Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile Light Up The Grammy Awards

Just as Alicia Keys concludes her powerful, “This is love, this is life, this is living, this is light, and all because of music, music is so powerful…” monologue at the start of the 61st Grammy Awards last night, my five-year-old daughter gets out of bed and pokes her head into the room.

“Come on in, sweetheart, I want you to see this,” I say. Keys had now brought out Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez. Gaga then looks us square in the eyes after her opening “They said I was weird” statement. We smile.

My daughter has been infatuated with Keys’ “Girl on Fire” for a few months now. She’ll take any toy she can find that resembles a microphone, find a corner in her room and ask ‘Lexa to play it. When I told her Keys was going to be hosting the Grammys on TV last night, all she wanted to do was see her. Who was this voice?

I prop her up on the couch and she joins my wife and I (and everyone in the audience) to partake in a standing ovation when Michelle Obama steps to the plate. “Music helps us share ourselves,” she states. “It allows us to hear one another, to invite each other in. Music shows us that all of it matters, every story within every voice, every note within every song.”

Last night, the story in the voice and the notes in the songs belonged to some incredible women. According to The Hollywood Reporter, 31 women won Grammy’s last night. That’s an increase of 82% compared to 2018 – when Recording Academy president Neil Portnow’s had a repulsive response for women to “step up”.

“They said I was weird. That my look, my choices, my sound – that it wouldn’t work.
But music told me not to listen to them.”  ~Lady Gaga

Minutes later, Lady Gaga would win her first (of three) awards of the night. The show concluded with Kacey Musgraves taking home the Grammy for “Album of the Year”. The three-and-a-half hours in-between were laced with some truly profound and moving musical moments.

There were the Dolly Parton and Diana Ross tributes, Camila Cabello opening with “Havna”, a duet between St. Vincent and Dua Lipa, H.E.R. making the guitar smoke, Janelle Monae backed with women in space suits and Cardi B winning “Rap Album of the Year”…to name a few.

About halfway through the broadcast, Keys sits between two pianos. With a smirk she talks about how she wishes she wrote some songs she marvels at and then plays parts of “Killing Me Softly”, “Unforgettable” and “Use Somebody” (with a Coldplay intro) before striding into her “New York”. Keys bounced between the keys literally, often playing both pianos (of different color) at the same time. It was absolutely mesmerizing. For the entire show Keys was a breath of fresh air and undoubtedly the best choice to host this evening. She was real – and living out her opening statements that it’s simply respecting the music. Her passion and charisma were contagious and captivating from the opening note as she never waivered from the point of appreciating the artform.

 “When you really wanna say something, you say it with a song.” ~ Alicia Keys

As for the men, there certainly were some bright spots. Perhaps none more than a brotherhood between Chris Cornell and Fantastic Negrito coming full circle. Negrito, whose personal journey is remarkable, opened for Cornell throughout the legend’s Higher Truth run and served as the only opener to ever grace the stage prior to Temple of the Dog. Two years ago, Negrito won his first Grammy for The Last Days of Oakland and Cornell had this to say:

During the pre-show ceremony last night, both Negrito and Cornell won Grammy awards within minutes of each other. Negrito for Best Contemporary Blues Album and Cornell for Best Rock Performance. Negrito concludes his acceptance speech with a “special special special special special nod to my brother, Chris Cornell.”

And finally, there was Brandi Carlile. Where do I begin? Well, just a few weeks ago, Carlile was our Most Inspiring Artist of 2018. But I first was introduced to Carlile when she opened for Ray LaMontagne in 2011, and I was instantly blown away by how heartfelt she was. Eight years and a ton of well-deserved success later, Carlile still surfs that same wave. I eagerly paced with excitement awaiting Carlile’s appearance like it was my own.

Finally, Keys says something about a performance she has been waiting for all night, and I knew it was time.

“You’re feeling nervous aren’t you, boy?”

Well, yes, a little bit, but they are welcomed nerves. Carlile and the Hanseroth twins break into a beautiful rendition of “The Joke”. After the first chorus, Carlile rips a “Hey” and the crowd erupts. From this point on, everything changed. Earlier in the evening, Carlile spoke of coming out at 15-years-old and was never invited to any parties or got to attend the dance. But music, namely Americana, made her feel welcomed.

“To be embraced by this enduring and loving community has been the dance of a lifetime, thank you for being my island,” she says before raising the Grammy in her right hand with a genuine smile. Post-show, Carlile explained to Stryker that her journey to this point is one of much faith and gratitude. And all of this was present in her performance of “The Joke”.

I noticed Carlile’s eyes were open as she belted out most of the song. I figured a performance with this emotion on display would typically lead the singer to have their eyes securely shut, to further enable them to dig deep down and scoop out every ounce of themselves. Somehow Carlile did just that while being present enough to embrace everything in front of her. Shortly after the aforementioned first chorus burst, Janelle Monae stands up in the crowd. The background noise begins to get louder and perfectly compliment the heavy lyrics of “The Joke” – which is all about acceptance. 

As the second verse winds down with “I see your eyes behind your hair, you’re looking tired…” Carlile changes the delivery of the following line and adds a little umph to “But, you don’t look scared.”

And there you have it- it’s all about the delivery. There was so much story, history, courage, love and sincerity behind every syllable Carlile and company exuded. She’d smile, then shake her head back-and-forth before completely dominating the last thunderous “Themmmmmmm” of “the Joke’s on them.” And this was proof. Because the joke was on them (and anyone who has marginalized you)….as Carlile jumps up-and-down before a standing ovation.

I hop to my feet and throw my fists in the air. The Super Bowl was the weekend before, but this Sunday night felt like the confetti falling celebratory moment.

My phone then buzzes. It’s my Mom who texts with, “Wow Brandi”, and the only thing I could respond with was a heart and the sobbing emoji…. Because…I so gladly lost it.


Art by: Carlos Vargas

You see, that performance and Carlile’s night is what happens when your passion contains an abundance of purpose, and your purpose contains infinite passion.

And whether it was Keys, Cornell or Carlile, last night overflowed with moments of strength and blissful emotion.

Tonight, I have a daddy-daughter dinner date with my little girl. I think we’ll watch “The Joke” from last night, because like Keys sings, like the Gaga-Smith-Obama-Lopez intro, like the 31 winners, like the Carlile performance….

“Everybody stands, as she goes by
Cause they can see the flame that’s in her eyes
Watch her when she’s lighting up the night…
…this girl is on fire.”