That J. Lo- Motown Celebration Was A Travesty

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I like Jennifer Lopez. A lot. I respect her hustle, her talent, and I find her rom-coms adorable.  In no particular order, I have gushed over her tush and abs, specifically, and her genetically-blessed and gym-enhanced physique, in general. I’ve marveled at her amazing wardrobe, her signature red carpet poses and smoldering stare, her overall flawlessness, and her current  glow up with A-Rod. I have rooted for her to win in life and in love and in finance.  I am a J. Lo fan. I even own and can sing along to This Is Me… Then, the Ben album. 

I tell you that so you will know I’m not a hater when I say this: J. Lo ain’t have no business doing that Motown tribute at the Grammys. And watching at home, my face looked as horrified as Motown founder Berry Gordy’s sitting up in the front row.

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When I heard rumblings about a Motown tribute featuring J. Lo last week, everything I knew to be true told me that it wasn’t going to end well. But I was still hopeful. (Or maybe I was naïve?) I figured at best that J. Lo would be one of many acts that were a part of the tribute. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what Motown song she would sing though. All Motown songs have soul. It’s part of the signature sound. Now J. Lo? Great entertainer. Beautiful gowns. But she ain’t never been known for having a soulful voice. And still, I was willing to give her a shot. It’s J. Lo. By all accounts, she puts on a great show. 

Never in my wildest nightmares would I have imagined that a Latina woman, who makes no claims to blackness, would be the star of a Motown tribute, relegating black performers to mere cameos in a celebration of a sound that their own culture invented and perfected. It’s insulting. It’s erasure. It’s a GD travesty.

If you remove or change the context, what occurred on the Grammy stage last night, wasn’t a bad show. J. Lo’s medley of Motown songs was visually engaging. The multiple wardrobe changes, the energetic and flawless dance moves, even the inclusion of Latin touches were all fine.  It would have been great as part of her previous Vegas stage act, a cute homage as part of the nightly show. But as a singular tribute to the timelessness of Motown music, on its 60th anniversary and celebrated up on the Grammy stage? 

 I think not. It’s was bad as the time The Four Horsemen tried to replace The Five Heartbeats. And it is not ok.

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 Motown is known for many things. I’ve already mentioned the soulfulness of the music, but I’d be remiss not mention the glamour, elegance and poise of its performers, a result of an in-house finishing school courtesy of Maxine Powell, Motown's director of artist development, who groomed the label’s young musicians on how to present themselves in public and at the White House.

I have nothing against Lopez’s gyrating, p-popping and ass shaking or flipping around in a sparkly bodysuit, but it’s not what comes to mind when I think of Motown. I think more gowns and expertly tailored suits, smooth and precise choreography, which to credit, J. Lo began her performance with.  And if she had kept that same energy and her appearance was limited to a quick hit in the same way Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo or Smokey Robinson’s was in Lopez’s show, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. 

In context, J. Lo’s performance was terribly offensive. For a Motown tribute, there wasn’t much Motown about it except the songs by barrier-breaking Black artists such as Barret Strong, Martha & the Vandellas, The Jackson 5, The Carpenters, The Contours, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder, that Jenny seemingly lip-synched to. 

You know what else is a Motown signature, other than soul? Black people, from the CEO to the center of the stage. Of the ten songs, Lopez energetically “sang”, all but one was by a black artist (“Square Biz” by Teena Marie was the exception), and yet the black artists performing were reduced to quick duets, eclipsed by a non-black headliner. Poor Ne-Yo, a three-time Grammy Award winner who is currently signed to Motown, sang half a song and didn’t even get up from his piano . 

 Look, I’m all about inclusion. Berry Gordy’s always been real clear that he created the Motown sound for everyone to joy and one of those people was J. Lo’s Mama who played Motown records in her living room. In a post-show interview,  Lopez told E! “I grew up on all those [Motown] songs… My mom loved them so much.”  

J. Lo has just as much right to enjoy and appreciate Motown as anyone else. I’m all right with her being included. I’m not at all okay with a non-Black woman being centered while celebrating the legacy of an iconic black music label where black Talent toiled to put the worth, dignity, and beauty of black folk and their soul on the mainstream map. Tammi Terrell and Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye and David Ruffin did not sing their asses off—or die—to be ”celebrated” like this.. 

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty. Follow her on Instagram at @demetriallucas and check out her podcast, Ratchet & Respectable.