| Shaun Tandon |
LOS ANGELES (AFP) – The music industry’s biggest night turned into a globally watched stage for activism Sunday, with stars at the Grammys speaking out against police brutality and domestic abuse.
Two of the biggest names at the annual awards night, Pharrell Williams and Beyonce, incorporated subtle protests in separate performances as their back-up dancers raised their arms in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose.
The protest comes amid the growing “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States in response to a string of high-profile killings by police of African Americans.
Williams – whose “Happy” become a global hit with its straightforward theme of joy – took the song in a more political direction with dark classical strings and a piano interlude by Lang Lang.
While Williams dressed as a hotel servant in the style of the irony-rich film “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, his dancers put on black hoodies – a likely reference to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he was shot in February 2012 by a neighbourhood watchman in Florida.
Williams and his dancers raised their arms in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” tribute – which has been used at rallies across America, and mirrored by university and professional athletes in protest at police mistreatment of minorities.
Later in the show, Beyonce took a similar tack, with her dancers also putting their hands up in the dramatic pose.
She later gave the stage to the rapper Common, who directly spoke of the tensions with police in Ferguson, Missouri in the song “Glory”, which is featured in the Oscar-nominated civil rights film “Selma”.
“Hand to the Heavens / No man, no weapon”, he sings on the song performed with John Legend, who accompanied on piano.
“That’s why Rosa sat on the bus / That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.”
And during the evening, Prince, presenting the Album of the Year award, offered a pointed comment, “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”
Despite the Grammy focus on racial inequality, no African American artist won in the four top categories.
In a more planned effort, the Recording Academy worked with US President Barack Obama and superstar Katy Perry to turn the Grammys into a platform to stop sexual assault and domestic violence.
“Right now, nearly one in five women in America has been a victim of rape or attempted rape. And more than one in four women has experienced some form of domestic violence,” Obama said in a video message broadcast at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Domestic violence survivor-turned-activist Brooke Axtell took to the stage and told her harrowing story.
“After a year of passionate romance with a handsome, charismatic man, I was stunned when he began to abuse me,” Axtell said.
“I believed he was lashing out because he was in pain and needed help. I believed my compassion could restore him and our relationship. My empathy was used against me.”
“I was terrified of him and ashamed I was in this position,” Axtell said.
Perry – usually known for her cheery, elaborate performances including during halftime of last week’s Super Bowl – then proceeded to sing one of her more unadorned songs, her ballad “By the Grace of God”, which tells of a troubled relationship.
Attention to domestic violence has been growing in the United States in part due to abuse cases involving prominent athletes.
The night’s performers included the R&B singer Rihanna, who notoriously suffered abuse by partner and fellow musician Chris Brown.
Asked about Brown, Axtell later told reporters that it was critical to have male allies and to work with people who have committed abuse in the past.
She voiced hope that the use of music to highlight the issue would “reach people in a way that moves past the mind and to the heart and soul.”
“I am hopeful that it will inspire people to take action,” she said.
Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy that runs the Grammys, said that the night’s activism theme was not surprising, considering the nature of the music in competition this year.
“We’re at a time when musicians are thinking about the world, our society, and you see that in the songs,” he said.