouted out at the end? I'm so confused on so many levels— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) February 11, 2019
Dear #GRAMMYs Out of Anita, Beyonce, Lalah, India, Kelly Rowland, Latoya, Keyshia, Mary, Rihanna, Toni, Mariah, Monica, Brandy, Jill, Thee Diana, Faith, Patti, Gladys, Jennifer Hud, Jasmine Sullivan, Fantasia, Tamar, Kelly Price you get Jennifer Lopez to do Motown? Insulting. pic.twitter.com/Fs0xaN96lO— Is Your Activism Inclusive? (@2speak_easy) February 6, 2019
Not helping the situation is the fact that the Grammys have a history of nominating black musicians, but black musicians only rarely win in the big four categories — Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist.
One particularly contentious recent example was Beyoncé losing Record, Album, and Song of the Year to Adele in 2017, which contributed to a swell of criticism regarding the Recording Academy’s commitment to diversity and inclusion among its honorees (Beyoncé had previously lost to Taylor Swift in 2010, and to Beck in 2015).
What’s particularly strange about the J.Lo miscue is that the 2019 Grammys hit some great notes earlier in the show, as it celebrated the contributions of black female artists: Host Alicia Keys performed a medley that honored the likes of Roberta Flack and Lauryn Hill; Michelle Obama made a surprise appearance and talked about the impact of music in her life; the indomitable Diana Ross got to take center stage and celebrate her 75th birthday and musical legacy; and Janelle Monae was given the creative freedom to deliver what may be the most-talked-about performance of the night (other than Lopez’s). The Grammys also paid tribute to the late, legendary Aretha Franklin later in the evening.
Before the telecast, J.Lo’s co-performer Smokey Robinson defended the artist and the Grammys, saying that the music of Motown was inclusive and could be performed by anyone, regardless of their skin color.
“I don’t think anyone who is intelligent is upset,” Robinson told Variety on Saturday, seemingly anticipating the backlash. “Motown was music for everybody. Everybody.”