Hip-hop is no stranger to using its power for good. But while lyricism has always been used to highlight the plight of African-Americans, live performances have not usually followed suit. When it comes to performing live, particularly on network television, hip-hop is all about leaning toward the camera with a fish-eyed lens while throwing dollars with braggadocio or leaning on star power to make a great performance. (Think Jay-Z, Kanye West, T.I., Lil Wayne and M.I.A performing ‘Swagga Like Us’ at the 2009 Grammys.)
Until Kendrick Lamar’s performance at this year’s Grammys, hip-hop’s biggest political statement at an awards show was the absence of the genre’s biggest artists at the time. In 1989, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J and others chose to boycott The Grammys for not televising the first-ever award for Best Rap Performance. (Jay-Z opted not to attend The Grammys for several years beginning in 1999 for similar reasons, though he never made a statement that he was boycotting.)
This year, Kendrick Lamar could have chosen to boycott The Grammys. (Especially after he was completely shut out of the 2014 Grammys with seven nominations and zero wins).
Instead, he agreed to perform once again, knowing full well that he could go home unrewarded once more. This time, he decided to go out in a blaze of glory whether he took home a trophy or not.
His performance, just as nuanced and ripe for dissection as Beyoncé’s video for ‘Formation” was a tour de force, a history-making turn on the Grammy stage. Kendrick brought live theater to his musical set. He walked like he was actually in physical pain as he moved in chains, across the stage and toward the mic. His facial expressions were far more than just that of a musician performing a powerful song. He was a man with a brutal message, several in fact: stop stealing our culture, understand our pain, know why we don’t trust you.
He left the audience standing and applauding, though many looked as if they weren’t sure what had just taken place—a sign that you’ve achieved the goal of being artistically faithful to your music, while giving the people who need it most something to think about.
As soon as Kendrick left the stage, I thought to myself: He’s going to win an Emmy for this. Whoever else gets nominated has no chance.
Although most do not know this, The Emmy Awards, which are given for excellence in television performances, has a category for the best performance in a variety show or musical program. I remember years and years ago, when Bette Midler sang “One For My Baby” to Johnny Carson on his last episode of “The Tonight Show,” it was a huge pop culture moment and Midler won an Emmy for her performance the following year.
So, any artist—actor, comedian, singer, dancer—who performs at The Super Bowl, The Oscars, The Grammys or any other award show or musical event, can win an Emmy for best performance.
Who else could win this year but Kendrick Lamar?
And Kendrick would be in very good company if he took home this Emmy at the 2016 awards ceremony this fall.
Back on June 20th, 1960, Harry Belafonte, then just 33 years old, won that year’s Emmy Award for best Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program. He was being honored for his one-night-only special called The Revlon Review: Tonight With Belafonte. Like Kendrick’s performance over fifty years later, the show was a tribute to black music.
Whitney Houston won the same award for her flawless performance at the 28th annual Grammy Awards in 1986. The legendary Sarah Vaughn’s episode of Great Performances was a winner in this category in 1981 and noted African-American opera singer Leontyne Price took home the prize in 1983 for her Live From Lincoln Center performance.
I called a friend, who is an Emmy voter, to ask if he’d be voting for Kendrick for Best Performance in a Variety Show or Musical Program for the 2016 Emmy awards. He said he wouldn’t be able to even if he wanted to.
It turns out the award was discontinued back in 2008.
Clearly, it’s time for The Emmy Awards to add this category back in. The eligibility period ends May 31 so that’s plenty of time to nominate artists in this category and return it to the ballot for voters.
Of course, I want the category back solely because I want to see Kendrick be rewarded for his artistry and more importantly, the sheer bravery behind his message. But even if it’s not Kendrick, the past year has seen a bevy of awesome musical moments in television. From Beyoncé’s Super Bowl sensation to Adele’s one-night-only live special last December. And we already know Chris Rock will likely bring down the house when he addresses the #OscarsSoWhite controversy at this year’s Oscars. So I’d expect him to earn a nomination as well.
The point is, there are several live performances in the last year that should be singled out for excellence. There’s no better moment than right now for The Emmys to bring this award back. And hey, just imagine what Kendrick would do onstage if when he wins…
Do you agree with the writer? Click here to support her Change.org petition to add the category back into The Emmy Awards.
(Photos from left: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images, CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)