It’s Time to Abolish ‘Powerful’ Performances at Award Shows
Music stars and activists alike have exploited Black death and protest imagery for profit
A James Baldwin quote plays. Two White male police officers confront and question a Black man sleeping in his car, quickly pinning him to the ground. The man (played by actor Kendrick Sampson) breaks free, flees, and is shot down. This recreation of the June 2020 killing of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police was all a setup for Lil Baby’s performance of his song “The Bigger Picture” at Sunday night’s Grammys — but it wasn’t the end of the theatrics. What followed was a group of protestors clashing with law enforcement in riot gear, acrobatic dancing, cameos by Killer Mike and activist Tamika Mallory, flares, a fake molotov cocktail, and pyrotechnics galore.
The routine, which sought to capture and reflect the unrest of the Black Lives Matter generation, played like a protest-era performance starter kit. But the 26-year-old rapper’s heavy-handed set is only the latest in a string of similar big-budget performances that border on exploitation, using a mainstream stage to replay what we’ve all seen on news reports about how policing impacts Black life. This performance of protest is sold as political solidarity but increasingly seems to be sold, period — a means of generating profits and clout for artists, personalities, or corporations, while doing little for those most directly affected by victims of police brutality.
While folks like Mallory, McKesson, and Shaun King can raise awareness for issues like anti-Black racism and violent policing, they rarely do so in service to those most impacted by such ills — but rather to their own social ascendancy.
Kendrick Lamar may not have been the first to bring the Black political rap performance into White spaces, but he certainly exposed the profitable side of social justice aesthetics. In 2016, the Grammys stage was home to one of his most stirring performances to date…