As legends in their final act with a dead member, A Tribe Called Quest could have arrived at the Grammy Awards and played the old hits, even with a sterling new album in their back pocket. By the time they arrived onstage last night, the ceremony had seen little in the way of statements. Beyoncé used her acceptance speech to, once again, turn and face black women, and Laverne Cox had drawn the audience’s attention to the case of transgender student Gavin Grimm, but otherwise it was a night of tepid awkwardness: Katy Perry using the Constitution as a backdrop, Paris Jackson yelling, “Hashtag no DAPL!”
The lack of firm political statements at the Grammys isn’t necessarily new, but these times feel urgent, like a call to action for all of those who are visible and passionate. Leave it to rap, once neglected by the Grammys and then tediously embraced, to flip that switch.
Every piece of A Tribe Called Quest’s Grammy performance was calculated, sharp, and, most importantly, openly angry — led by an artist, Q-Tip, who was clearly uninterested in wasting time. Tribe weren't nominated for any awards last night, and their performance felt like a welcome disruption. ( We Got It from Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service, released two months after the September 2016 deadline, will be eligible for next year's awards.) Introducing their performance, Q-Tip spoke the group into existence as a single body speaking for "all those people around the world, all those people who are pushing people in power to represent them." It is a bold statement, and its spirit — devoid of self-service — runs counter to the general mood of the Grammys. But Q-Tip’s newfound urgency makes him believable as someone willing to fight the fight next to you, even if only from a stage, miles away.
Halfway through Tribe’s performance, the voice and presence of Busta Rhymes arrived, taking direct aim at Donald Trump, whom he called “President Agent Orange,” and stating that he was “not feeling the current political climate.” The performance of the song was perfect. “We the People....” is the greatest song from Tribe's final album, released to the public only three days after Trump was elected. The chorus echoes and parodies his campaign promises; it is an unblinking anthem that strips the mask off of intolerance and fear and reveals the naked face, plain and ugly.
The song’s finest moment is a verse by the dearly departed Phife Dawg, which, last night, echoed throughout the arena while A Tribe Called Quest stood onstage with Busta, Consequence, and Anderson .Paak, all of them with fists raised. When the song finally died down, there was Q-Tip at the center of the stage in all black, only briefly lit up by the thin gold chain around his neck, shouting the same word over and over: Resist. Resist. Resist.
It is a silly thing we do, to attach awards to art and then judge it by what it can or can’t win. It runs counter to why so many of us first mine our passions for music. It is, perhaps, even more silly that a show like the Grammy Awards can suck us in with this model, promising a spectacle that feeds into the industry-wide reliance on crown-giving and gatekeeping. But if we must keep doing this, in these times particularly, thank goodness for A Tribe Called Quest.
Not every artist has to have a political stance; an artist who isn’t knowledgeable about what is at stake could do more harm than good when speaking on it. But now more than ever, it is time for those who speak up to speak clearly. We are entering an era when we need people to say what they actually mean — to friends, to lovers, to enemies, to the world at large on a stage with millions of viewers.
When Katy Perry stands in front of the Constitution and tells us that we need unity, I’m left to ask about the “we” — and if I am in the universal “we,” with whom am I being asked to unify? Everyone does not need to approach the plate, but for those who do, the time for watching pitches sail by is long over. Q-Tip watched time run out on his beloved friend and bandmate, and, I imagine, he can see the end for A Tribe Called Quest. What this has awakened in him is the ability to take big swings without fear. Tribe’s performance last night was the first rap performance on the Grammy stage in the era of this new presidency. It sat in a lineage of statement performances by rappers at the Grammy Awards in recent years, but it was direct, jarring. When it was over, it did feel like it was for the people. It did feel like a group, for a moment, tearing the target from the backs of the endangered masses, and putting it on its own chest.