Going into the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards Sunday night, it was hard to know what to expect. The entire city of Los Angeles was reeling from the sudden death of Kobe Bryant, and apart from that the Recording Academy itself was already in a state of turmoil. Ousted CEO Deborah Dugan filed a lawsuit Tuesday, alleging that the Recording Academy operates like a boys’ club and allows conflicts of interest to pervade its voting and nomination processes. Taylor Swift had already reportedly canceled her own unannounced Grammys gig by Friday. And so, going into the ceremony Sunday, it was hard not to wonder what other artists might have to say—if anything.
This year’s Grammys host Alicia Keys kept the focus on Kobe Bryant’s death at first, but soon began to pivot, discussing the basketball player’s love of music before doing a quick riff on current events. But then her language began to sound a little more pointed—and her audience began to seem a little more precise. “I feel the energy of all the beautiful artists in this room,” she said, per The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s going to be an amazing night. Because it’s a new decade. It’s a time for newness.”
“We refuse the negative energy,” she continued. “We refuse the old systems.”
Dugan’s lawsuit contends that the Academy ousted her as retaliation for having given a memo to human resources describing what she believed constituted a “boys club” environment within the organization. Dugan also claims to have proof that the voting processes include conflicts of interest.
Keys seemed to hint at this strife when she said, per THR, “We want to be respected and safe in our diversity. We want to be shifting to realness and inclusivity. So tonight, we want to celebrate the people—the artists that put themselves on the line and share their truth with us.”
And, perhaps as a callback to Dugan’s predecessor Neil Portnow’s infamous statement after the male-dominated 2018 Grammys that female artists should “step up,” Keys shouted out three of the night’s most famous performers: Lizzo, Ariana Grande, and Billie Eilish. “We’re unstoppable,” she said. “We get to be who we want to be. We get to be different; we get to be unique; we get to be everything. Right now.”
And although it’s unclear whether Lizzo was sending a message of her own to the Recording Academy, she also offered an interesting thought while accepting the award for best pop solo performance.
“This whole week I’ve been lost in my problems, stressed out,” she said. “And then in an instant, all of that can go away and your priorities really shift. And today all of my little problems that I thought were big as the world were gone, and I realize that there’s people hurting right now. You guys create beautiful music. You guys create connectivity. And as I’m speaking to all of you all in this room, we need to reach out. This is the beginning of making music that moves people again—making music that liberates people.”
Later on, Dua Lipa took the stage with Keys to present the award for best new artist—and took a moment to call out the Grammys, like she’s done before. The singer touted the number of talented women in the music industry, and urged for anyone hiring to consider them. And in conclusion? She added, “We all deserve a seat at every table.”