/ 3 March 2017

Acceptance speech politics

Freedom of speech: Adele used her Grammy acceptance speech to tackle issues.
Freedom of speech: Adele used her Grammy acceptance speech to tackle issues.

When accepting his award for best single for his monster song Sidlukotini at this year’s Metro FM Music Awards ceremony, rapper Riky Rick took a moment to stare pensively at his trophy.

“I thought I would be more excited to get this,” he said.

In his acceptance speech, he called out South Africa’s corrupt music industry. “Shout-outs to the kids that never get on radio — they can’t get their songs played on radio because they don’t have enough money. Shout-outs to the kids who put out music videos. They never get their videos played because they don’t have the money.”

And just like that, Riky Rick unveiled the elephant in the room, a truth that has been on the minds of many in the music industry: without “payola”, aspiring artists can’t get very far on radio and television.

Riky Rick’s truth-telling speech was made a week after rapper A-Reece announced his departure from indie record label Ambitiouz Ent. In one of his announcement tweets, he hinted at the idea that music awards could be paid for: “Nominated for two Metro awards for the first time ever in my life. This game is shady, man. This might be my last time, too.”

Riky Rick’s speech gained traction on social media, where most fans and some high-profile artists such as Black Coffee commended him for calling out a corrupt industry.

This moment at the Metro awards show us that award shows are as contentious among musicians and fans as President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address is with citizens — the politicised moments trend more than the actual work being celebrated and showcased.

Acceptance speeches have become legitimate platforms to call out injustices in both the entertainment industry and the broader political arena.

Adele, when she received her Album of the Year Grammy for 25, acknowledged that Beyoncé was more deserving of the award. “But I can’t possibly accept this award,” she said. “And I’m very humbled and I’m very grateful and gracious. But my artist of my life is Beyoncé. The Lemonade album is just so monumental and so well-thought-out.”

Adele was commended for the acknowledgement by some fans, although others questioned why she didn’t just concede the award to Beyoncé if she really thought she didn’t deserve it. One writer criticised the fact that Adele was suddenly celebrated as a hero, which only contributed to the worn-out narrative of the white saviour rescuing the slighted black artist.

It’s a strong point, seeing that there were more headlines and tweets praising Adele than there were headlines pinpointing the systemic problem of the Grammys overlooking black artists.

This follows a similar situation at the 2014 Grammys, when Macklemore directly texted Kendrick Lamar: “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.”

Yes, in both instances, the winning artists could have been more direct about the more culturally influential artist getting snubbed at the Grammys — especially with their long history of sidelining musicians of colour.

That said, perhaps the trouble with commentators is we forget that not all these musicians expected to win these awards. For instance, Adele’s speech seemed unrehearsed, almost as if she wasn’t expecting to win at all. Her reaction was visceral — she was emotional, and in that moment, she couldn’t really be expected to pull out all the files on the Grammys.

The politics of the acceptance speech are complicated, emotional and fraught with contradictions.

What’s great about artists standing up and calling out issues they perceive with award shows is they shine a light on the complexities of producing work in a flawed system.

When an artist like Adele or Riky Rick makes a poignant — albeit also flawed — speech with a trophy in their hand, it opens up a conversation about the legitimacy and the underlying sociopolitics of these awards.

Award shows are a microcosm of our society. Just as we are beginning to see how young guns are expressing themselves and ruffling a few feathers — as do the Economic Freedom Fighters in Parliament — awards shows and the acceptance speeches show that young, increasingly enlightened people are becoming more expressive and use any platform they can get their hands on.