Pharrell's Grammy Performance Reminds Us There's Nothing 'Happy' About Our Race Relations

February 9th 2015

Alicia Lutes

It might seem crazy what we're about to say: but we loved how uncomfortable Pharrell Williams physically made us feel during his performance at the Grammy Awards on Sunday — and we hope it did the same to you, too. Through some Hans Zimmer chord alterations, Williams made a lasting, poignant impression on the cognitive dissonance that comes with being a black man performing a song called "Happy" to a room full of very rich people while the violence of Ferguson and the many, many other instances of violence and injustice brew all around us.

Pharrell made us feel physically uncomfortable to make a point: that it is a very uncomfortable time for black people in America right now.


In fact it almost felt like a subversion of the Minstrel Show. You know, those incredibly racially insensitive performances that implied black people to be dim-witted but happy-go-lucky musical sorts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Dressed like a bellboy, someone whose job it is to unpack and carry the baggage of the wealthy — and often white — clientele, but be as inoffensive as possible, Williams courted the connection to his being a job akin to a service boy. Someone seen and heard only when the heavy lifting needs to be done (and made to look easy and without struggle).

And in that moment, that's exactly what he was doing: providing a service that was twofold — at once entertainment and public message. Because really: how odd must the whole thing have felt to Williams, given the state of the world for black men today? Thanks to the handling of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and the whole host of other cases we've seen this year, black people rightly feel as though they are at the mercy of the comfort levels of white people in this country. In the wake of all this, here was Williams to perform and win an award for a song called "Happy." An earworm of a song that promotes almost blind joy above all else.

But can't nothin' bring him down — and that was the new lens through which Williams wanted the world to hear his song. So he flipped the sentiment on its head. Working with Hans Zimmer — a truly prolific cinematic composer — Williams created a literal dissonance to mirror the cognitive one held by the situation itself. He used chords that unsettled, coupled with the slowed tempo and sweat-suited dancers to slowly pull the rug out from under the audience and show them what they needed to see: a black man doing his job, performing a song about being almost maniacally happy in the face of injustice.

The second part of the song lurched into place: a slow build on that unease to something much, much darker. Are we really happy? Can we really clap along and pretend that all is happy in the world when it so clearly isn't?

And with a quick hands-up-don't-shoot, all was changed and subverted yet again thanks to an additional music cue. Returning the song back to its original bouncy beat, with the dancers going wild and dancing with abandon, Williams turned the song into an anthem of perseverance. And it had a palpable effect on the audience: a mostly white audience that positively erupted once Williams brought the song back to its bouncy beginnings. Maybe it was out of anxiety and discomfort — but some of it was also likely out of the message itself: can't nothin' bring Pharrell Williams down. He — along with every other black person in America — will continue to fight for the cause whether it makes you uncomfortable or not.

What may have felt like a confusing artistic statement at first was actually more political brilliance than anything else — proving yet again the necessity of music and artistry in the fight for social justice. It made you feel something — even if you didn't like it. Even if it made you anxious. How it made you feel? Well, that's your baggage.