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Circumstances circumvent controversies at Grammy Awards

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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The best performance at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night, Jan. 26?

How about to the Recording Academy itself, in sidestepping the week and a half's worth of controversies that raged prior to the ceremony in Los Angeles -- thanks to tragedy and some other welcome narratives that popped up over the course of the three-hour and 45-minute show.

The pall was cast when the organization placed President Deborah Dugan on administrative leave amidst allegations of misconduct. Dugan retaliated with an EEOC complaint alleging gender discrimination and sexual harassment; She also spoke out about a rigged nominating system and financial improprieties, which the Academy denied. The music community was polarized and the stage was set for a real firestorm on Sunday -- especially after Sean "Diddy" Combs, honored at music executive Clive Davis' annual Grammy eve party on Saturday, Jan. 25, spoke out about a lack of diversity, declaring that "Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be."

That was quenched, however, by the sad news about the death of basketball star Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, in a helicopter crash earlier in the day. The story quickly, and rightfully, became the narrative for the Grammys, especially as the televised ceremony was being held in the Staples Center, which host Alicia Keys noted was "the house that Kobe Bryant built." The Academy's woes paled in comparison, and slamming the organization at such a time would seem callous and disingenuous.

So the show went on, with an abundance of tributes to Bryant throughout the day. Opening the afternoon Premiere Ceremony where most of the awards were presented, acting Academy President Harvey Mason Jr. asked for a moment of silence for Bryant, then ignored the controversies, promising the organization "will continue to be your community" to serve musicians in need and advocate for education and other issues important to artists." "What you want now is to hear 'The Grammy goes to...'" Mason concluded.

Winners and presenters stayed largely mum towards the Academy. Elvis Costello, winning Best Traditional Pop Recording, threw perhaps some light shade when he said that, "I want to thank the Academy, as you must in these times," but nobody referenced the group in any pejorative way. Keys, meanwhile, traipsed lightly over the issues, though she did knowledge that, pre-Bryant, "This was a helluva week...This was a serious one." Mostly, however, she kept her commentary positive and encouraging, talking up the artists and music in general.

The Grammys had some good news on which to pivot the conversation as well -- including Billie Eilish's historic sweep of the four top categories (Record, Albums and Song of the Year and Best New Artist). With her and other top honorees Lizzo and Gary Clark Jr. -- even Tanya Tucker, winning for the first time ever -- the Academy also had a counter to the complaints about diversity, or lack thereof.

And there were performances to remember, including strong tributes to Prince, Nipsey Hussle and outgoing Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich, the latter of which spotlighted Michigan's The War and Treaty. Politics also got a break in the wake of Bryant's death, but Clark Jr. and the Roots made a ferocious point with their performance of "This Land" towards the end of the show.

Sunday's events gave the Academy a respite, but the issues will fire up again soon enough. The Dugan matter is far from closed, and on Sunday morning the Academy issued a statement from Mason promising to adopt and accelerate 18 recommendations made by a Diversity Task Force, including the hiring of a Diversity & Inclusion Officer within 90 days and a fund for "women in music" organizations.

As Keys said during her sign-off, "We got a lot to change. We got a lot to do" -- hopefully leading to a different and more positive preamble to the 63rd Grammys in 2021.

For a full list of Sunday's winners visit grammy.com.

Web Site: www.grammy.com

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