Childish Gambino’s searing This is America became the first hip-hop track to win a song of the year Grammy on Sunday, while Lady Gaga dominated the early awards and former US first lady Michelle Obama made a surprise appearance at the event.
Lady Gaga’s hit song Shallow from the movie A Star is Born won two Grammys, while the musician-turned actress took a third Grammy home for her Joanne (Where Do You Think You’re Going), which won for pop solo performance.
Already a show with a strong lineup of female performers and nominees, the Grammys sprung a surprise by including Obama in an opening segment that also featured Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, actress Jada Pinkett Smith and host Alicia Keys talking about the power of music.
“From the Motown records I wore out on the (Chicago) Southside to the Who Run the World songs that fueled me through this last decade, music has always helped me tell my story,” Obama told the cheering celebrity audience in Los Angeles.
“It allows us to hear one another, to invite one another in,” Obama added.
Rapper Childish Gambino’s This is America, about police brutality and racism, won the first big award – song of the year – as well as best music video, and best rap performance.
But Gambino, alter ego of actor Donald Glover, as well as Canadian rapper Drake and Kendrick Lamar, were among several influential stars who were no-shows at the biggest night in music.
Their absence was seen as a snub of an awards show that has often shut hip-hop artists out of its top prizes, despite rap’s dominance as the biggest music genre in the United States.
Cardi B, who was to perform later on Sunday, could break that trend and take home not only her first Grammy, but potentially become the first rapper since 2004 to win the coveted album of the year award for her Invasion of Privacy.
Cuban-born Camila Cabello kicked off the televised show with a dance-heavy performance of her hit single Havana with Latin artists J Balvin, Ricky Martin and Young Thug.
Folk singer Brandi Carlile, 37, was also among the early winners, taking two Grammys for her Americana music single The Joke and another for her album By the Way, I Forgive You.
An absent Ariana Grande, who pulled out of the show last week after a dispute with producers, won her first Grammy, best pop vocal album for Sweetener.
“This is wild and beautiful. Thank you so much,” Grande tweeted.
Rappers Post Malone (Beerbongs & Bentleys) and Drake’s best-seller Scorpion are also vying for the top prize. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, country singer Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, Carlile’s By The Way, I Forgive You, newcomer H.E.R’s self-titled H.E.R., and the Black Panther movie soundtrack round out contenders for album of the year, which will be announced at the end of the three and 1/2 hour telecast on CBS.
Grammy organisers this year expanded the top four categories – album, record, song of the year, and best new artist – to eight nominees from five in a bid to diversify the contest.