What Grammy viewers learned during Sunday's telecast was that the contestation between artists isn't exclusive to records sold or critically acclaimed reviews. After seeing Beyoncé (as well as her much talked about cast of put-upon black men) fumble and falter her way through Mahalia Jackson's classic, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," which was performed brilliantly by vocalist Ledisi on the Selma soundtrack, it can now be argued that artists aren't merely tossing about their faux manes, they're also throwing around their supposed professional clout. Good manners be damned. Never mind that Ledisi delivered the classic hymn with both thrilling exactitude and a visceral gospel heft reserved for those singers whose careers rightfully dominate America's musical cannon. That the song is so closely associated with a film that captured man's inhumanity to man, the misguide belief that what's black is decidedly less than, and what is lighter is inherently better, worthier of praise and advancement, was given to a lighter singer over a darker one shows just how pervasive racial idolization remains in American culture.
Beyoncé wanted to sing it, and we did not breathlessly await her performance as much as we were left to grudgingly endure it. Through much of her awkward rendition I found myself praying that our precious Lord would take the mic.
But I digress. There's a larger issue at play than just the swapping of one great singer for another less talented but more popular one. Ledisi, with a crown of enviable braids and beautiful dark skin, was passed over by an artist whose nose job, ten pounds of blonde hair, and suspiciously alabaster skin has no doubt aided in her ascent to the top. What perhaps Beyoncé and Grammy producers failed to realized (the producers can feign ignorance while Queen Bey, a black woman, cannot) was that this was a moment of distinct sensitivity and consequence. The performance of this iconic song, of which Beyoncé and her family apparently believes is uniquely theirs alone -- though it's sung almost universally at black funerals and churches -- should have been fraught with significance. Ledisi, who introduced it to a whole new generation with such beauty and gravitas should have been invited to sing it, not a socially constructed pop star famous this past year for her ability to surfboard, a pop star that wasn't in the movie or on the soundtrack. And if, as Beyoncé contends, this song means so very much to her why hasn't she sung it on any of her 200 albums? Could her performance have merely hinted at an exaggerated sense of self-worth that led her to steal another artist's moment to shine?
According to Common -- who did act in Selma, and John Legend, who both ashamedly consigned such magnificent vulgarity by retorting, "No one says no to Beyoncé" -- showcasing one's talents is for the powerful, and maybe even the feared. Not only should they be ashamed of robbing Ledisi of her chance to perform before a vast, rapt audience, but Common and John Legend should be embarrassed that one person (or "camp") caused them to make a decision that put their character under the glaring, and yes, unforgiving, eye of the public.
Is this what R&B has come to: cowering to the lightest among us?
There's a pattern here worth addressing. Did Beyoncé not learn her lesson when she famously accepted an offer to sing Etta James' classic "At Last" during Obama's first presidential inauguration, and Ms. James took Beyoncé and her ego to task? Humility, Mrs. Carter, is a beautiful thing; it shows maturity, grace, and civility. And you my dear not only missed an opportunity to practice the tenets of which Martin Luther King Jr. espoused in Selma, but you had an opportunity to engage in an essential social commentary. We shouldn't be intimated by one another, and we certainly shouldn't allow a mostly white governing board to pit us against one another.
Beyonce's embarrassing and poorly planned performance was the collective fault of many. But I cant help but wonder if Ledisi was publicly slighted simply because she's not as light as a white peach, with thin, manufactured Puritan features. Is the message that Beyoncé wants to send to young girls the world over? That it's okay to always be the Diana Ross among your peer's Supremes? When you can't get by on merit or talent alone, take someone else's glory, and stand in angelic spotlight of your own creation, ruining a masterpiece simply because you wanted to wear a pretty dress and feel the fans blow through your sewn-in locks? Now that the damage has been done, whether it was intentional or not, sincere apologies are in order. Surely, she who "rules the world" can make an earnest attempt at an apology. You can sing them or perform an interpretive dance. But if there was ever a time when one artist needed to take the stage in deference to another -- and Lord knows we know how much Beyoncé loves to take the stage -- it's now.