Why Kanye Stormed the Stage at the Grammys

Let me preface this by saying that Kanye West does not need apologists. His work and current stance within and against the music industry make the words and actions of “Kanye West apologists” purely offensive. With that out of the way, to business.

Kanye almost stormed the stage at the Grammys last night. When Beck won album of the year over Beyonce, Kanye’s head popped up for a moment on the television screen as Beck looked for his collaborators. Kanye reached for the mic, smiled, shook his head, and retreated.

Looks like it might have been a joke, right? In an after-show interview with E!, Kanye aired his full thoughts on the moment:

I don’t even know what [Beck] said. I just know that, the Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We aren’t going to play with them no more. ‘Flawless.’ Beyoncé’s video. And Beck needs to respect artistry, he should have given his award to Beyoncé. At this point, we tired of it. What happens is, when you keep on diminishing art, and not respecting the craft, and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration. We, as musicians, have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyoncé album, and they feel like it takes them to a different place. And then they do this promotional event, and they’ll run the music over somebody’s speech, the artist, because they want commercial advertising. We aren’t playing with them anymore. And by the way, I got my wife, my daughter, and I got my clothing line, so I’m not going to do nothing that would put my daughter at risk, but I am here to fight for creativity. That’s why I didn’t say anything tonight, but you all knew what it meant when ‘Ye stepped on that stage.

Kanye has always had a contentious relationship with awards shows, which is why I was fairly surprised that he even agreed to perform. His solo set of “Only One” and performance with Sir Paul McCartney and Rihanna for “FourFiveSeconds” were both fantastic performances. Kanye was nominated in two categories: Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Best Rap Song, both for “Bound 2.” So he was as much a part of the Grammys as the next nominated artist.

For Kanye to actually remain silent during the broadcast was a smart move, but there’s a part of me that wishes he had snatched the mic. Kanye has a point about all of this. The major nominees this year were Sam Smith and Iggy Azalea, white artists who have capitalized on a black aesthetic. Sam Smith swept the boards with what is, frankly, pretty mediocre music. The fact that he beat out Hozier for best record is upsetting, but not surprising. The Grammys have long had a history of consistently silencing the black voices it tries to feature, and Kanye’s right, if they’re going to keep teasing black artists with nominees but never follow through with well-deserved wins, maybe it’s time for Kanye, Beyonce, Jay-Z, John Legend, Pharrell, Usher, Prince, Rihanna, and the countless other overpassed black artists to simply bow out. It would certainly start a flaming discussion that until now has only been embers.

Besides this particular statement of Kanye’s, there were two other brief moments last night that stood out for their politicism. First, Pharrell’s brief and unmentioned “don’t shoot” moment during his bizarre performance of “Happy”:

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It was easy to miss if you didn’t see it, but the haunting opening of the performance combined with this particular section pieces it all together. Pharrell wasn’t walking away without making a statement. He did wind up with a well-deserved solo win after so many years hiding behind the success of the artists he’s produced, but up until “Get Lucky,” nobody knew who Pharrell was. Black artists have been slipping in “don’t shoot” moments for several months now, and it gets more and more powerful each time. Pharrell’s inclusion with the likes of John Legend and Kendrick Lamar — who have displayed similar politics in their broadcast sets — puts him in a new light. As one of the most influential artists in the business, for Pharrell to stand up and put a “don’t shoot” moment in his Grammys performance is to make a highly charged and supremely authoritative statement. Artists in Pharrell’s position should be making their politics clear when they have the power to affect change, and that’s exactly what Pharrell did last night.

Second, Prince had a brief moment in his announcement for Best Album when he said, “Just as books matter, just as black lives matter, albums matter.” Just like Pharrell, it was brief, and who knows if it was scripted or not, but the quick inclusion of those politics was like a splash of freezing water. And, of course, considering what happened next with Beck winning and Kanye almost doing something about it, it’s time for the black voices at the Grammys to be heard.

If Kanye and his peers decide to step out of the awards circuit, it would certainly make a louder statement than anything Kanye could have said in the heat of the moment. Beck should be congratulated for the fantastic work he did on Morning Phase, nobody can deny that, but we also have to ask the serious question of how he could have possibly won over Beyonce. Given the history of Grammy winners, it’s unfortunately not surprising. I’ve been wondering for a long time why Kanye doesn’t remove himself from awards ceremonies altogether, and though he’s won twenty-one Grammys (making him one of the most awarded artists of all time), things have been shaky since 2009 with black artists and awards ceremonies. Consistent snubs are more than just “the way awards ceremonies work,” it’s the deep-rooted devotion to white artists that unfortunately doesn’t surprise us anymore. So, should Beyonce have won over Beck? Absolutely. But does that mean we should fault Beck for his work or expect him to fork over the Grammy to Beyonce? Absolutely not. It’s the methods of these awards shows that need to change, but they likely never will. It’s upsetting and wholly unfair, so if Kanye takes a step away from the awards and focuses on creating a consistently excellent product (which he has for the past eleven years), who knows what kind of change he could bring about by refusing to take part?

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