Of the countless live performances that made it to air during Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, few were as memorable as the Usher and FKA twigs tribute to Prince. He sounded great, but she didn’t sound at all. Despite having just released the best work of her career, 2019's MAGDALENE, and earned a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Music Video for her fantastic “Cellophane,” twigs wasn’t asked to sing. Instead, she swung around a stripper pole with her mythical core strength and managed to bring necessary “Nasty Girl” je ne sais quoi to the stage as Usher’s knees trembled under the weight of the icon they were celebrating. While Usher sang “When Doves Cry,” twigs appeared only as a silhouette in the shadows, denied a chance to get on the mic.
It felt like déjà vu: In 2018, Lorde pulled out of the Grammy Awards when producers didn’t offer her a solo slot, in a year when she was nominated for Album of the Year. The rest of the category, all men, were offered the opportunity. In 2019, Ariana Grande dropped out when Grammy producers wouldn’t let her perform “7 Rings” (let the record show that she did get a bit of the song out at this year’s show as part of a medley.)
For a brief moment of naiveté, I watched twigs dance around Usher and thought she might’ve made the decision not to sing during the tribute as a silent protest of the Grammys’ corrupt practices. (Former Grammy chief Deborah Dugan filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Recording Academy.) But in fact, shortly after her performance, and while the bajillion-hour broadcast was going into overtime, she tweeted that “of course” she “wanted to sing at the grammys,” she just “wasn’t asked this time but hopefully in the future.”
Not allowing twigs the chance to showcase her voice no doubt draws attention to the Grammys’ ongoing neglect of younger women and non-legacy artists, which is now a blatant bias to anyone watching. While twigs’s dancing ability is formidable and unparalleled, presenting her as a backup dancer seemed like tokenization of her as a musical artist. It also functioned as a stain on the legacy of Prince, who spent his entire career lifting up and supporting women musicians in a time when they were even more marginalized than they are now. To cast twigs in the physical role of Vanity—Prince’s lingerie-wearing protëgë—but not the musical one felt to fans of both Prince and FKA twigs like a misstep, where simply allowing her to sing would’ve made all the difference for an organization that needs to make all the difference it can.