“I heard it through the grapevine, not much longer would you be mine.” — Marvin Gaye, I Heard It Through The Grapevine
The 61st Annual Grammy Awards, held on February 10th, had many outstanding moments. Former First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage with several celebrities to speak on the power and importance of music. Donald Glover made history by winning record of the year for his song “This is America,” making it the first rap song to do so. Cardi B also turned heads by becoming the first solo female artist to win best rap album.
Despite these moments, however, the award show had its share of controversy. At one point, Grammy producers cut to commercial during a speech given by Drake as he was accepting an award for rap song of the year. There was also drama surrounding Ariana Grande and her refusal to perform at the award show due to tension between her and Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich. While these issues can be rationalized as misunderstandings, one controversial moment remains perplexing — the Grammys asked Jennifer Lopez to lead a Motown tribute.
Many were surprised at the choice to have Lopez tackle music traditionally performed by Black/soulful entertainers given her cultural background and career as a pop singer. Prior to and after her performance, there were a series of questions and concerns posed by both fans and onlookers of the award show.
“(I Know) I’m Losing You”
As mentioned before Lopez is known as a pop singer, with hits such as “Get Right,” “On the Floor,” and “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” Moreover, the singer’s top-rated songs contain no trace of music that fit within the soul genre. However, to her credit Lopez has performed music classified as rhythm and blues (R&B), which soul music derives from. Examples of this include her songs “All I Have” and “I’m Real (Murder Remix).”
Notwithstanding her music catalog, Lopez lacks strong vocal abilities. Just last year she admitted to not being a great singer. Also, Lopez has a history of taking credit for the talents of other singers on her albums. While musical taste is subjective, Motown artists have often been praised for their vocal abilities. World-renowned singers such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and The Temptations all had successful careers with Motown. Thus, it may have been wise for the Grammys to select a different headliner. Possible contemporary soul singers that could have bee chosen include Erykah Badu, Maxwell, or Jill Scott. Even with Lopez’s mass appeal there exist more capable popular artists, such as Beyoncé, John Legend, Janelle Monáe, and Jennifer Hudson.
It is unclear if others were asked to headline the Motown tribute before Lopez. However, the Grammys has a history of overlooking and mistreating Black artists, as well as musical genres with a large Black presence. For example, the award show was criticized in 2014 for their mistreatment of Kendrick Lamar, who made a huge impact in the hip-hop scene during that time. Moreover, many felt Beyoncé should have won album of the year for Lemonade in 2017 due to its cultural significance and it being a “contemporary masterpiece” — she lost to Adele, who also felt Beyoncé deserved the award. This history is what led many Black artists to forgo attending or performing at the Grammys this year.
“I Want You Back”
In response to the pushback against Lopez’s Motown performance, she asserted, “Any type of music can inspire any type of artist… You can’t tell people what to love. You can’t tell people what they can and can’t do — what they should sing or not sing.” This she declared to a reporter from Entertainment Tonight backstage following the tribute.
Music is recognized for its positive effects on social interactions and bonding. Moreover, almost all known forms of music have gained recognition for their affective emotional qualities (Valla, Alappatt, Mathur, & Singh, 2017). Taking this into account, Lopez has every right to enjoy and perform music of any genre. Nevertheless, one must consider racism and discrimination within the American music industry, which Lopez is a part of.
Historically, White people in the US have disproportionately benefited from music pioneered by Blacks. Elvis Presley, often called the “King of Rock and Roll,” gained notoriety and profited from adopting a Black style of music during the pre-Civil Rights era when Black artists were largely ignored by mainstream White audiences. More recently, some have questioned why the mainstream faces of soul music are White — referencing artists such as Sam Smith. There has even been debate over Bruno Mars and his emulation of Black musical styles. Despite Mars being non-White, some believe the artist’s racial ambiguity has helped propel his success when performing funk, soul, and R&B music — genres associated with Black cultures. In a discussion of Mars conducted by The Grapevine, Seren Aishitemasu asserted, “people have realized that they prefer their Black music and their Black culture from a non-Black face.”
Lopez occupies a unique space when highlighting racial disparities in the American music industry. She was born in the Bronx borough of New York City to immigrant parents from Puerto Rico. Thus, Lopez is classified as Hispanic or Latinx (at times used synonymously), which are both marginalized groups. Though Hispanic is used to describe individuals, it is not a racial category but rather an ethnonym given to descendants of Latin American cultures. This ethnic group is multiracial, with some identifying as Black while recognizing their Hispanic lineage (i.e. Afro-Latin). Regarding Puerto Ricans specifically, a great many consider themselves White despite their culture being a blend of European, African, and aboriginal (i.e. Taíno) identities. According to Loveman and Muniz (2007), Puerto Ricans’ understanding of whiteness expanded between 1910 and 1920 as a response to a quick rise in the actual and perceived “costs of being seen by Americans as nonwhite” (p. 935).
Thus, Lopez can be likened to the White demographic, especially considering her fair complexion, making her Motown tribute potentially oppressive toward Black artists within the soul genre. Though the singer belongs to a marginalized group, she still benefits from her outward appearance whereas darker-skinned Hispanics or Latinx individuals might not be as privileged.
“Don’t Leave Me This Way”
In her defense, Lopez included well-known Black singers in her performance. During the tribute she was joined by Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo, and Smokey Robinson, a Motown legend. Despite this, however, they were all relegated to background roles as complimentary pieces in the performance.
Also, worth noting were the dancers Lopez chose to accompany her, the majority of which were either White or Latinx. There were few Black male dancers and only one discernible Black female dancer in the performance. Seeing this, Twitter user @led260 wrote, “The deliberate erasure of Black women in that Motown ‘tribute’ was an insult and outrage.”
The misuse of Black artists and lack of Black representation during the Motown tribute is a continuation of past discrimination in the US, where erasure of this demographic occurs within certain musical genres. Nevertheless, one could argue that Lopez was oblivious to this matter given her excitement about the performance. In that same interview with Entertainment Tonight Lopez stated that she grew up listening to Motown music and her involvement with the tribute was “a dream come true.”
Still, the singer has been tone deaf about Black issues in the past, once tweeting #AllLivesMatter — the antithesis of #BlackLivesMatter — in a post concerning a 2016 mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. The Grammys could have been another example of her passionate personality getting in the way of rational thought.
Ultimately, while Motown’s artistry is widely popular, one must take into consideration how Blacks have been unfairly compensated for their musical feats in both the past and present day. Moreover, it is important to note that early acts from the record label once had to endure racism and bigotry when trying to have their music heard. These hardships occurred due to its Black presence. Given this history, not to mention February is Black History Month, it may have been best if the Grammys made its Motown tribute truer to the original look — Black and soulful. As Uchechi Chinyere once stated in a debate coming from The Grapevine, “erasure of Black people within our own creations is very real and we need to start taking that very seriously.”
Loveman, M., & Muniz, J. O. (2007). How puerto rico became white: Boundary dynamics and intercensus racial reclassification. American Sociological Review, 72(6), 915–939.
Valla, J. M., Alappatt, J. A., Mathur, A., & Singh, N. C. (2017). Music and emotion — A case for north indian classical music. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 2115.