Halt the Dramatics: It Only Takes a Sentence (Grammy’s 2016)

Song of the Year stands as a category that people know is important and can get excited about as the five nominees play across the screen in whatever creative fashion The Grammy’s have denoted for that year. But, at the 2016 Grammy Awards, this category that is usually in the spotlight more so for its confusing difference from Record of the Year, was made more important and it wasn’t necessarily because of the winner or even music in general. After R&B legend Stevie Wonder meshed his funky and soulful voice with the trendsetting and trailblazing a cappella group, Pentatonix, for a unique tribute to the late great Maurice White of “Earth, Wind & Fire,” it was time for the six members on stage to announce the winner of the Song of the Year.

Stevie Wonder is blind. I could produce that statement of fact to nearly anyone who was born at least eighteen years or more ago and the shock value would remain extremely low. So, when he went to open the card that would eventually reveal who the winner of Song of the Year would be, I felt my chest clench. It was taking him a little longer than usual — it was obvious that he couldn’t quite get his fingers in the exact place to tear open the card where people who can see clearly oftentimes struggle to release. I found myself asking internal and rapid fire questions like, “Why are the Pentatonix not helping him?” and “This is bad — why wouldn’t they just bring on separate presenters following the moving performance?” And it was in the middle of these questions — maybe thirty seconds after they began — that Stevie Wonder pried the card open and I waited for the Pentatonix to exclaim what would eventually be Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” as this year’s winner.

But instead Stevie Wonder turned the card to the crowd — a motion that would eventually be the punch line of his well-timed and important “joke” — and I anticipated a cliché shouting of the diamond-clad crowd in unison the winner, but that wasn’t the case. “Y’all can’t read this can ya?!” the piano legend exclaimed with a bursting, teethy smile and proud chuckle. I was sitting rather far from the television and so while I thought Stevie Wonder might be addressing my poor proximity and even poorer eyesight directly, he was instead addressing the crowd in front of him and everyone watching.

“You can’t read it. You can’t read Braille nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah,” followed his original statement, and while I have never given Stevie Wonder’s music much time or focus, he had every ounce of my attention at that moment. It felt like much more than a minute had passed since this had all begun, and even though he had a sense of humor for the first half of his poignant message teasing those watching in a playful manner, his agenda was evident. Wonder continued, “We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability,” and with the one simple sentence his entire message was communicated.

Wonder didn’t have to employ the dramatics and preach for twenty minutes ending in a laughable presidential candidate intention (cough Kanye), take over the stage mid acceptance speech (another cough), or even shout “Give it to me Beyoncé!” like Bruno Mars did as the queen was seconds away from announcing the recipient of Record of the Year (that Mars would go on to win), in order to bring attention to himself and his cause. Instead he gave one sentence, one powerfully important sentence, and in doing so brought attention to a vastly underrepresented population in the performing arts — the disabled. I felt a rush of “hell ya” in that moment and because of how simplistic Wonder made his point the glamour of it was placed not selfishly on himself, but instead the greater population he was speaking for.

Over the past eight years I have worked with students of varying degrees of special needs and in almost every instance one thing is consistent — music, dancing, acting, and the like never fail to spark some sort of response and my mission in most cases is to make those activities possible for those students I work with. Quite obviously these aspects of life have influenced Stevie Wonder greatly and if everyone was given the accessibility he knows he has to these things, the world would change for the better (just think of the mark Wonder or Ray Charles have left). Accessibility is something I don’t always think of (even with my experience), the general population rarely acknowledges, and in Hollywood/the music industry is almost non-existent unless that person’s disability is being called attention to, highlighted, or even pitied in a less-than-convincing way. Stevie Wonder didn’t ask for any of things, he just asked for the conversation to start, to be recognized, and in doing so produced the most memorable moment of the Grammy’s (outside of Gaga’s tribute to Bowie which I could probably write a book about) with his tasteful call to action.

Will all award shows now have Braille on their winner cards or ways of using teleprompters for the blind or make stages wheelchair accessible for winners who are handicapped to accept awards after this? No, I’m sure not. But I don’t even think that was Stevie Wonder’s point. His point was that anyone watching or attending the Grammy’s (and any other award show for that matter) is in some way touched, moved, or at least entertained by the performing arts, and because of this a public message at the Grammy’s lacking the obnoxious drama of most industry related speeches felt like a damn good place to start in making this infatuation for these things accessible for all.