The Blacker the Berry the Sweeter the Juice Proved True on Grammy Night
The Grammy’s had a few memorable moments, but nothing truly compared to the back-to-back performances (and wins) of Kendrick Lamar and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” In what can only be described as the most powerful and thought provoking section of the whole evening, these two revolutionary performances came in just before the two-hour mark. Lamar took to the stage first, dressed in a prison uniform, shackled to a single file line of fellow in-mates, the sides of his stage lined with cells. This first image stunned the audience and viewers immediately. Lamar did not hold back. He took a prolonged moment to get his chained hands around the mic before starting the verse of “Blacker the Berry” off his Grammy winning album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
His song lyrics have such strong and direct messages of the oppression of blacks in modern society, including one sung during this powerful first verse, “you hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture.” The lights then cut to Lamar and his dancers in glow-in-the-dark paint strips done in African tribal patterns along their bodies. This transitions into Lamar’s “Alright,” performed in front of a large fire with more dancers, these dressed in full tribal attire and beating large drums. The ritual like presentation of the dancers around the fire pushed forward the lyrics of the music embracing Lamar’s African descent. He then continued to add a bit of variation to the song in tribute to Trayvon Martin when he said “on February 26 I lost my life too.” This last section was just Lamar, alone, with quickly flashing strobes across his beaten face in the same prison uniform. A very strong image, concluded by the word “Compton” printed across an outline of Africa behind Lamar.
The striking images of this performance inspired every viewer and prompted immediate thought about the modern black power movement striving for equality amid white media. Without missing a beat, the Grammy’s deliver yet another African American empowering performance led by the cast of “Hamilton” including creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. The musical itself is a revolutionary testament to progress in African American focused productions on Broadway. The show’s feature in this year’s Grammy’s was a deliberate and progressive step itself, with the last musical theater performance on the Grammy’s being the rock musical “American Idiot” inspired by Green Day, one of only seven productions featured in the broadcast prior to this one.
The performance, introduced by Stephen Colbert live in New York City from the Richard Rodger’s Theater, was of the show’s compelling opener “Alexander Hamilton.” The high-energy hip-hop musical number brought thrills to both the live audience in New York as well as the Grammy audience both in Los Angeles and through the screen. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s striking entrance partnered with the dynamic choreography and strong lyrics presenting Hamilton as the ultimate underdog made an impactful mark on the evening. Miranda created the musical because he saw Hamilton’s struggle as one reminiscent of the African American’s oppression that inspired hip-hop, therefore making it necessary for the music to be exclusively that genre. This inspiration was clear in the performance Monday night.
Both of these performances made huge strides in African American media representation in just minutes. Lamar and Miranda both use greater metaphors to bring attention to the African American’s plights to the public. Lamar presented his visually with his direct connections to traditional African images and costuming. Miranda’s musical as a whole presents the metaphor. The literal number of African American’s on stage warrants attention and merit, but the underlying concept that anyone who experiences great backlash can relate to the struggle of African American’s is an important one. He bridges the gap between black and white by creating a musical unique in the casting of African American’s in the roll of white historical figures.
After the lack of any racial diversity in the Oscar nominations, the Grammy’s did everything but give Lamar album of the year to demonstrate their acceptance of African American’s in their awards. While the Grammy’s motives in creating this powerful twenty or so minute segment of the show may have been selfish, the product is anything but. The performances dominated the rest of the broadcast and not even Taylor Swift’s rallying cry of feminism during her acceptance speech for Album of the Year could snuff out the shouts of support for Lamar and Miranda. These two men and everyone who performed with them brought the second widely broadcasted movement of black power within a week; the former being Beyoncé’s release of the “Formation” video and her performance of it at Super Bowl L with homages to Michael Jackson, Malcom X, and the Black Panther movement. What these two men did in twenty minutes shaped the response of the entire program, and made sure the message viewers finished with at the end of the broadcast would be one of provocative thought surrounding racial inequality and representation.