It was a star-studded event at the 2021 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
The famed Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio was packed to the gills with fans, families, and famous personalities who have made our lives full with their melodies and cherished works of art. The induction marked a grand return to the in-person ceremonies of years past, and the first one to take place since John Sykes took over as its chairman.
With 13 acts all entering into the halls, which is about double the number in a standard class, this was one of the most diverse group of inductees in recent years. It was a sight to be in the room for such a momentous occasion, especially because of two of this year’s inductees—hip-hop luminaries Jay-Z and LL Cool J.
The COVID-19 crisis directly affected the tribute, as most of the honorees were no-shows, submitted a video message (Tina Turner), had others provide posthumous tributes (Ringo Starr for Billy Preston) or boycotted altogether (Todd Rundgren). And while in the past, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame commemoration has gone on for hours, the quickened pace of this year’s event sure sped up the evening and gave ample time for the likes of Clarence Avant, Tina Turner, Gil Scott-Heron, Charley Pride, and those in hip-hop that we’ve lost to get their propers as well.
Jennifer Hudson, who played Aretha Franklin in the recent biopic Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in honor of legendary singer/songwriter and inductee, Carole King. Soon after, Dr. Dre, who is a 2016 inductee as part of N.W.A., came out to admit LL Cool J, who now joins Run DMC, Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. It was a beautiful sight to see the Aftermath Entertainment head honcho at the podium, as Dre reserves his public speaking for opening new schools in Los Angeles or making music for video games.
“He’s hit that unique space that crosses bridges generations; the rare artist beloved by you, your momma, and all of your kids all at once,” he said. “How ‘bout that? How many artists in the rap game are relevant after 30 years?”
No truer words could describe how Def Jam Records’ inaugural signee went from being a lyrical lothario to a limelight-loving actor to a full-blown living legend embracing the adoration from his peers. And when that love fest transitioned to the stage, Uncle L kicked off a memorable performance that left mouths agape and all hands in the air. His set began with a remixed version of 1987’s “Go Cut Creator Go,” blended with the Rick Rubin-produced “Going Back to Cali”.
Upping the ante, Eminem, who cites LL as his favorite rapper, casually strolled onto the stage for an otherworldly rendition of “Rock the Bells”. The duo traded lines, shared the spotlight, and delivered incredible energy, shock, and awe to create one of the night’s most bombastic showing.
The 12,000+ strong audience was enthralled and captivated witnessing their favorites become enshrined immortals. And while it was a bit odd to shortchange the impact that artists like Gil Scott-Heron and Charley Pride have made — not only to the music and entertainment world but to Black culture specifically — it didn’t dilute the air of importance that was present inside the FieldHouse.
Most people told me that Jay-Z’s presence at the ceremony would be a “game-time” decision. In fact, there was absolutely no information provided about his appearance or his award prior to the segment. But then the lights cut to black and words from an all too familiar voice filled the room. Up on the jumbotron, “our President” Barack Obama, hit the screen with a virtual address and everyone knew that the CEO of the R-O-C was definitely in the building. There would be no performance, which, personally, I found disheartening, but after hearing the speech from LL Cool J, a titan MC who was rejected by Hall of Fame voters six times before awarding him the Musical Excellence Award, it felt appropriate that the newly minted “Hall of Fame Hov” ceded the grand stage to one of the most dynamic performers ever to do it in hip-hop.
The tribute video rolled out an incredible who’s who of A-list icons and legends such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chris Rock, David Letterman, and close friends and family like LeBron James, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Beyoncé, and Blue Ivy. When the lights cut back on, Dave Chappelle walked onto the stage to acknowledge Jay-Z’s rightful induction into the pantheon of greats, and it was here that cemented the meaning of the night to me.
Hip hop, as a culture and art form, has been the most targeted artistry produced by Black America. Probably because those who created it couldn’t be decimated like what happened in folk music, or co-opted like in jazz and rock and roll, something that Chappelle noted the moment he took the mic and spoke to all those in attendance.
“I need everybody in rock and roll to know that even though you are honoring him, he is ours,” Chappelle said. “He is hip hop. Forever and ever and a day.”
This was church, gospel, and tabernacle all wrapped up into a succinct statement thanks to the comedian’s understanding of hip hop and the plight of being Black in America. “It [being Black in America] is not as easy as it looks. … “We have to make everything look easy. And this man is a diamond that was born of pressure,” Chappelle added. Sitting in the rafters, watching the man who gave us all gems for only $9.99 from 1996 to the present-day with “What It Feels Like,” co-starring the late Nipsey Hussle, a next-gen rap descendant, and you immediately realize what this moment meant to Black people as well as to the culture.
Going off in jubilation behind me was Grandmaster Caz, a rap pioneer and one of the main architects behind 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight,” who Jay even iconized on “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”. It served as a connecting bridge to show how far and poignant hip hop had become. At the same time on stage, Chappelle chronicled how Jay-Z, transitioning from Marcy to Madison Square to, now, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was in essence, “Black excellence,” and his impression — no matter what others may think — on Black America was beautiful to witness.
As a child and student of hip-hop, who walked the same streets that Hov, Tracy Morgan, and Fabolous called home, it was an inspirational moment that can never be duplicated.
Because Shawn Corey Carter and James Todd Smith — two men who bookended the rise and dominance of Def Jam Records, the two who brought the block to the boardrooms — meant that they were respectively, one of one. Essentially, this means none before it and none to come.
Those who experienced it first hand and those who will watch the ceremony (when it airs on Nov. 20, 2021, on HBO and HBO Max.) will feel how palpable it was to honor these musicians turned moguls. Artists including H.E.R., Mickey Guyton, and Gary Clark Jr. assembled to bear witness to Jay-Z and LL honor hip-hop’s past (Rakim, KRS-One, and Chuck D) and predict the future of the Rock Hall (OutKast, Big Daddy Kane). The ceremony cemented why hip hop and these two particular contributors embody the potential and possibilities of what others can aspire to if they live the mantra of “I will not lose.”
Kevin L. Clark is a screenwriter and entertainment director for BET Digital, who covers the intersection of music, film, pop culture, and social justice. Follow him on @KevitoClark.