Combs, who received this year's Salute to Industry Icons Award, called on the Academy to "get [its] s--- together."

By Alex Suskind
January 26, 2020 at 06:25 AM EST
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BEVERLY HILLS — Sean “Diddy” Combs wanted to address what he called “the elephant in the room.”

At Clive Davis and the Recording Academy’s annual Pre-Grammy Gala on Saturday night, where Combs was set to receive the coveted Salute to Industry Icons Award, the Bad Boy Records founder stood in front of the industry’s most influential artists and executives and demanded it change its ways.

“Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys. So right now, this current situation, it’s not a revelation,” he said, adding, “I’m officially starting a clock. Y’all have 365 days to get your s— together.”

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The “current situation” was Combs’ subtle nod to the recent hellscape the Grammys had found itself in over the last week. First came the ousting of newly hired Recording Academy president Deborah Dugan 10 days before the ceremony, for allegedly creating a “toxic and intolerable” work environment. Dugan then fired back with an EEOC complaint that alleged major conflicts of interest at the organization, along with instances of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. It also included allegations that Dugan’s predecessor, Neil Portnow, raped a female recording artist (he has denied the allegations).

But that news went unmentioned at the Davis event until Combs accepted his award. After delivering a rousing 50-minute speech that traced his childhood in Harlem to his rise as a world-renowned record executive, artist, and producer, he turned his attention to more serious matters.

“For years we’ve allowed institutions that have never had our best interests at heart to judge us. And that stops right now,” said Combs to raucous applause from Chance the Rapper, Wiz Khalifa, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and many other artists in attendance. “We need the artists to take back control. We need transparency. We need diversity. This is the room that has the power to make the change that needs to be made. They have to make the changes for us. They’re a nonprofit organization that is supposed to protect the welfare of the music community. That’s what it says on the mission statement. That’s the truth. They work for us. We have the power.”

His speech capped off a typically raucous evening for the annual Gala, which is known for its starry invitation list and all-star jams curated by Davis himself. In addition to Combs’ speech, this year’s bill included performances from Brandi Carlile, John Legend, Carlos Santana, and Cynthia Erivo, in front of a crowd that included everyone from Cardi B to Joni Mitchell to Smokey Robinson to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

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The evening kicked off with a set from Beck, who stuck to older material — “Loser,” “Where It’s At,” and, somewhat surprisingly, “One Foot in the Grave” — instead of songs off his new album Hyperspace. That was followed by an appearance from legendary Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who jokingly admitted, “I look forward to every year when that [Pre-Grammys Gala] invitation arrives and I know I’ve made the cut,” before introducing the evening’s host, Clive Davis.

Davis, to his credit, did make a small nod to what had been transpiring at the Academy. “This is clearly a very difficult time for the Recording Academy,” he said. “But tonight we come together as we have for decades to celebrate music.” From there it was business as usual. Part of the evening’s celebration included a rousing Mitchell cover by Carlile, who sang “A Case of You” while Mitchell herself looked on (Carlile did the same in 2019 when she performed Blue in concert). Afterward, Carlile invited Cyndi Lauper on stage to lead the crowd in a sing-along of her infectious 1983 pop hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

Later, Adrienne Warner, who plays Tina Turner in the Broadway musical Tina, performed boisterous versions of Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “Simply the Best,” while Legend appeared for a forceful take on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Santana stopped by to play two singles — “Smooth” (with Ryan Tedder) and “Maria Maria” (with Miguel and Wyclef Jean) — off his multi-platinum record Supernatural, which turns 20 this year.

But the evening belonged to Diddy. His tribute began with a mini-Bad Boy reunion that saw appearances from Faith Evans, Carl Thomas, Lil’ Kim, and Mase, each of whom performed songs of their own before coming together and singing the 1997 smash “I’ll Be Missing You,” with Combs’ son Christian (a.k.a King Combs) rapping his father’s verses. When he finally got up to accept his award, Diddy proceeded to give a rambling but heartfelt speech about his career — from growing up in Mount Vernon, to tracking down Heavy D so he could get a foot in the door at Uptown Records, to meeting and learning from figures like Davis, L.A. Reid, and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, to eventually launching Bad Boy. It all culminated in his call for institutional change.

“My goal used to be about making hit records, it’s now about ensuring that the culture moves forward — my culture, our culture, the black culture,” he said. “And for me to be worthy enough to receive this icon award, I have to use my experience to help make a change.”

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