Photo Credit: Vickey Ford for Sneakshot/Okayplayer.
An Inside Look at Grammys Weekend 2023 (Featuring Appearances From Paul McCartney, Scarface & More)
We spent an extended weekend in Los Angeles for the 2023 Grammys. We experienced it all, from run-ins with Paul McCartney to casual chats with Scarface and Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets.
The Grammy ceremony hadn't been in Los Angeles since the day Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others were tragically killed in a helicopter crash. So the stakes were high this year. The Grammys were set to return to the house that Kobe built — now called the Crypto.com Arena — and, after a few years of diversity initiatives, the Recording Academy had a chance to turn a corner and avoid the embarrassment of past snafus like Beyoncé and Kanye West's multiple snubs and Macklemore’s win over Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album in 2014 for an album titled The Heist. As a voting member myself, I hoped my voice and vote would make a difference.
On the road to the Sunday evening ceremony, I attended many parties — including the annual Roots Grammy Jam — and I spoke with folks both new and familiar, some carrying good news, some in need.
Chanelle, Bam Marley, and Aja Monet.
“Oh my god, I just touched a Beatle!” singer Madison McFerrin whisper-shouts as she runs back to a circle of friends in a food truck-lined courtyard of Jim Henson Studios in Los Angeles, California.
Only moments ago, Ringo Starr, the 82-year-old founder and drummer for The Beatles, walked into the release party for Stella McCartney’s spring / summer collaboration with adidas flanked by security in the form of a tight entourage and an outer circle of hangers-on.
When it happened, Madison was talking with Bam Marley about how her dad, Bobby McFerrin, and his grandfather, Bob Marley, often get mistaken for each other by folks who don’t know no better.
When Ringo walked in, our circle of friends and acquaintances – Madison’s manager, the poet Aja Monet; reggae singer Blvk H3ro; Bam and his sister Justice – bounce “oh shit!” looks to each other with our eyeballs. Madison was the boldest of us, levitating off the ground and zipping over to Ringo in an attempt to strike up conversation; she manages only to touch his arm.
“I literally have Beatles lyrics tatted on me,” says Madison upon her return, trying to contain her emotions. She’s wearing a warm yellow and orange outfit with a floral head wrap.
“From Julia,” she says. “‘When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind.’”
Her lyric of choice for body ink isn’t one you’ll find printed on a shirt or framed in a gift shop; instead it’s John Lennon’s ode to his late mother, a lyric inspired by the aforementioned Khalil Gibran line, the only song in the Beatles’ catalog that Lennon wrote and performed completely by himself.
“I know it’s Stella’s thing, but what are the odds Paul McCartney shows up?” I ask. “Is it like an Air Force One situation? You know, like how the President and Vice President aren’t allowed to fly together? No way we get Ringo and Paul on the same night.”
A brief pause to scan the party and we’ve already spotted Pete Wentz, John Mayer, Beck, and Dave Grohl. Elsewhere in our orbit are comedian and James Corden bandleader Reggie Watts, Muslim Girl founder Amani al-Khatahtbeh, and burgeoning Palestinian pop star Elyanna.
Blvk H3ro casually lights up a spliff and, as the smoke dissipates, a face we all know emerges: Paul Mc-muthafuckin-Cartney. Without saying a word he reaches for H3ro’s spliff and puffs it. I just want to stop right here and emphasize that one-half of arguably the greatest songwriting duo of all-time is just casually smoking a stranger’s spliff right in front of us. Before I can process what’s happening, I see Madison standing in Paul’s sweet embrace, telling him about her tattoo.
“Right on, baby,” he says.
Walking from the courtyard into one of the studio’s soundstages, we’re greeted by a planetary themed roller rink, the sounds of DJ Zuri, Bam and Justice’s sister, and, oh shit, FKA Twigs? Hold on, Kate Hudson just walked by us — and, wait, that guy with his black baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes, is that Leonardo DiCaprio? (It was indeed.)
Ringo and Paul notwithstanding, the highlight of the night is Koffee’s three-song set followed by Zuri’s dancehall medley. We boogie on the rink to the sounds of Sean Paul and Sister Nancy and begin to make our way out.
On a bench near the exit we offer daps and hugs to Bam, whose kind and grounded presence and disarming smile was a welcome respite throughout a very overstimulating environment. Chatting to him on the bench is Paris Jackson; I can only imagine how much Bam and Paris have to bond over and think it's quite lovely that they found each other in all the madness of the night.
We attempt to end our night at some West Hollywood bungalow, but get stiffed by the folks working the door. As we begin figuring out how we’re all going to get home, the door of the venue opens and a boyish looking face in a white hoodie emerges. It’s Justin Bieber walking right by us.
“Goodnight,” Aja says to him with a soft, friendly tone that beckons for a response.
“Goodnight,” he replies, equally soft, half-singing.
Looking up at the sky, the moon is nearly full.
It’s a cold and windy night and I’m with a friend of mine, a studio engineer who recently earned an Album of the Year nomination. We are attempting to get into the 88rising party in the warehouse district of downtown LA. 88rising of course is the Los Angeles-based music company that began as a rap collective which Rolling Stone has called “groundbreaking” and which Paperdescribes as helping “emerging Asian artists cross over in an efficient but meaningful way.” To my knowledge, 88 doesn’t have any projects nominated at the Grammys, and yet the line for this party stretches around the block. We make a dash for an open garage door in the back of the building. In front of us, a group of young folks dapperly dressed in pea coats and beanies disappear under the door just as it slams shut. A dead end for us.
An hour later we’re standing in a line that hasn't budged and so my friend decides that now is the time for soul-baring. I’m with it. I talk about the love and loss I experienced last year, the tears I had to cry to get to feeling better, and the movies and playlists I had to cue up to get there. One of the songs that was guaranteed to work for me was Ringo’s “Good Night;” I would imagine my parents singing the song to me as a child, and the tears would naturally begin to find their way out of my eyes. The next moment I find myself feeling grateful to be wrapped in one of her hugs.
“I’ve been trying to tell myself good luck is coming my way, but it just doesn’t feel like it right now,” she says, tears welling in her eyes, after telling me about the passing of her grandmother. “I just don’t know that apartment without my grandmother in it.”
The government of their homeland approved her father’s visa but unexplainably held hers up in processing. They need to be halfway around the world in 10 days for the funeral.
“That must be driving you mad,” I say, hugging her close.
I hate when bad things happen to good people.
Photo Credit: Vickey Ford for Sneakshot/Okayplayer.
“Oh yes, baby,” singer Joi Gilliam purrs from beneath her long locs.
I’m finally getting the hang of how to steam my grammy outfit thanks to a crash course from Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets. We’re in her home, a space beautifully decorated in warm, earthy colors and with paintings and sculptures from across Africa, pre-gaming for The Roots’ annual Grammy Jam. I remark upon entering that I feel like I’m in the video for Janet Jackson’s “Got Til It’s Gone.”
Earlier in the day, Ladybug and I went to lunch with a mutual friend, Amber Coffman, a singer who, aside from her acclaimed solo work, has collaborated with Bjork, Solange, The Roots, J. Cole, and Major Lazer. She’s been to the Grammys exactly one time, in 2013, the year Frank Ocean sang “Forrest Gump.”
“It reminded me of a high school prom,” says Amber. “I felt generally out of place and awkward.”
There must have been something kindred in the air, though, because neither Amber nor Frank have returned to the Grammys, and, three years later, Amber wound up singing on Frank’s “Nikes.”
Saba and Eryn Allen Kane
This year my Grammy outfit was handsewn in Palestine with fabrics found in the old city of Nablus. I’ve never steamed anything before, so, that night at Ladybug’s place, I am gratefully accepting Ms. Mecca’s lesson. Mecca’s grammy, the award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for Digable Planets’ 1993 jazz rap single, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That),” sits regally just to the left of her desk.
“The memory that I hold close from that evening,” Mecca says about Digable’s win and performance, “Is the rare and good fortune of gracing the stage with jazz trumpeter Mr. Clark Terry, may he rest peacefully. The presence and wisdom of elders and ancestors are fundamental to our life journey and I was unaware until right before walking out onto the stage that his would be the foundation that I needed in that moment.”
Something that doesn’t get talked about enough is how the award made her the first woman MC to win a Grammy.
Down at the El Rey Theater in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles, as The Roots and their friends jammed, I decided to take a walk around the room. On that walk, I made it a point to ask people for some good news.
“My grandmother’s birthday just came,” Joyce says with a big smile, wearing a silver and black besparkled and pinstriped mini-dress. “She’s 93! I just booked tickets for me and my mom to go see her in Japan after Coachella.”
Just behind her is producer and Soulection heavyweight Esta, rocking a cool red zip-up jacket and a soft green cap, flanked by his writing partner Mack Keane, donning a dapper, black and pinstriped button up, both of whom have credits on Overgrown.
“What’s been filling your time outside of work?” I ask.
“I’ve been fixing up an old Benz, a ‘93 500SL, for like the whole past year,” he says. “A whole AMG conversion, anthracite gray metallic paint, working on it makes the music more refreshing when I come back to it.”
“I’ve been meditating for like 36 days straight,” Kane says. “I wake up in the morning, sit in my bed, fold my legs, close my eyes, do some breath work, and I have anywhere from ten to thirty minutes of complete silence. It’s really been helping with anxiety and stress.”
Saba leans in and says, “I had a giant hole in my ceiling from all the rain out here in L.A. It tore my fuckin’ shit up... So, I just got that repaired,” says Saba. “That’s some good news. It’s been weeks and weeks and weeks. My kitchen looked like a basement! There was no ceiling. I have a ceiling again as of yesterday. So I’m really excited to wake up and be aesthetically pleased by my house.”
Behind them, I see a familiar face: comedian-turnt-rapper Hannibal Buress. Today is his 40th birthday. He’s having a good time, excited about the release of his upcoming “Veneers” remix with Danny Brown and Paul Wall, but he’s also reflecting on life.
“A lot of people in my life didn’t make it this far for one reason or another,” he says.
As we have this heart-to-heart, The Roots bring Too $hort out as a special guest to perform “Blow The Whistle,” and, let me tell you, there is nothing quite like seeing $hort ask, “What’s my favorite word?” And hearing a whole room shout back, “Beeeiiitch!”
Just then, out of the corner of my eye, a slim man in a cozy sweater walks by and I realize its Scarface of the Geto Boys.
“Salaam u-alaykom, Face!” I say, extending a greeting.
“Wa-alaykom as-salaam!” he replies.
“You ever met Hannibal Buress?” I ask.
“Nah,” says Face.
I spin back around to Hannibal and say, “Yo, Hannibal, Scarface.”
Hannibal shouts, “Yooo!!!”
He’s meeting one of his favorite rappers for the first time.
“I just turned 40, man” says Hannibal.
“Hey, man, I’m 52,” says Face, his eyes going big for comedic effect.
Face recently recovered from both kidney failure as well as COVID-19, so when he says, “I’m 52,” it’s with a tone that says he almost became one of those people Hannibal was talking about who didn’t make it.
Hannibal Buress and Scarface meeting. Photo Credit: Sama’an Ashrawi for Okayplayer
As we have this conversation, The Roots launch into the Geto Boys’ classic, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” Questlove calls Scarface to the stage. Face’s face says, “Oh shit." The Roots live loop the song’s opening Isaac Hayes sample back around to give Face time to get there. As soon as he makes it, he launches into, “At night I can’t sleep…”
Photo Credit: Timothy Norris/FilmMagic
At the pre-telecast ceremony, sitting next to Kam Franklin, lead singer of The Suffers, and a governor of the Texas chapter of the Recording Academy, we watch as Bonnie Raitt is named the winner in the category of Best American Roots Song. We’re both Bonnie fans and we wonder to ourselves, “Does Bonnie even show up any more?” To our surprise, Bonnie appears, taking the stage to accept the award.
Later in the evening, when she wins for Song of the Year, I text a friend and ask if this makes us feel more or less confident about Beyoncé’s chances in the Album of the Year category. My friend replies, “Less.” For some reason, I believed things would be different this year.
The highlight of the night is the star-studded 50th anniversary hip-hop medley, arranged by Questlove, and it’s during this medley that I realize how lucky we were last night: among the many special guests are Scarface and Too $hort. I never in a million years thought I would see those two gentlemen on that stage. I take this as a positive sign, that maybe the Recording Academy is beginning to really get things right.
The high of this moment is wiped out completely when Harry Styles takes the stage and begins his acceptance speech for the night’s most prestigious award: Album of the Year. shouts of Beyoncé’s name come from across the arena formerly known as Staples Center. “Things like this don't happen to people like me,” he tells us.
I’m thinking about Bonnie Raitt, a legend no doubt, and her upset victory in the Song of the Year category. She won Album of the Year the year she turned 41, the same age Beyoncé is now. This could and should have been Beyoncé’s Bonnie moment. What will her fate be? Will she not win one of the big awards until she releases her eventual album of jazz standards in the twilight of her years? Will she even care by then? Does she care now? A Houston kid myself, I care.
Outside the arena, walking north on Figueroa and feeling quite naive, I pass a street musician perched on the sidewalk playing along to “Cuff It,” blowing his saxophone into the cold night.
The moon is finally full.
Sama’an Ashrawi is a writer, filmmaker, music producer, and host of the Nostalgia Mixtape podcast. His work has featured Megan Thee Stallion, Drake, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Chris Rock, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, Bad Brains’ Darryl Jenifer, Q-Tip, Pharrell, Nneka Ogwumike, Gary Clark Jr, Leon Bridges, DJ Khaled, Mac Miller, Thundercat, Khruangbin, and dozens more. He once appeared in a Waka Flocka music video.