J.Lo's Motown Tribute Was Not The Tribute We Deserved

BY: COURA FALL

Photo by  Scott Laidlaw  on  Flickr

Photo by Scott Laidlaw on Flickr

Motown Records represents an iconic blend of entertainment and Black excellence. It gave space to artists and creators who were typically excluded from mainstream music, and created legendary entertainers such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Jackson Five and many more. Motown produced some of the most beloved and catchy songs of all time with over 180 number one hit songs worldwide. As an institution, it had a large impact on pop culture, with smooth dance moves and gorgeous afros, but it also significantly impacted a racially segregated society. It is Black History Month, a time where we honor Black scientists, musicians, authors and activists. It is because of this important month that I, as a Black woman, can see myself in cultural spaces such as film and music, allows me to connect to something bigger than just me.

However, watching Jennifer “J.Lo” Lopez perform a Motown tribute at the Grammys she was a sobering moment. It showed that even Motown, a Black institution, is considered undeserving of proper respect. J.Lo on that stage, while unintentional, showed us that the acknowledgment of Black people in entertainment is still inequitable even when Black achievements are being “celebrated.”

Black representation during Black History month is obvious, right? Wrong. While J.Lo’s influence as a Latina woman in mainstream music is important and deserves a tribute of her own, she most certainly is not the person to be the face of Black musical history. Proper representation leads to proper remembrance, and it does a disservice to the pioneers of Motown who cultivated the space for them to exist in an arena that was not created or sustained by them.

Needless to say, the Grammys did not share the same view and gave her the opportunity to perform a tribute to the infamous record label. Did she put on a show? Absolutely. However, her talent on the stage only highlights a much larger issue that major institutions, like the Grammys, fail to acknowledge the accomplishments of Black artists and represent them adequately.

Representation is everything. This is why movies like Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Moonlight (2016) and Black Panther (2018) were momentous to  POC viewers. It is why Motown is as beloved as it is: it gave African American musicians the space to be both creative and Black. Institutions like the Oscars and the Grammys are notorious for wanting to only acknowledge the creator’s artistic talent and not the identities they carry into their work which contribute to their success. Continuous slights for people of color’s work has been a common criticism of the Recording Academy. Fresh in our minds is the snub of the century when Macklemore won Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar in 2014. The same applies to the film world, where the movement of “Oscars So White” has been a rebuke on the Academy’s lack of inclusivity in the film industry, as white actors and movies continue to dominate the yearly categories.  Black History Month is a short amount of time, and we should use it to salute Black pioneers who have shaped so many aspects of our society, rather than allowing institutions like the Grammys to attempt to do it for us with watered down acknowledgments.

I’m not saying we should recognize artists of color simply to satisfy a quota. Rather, we need to institutionalize representation.  Next time there is a Motown tribute, have a Black artist provide that remembrance. When a film makes Black and Brown people feel included and portrayed in a positive light, give that film the credit that it is due. J.Lo is not the person to be upset with here. Be frustrated with the Emmys, Oscars and the Grammys, but then go out and use that frustration through social justice. Stop yelling at the TV and start protesting on the streets. Otherwise, we ain't never gon' be alright.