The biggest winner at the Grammy Awards Sunday night wasn’t in attendance.
Childish Gambino, the musical alter ego of actor Donald Glover, claimed the Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, the first hip-hop artist to win either award. Yet Gambino didn’t attend the show, leaving his Swedish co-writer to talk about a milestone victory for a genre dominated by black artists.
“It feels like a significant moment,” said Ludwig Goransson, the composer who co-wrote “This is America.” “This song speaks to so many people. It talks about injustice. It celebrates life. It unites people at the same time.”
Goransson didn’t elaborate on why Glover wasn’t there, though industry figures were gossiping all week about whether prominent hip-hop acts would show up. Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino turned down invitations to perform, the New York Times reported.
As R&B and hip-hop have supplanted rock as the most popular genre in the U.S., the Recording Academy has been slow to recognize it. Coming into the night, no hip-hop artist had ever won song or record of the year in the Grammys’ nearly 60-year history, and 15 years had passed since a hip-hop act last claimed album of the year. Outkast won in 2004 for “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”
The milestone for hip-hop was one of many efforts the academy made to correct its past wrongs. It also gave two of the top four prizes to female acts, a year after the show was criticized for failing to honor female musicians.
British pop star Dua Lipa was named best new artist, and country singer Kacey Musgraves claimed album of the year for “Golden Hour.” Cardi B also became the first solo female artist to win rap album of the year.
“I guess this year we’ve really stepped up,” Lipa said upon receiving her award, after praising the bumper group of fellow female nominees.
Last year, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, just one female act won a solo prize during the broadcast. On top of that, Lorde, a New Zealand-born singer-songwriter, was the lone nominee for album of the year who didn’t perform.
Neil Portnow, the head of the Recording Academy, inflamed the situation when he called on women to “step up.” Last June, he announced plans to resign after this year’s show, but said it had nothing to do with the controversy.
This year, the Grammys sought to silence critics from the get-go. Host Alicia Keys opened the show with a formidable quartet of women — Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Michelle Obama. The appearance of Obama elicited a standing ovation from a room of performers used to being applauded themselves.
While each woman extolled the virtues of music, and what it meant to them, the significance of five famous women on stage was lost on no one. Keys introduced them as her “sisters” and ended their appearance by quoting Beyonce. “Who runs the world?” (The answer: girls.)
“This past year I’ve been reminded that if coming face to face with an issue opens your eyes wide enough, it makes you more committed than ever to address those issues,” Portnow said Sunday. “We must seize this unique moment to ensure there is diversity and inclusion.”
While the Grammys remain the biggest event on the music industry’s calendar, the broadcast of the show has struggled to retain viewers in an age when music fans can access music and videos on their phones. The audience for the broadcast fell 24 percent to a nine-year low last year.
The Grammys hasn’t done itself any favors with its unforced errors, and this year was no different. Ariana Grande, who has the most popular song in the U.S. right now, dropped out of the show after a conflict with the producers.
The televised portion of the Grammys features more performances than awards, providing a stage for the music industry to showcase its talent. All but nine of the 84 awards are given out in a ceremony before the one that airs on TV.
Few artists know the cold rejection of the award show better than Drake, who has won just four Grammys from his 42 nominations. Sunday, he picked up the Grammy for best rap song and used the occasion to encourage his fellow artists.
“This is a business where sometimes it is up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed race kid from Canada has to say,” he said. “You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word.”
The producers of the show cut to a commercial before he was finished talking. An executive in the press room backstage explained the producers took the step because Drake took a “natural pause.” When they realized their mistake, they invited Drake to come back to the stage and finish. He declined.
After the show, Goransson — Childish Gambino’s collaborator — said he was trying to reach the rapper to tell him the news.
“I tried to call him, and it didn’t go through,” he said. “I’m going to try it again.”