AFP |

The star-studded Grammys kicked off with a decidedly feminist bent Sunday, with a series of girl power performances and a surprise appearance from former first lady Michelle Obama to open music’s biggest night.

Hip-hop artists and a bevy of talented women were leading the pack, with early awards going to Lady Gaga, folk-rocker Brandi Carlile and Childish Gambino, who scored three awards — including his first major trophy for Song of the Year — for the provocative hit “This Is America.”

Obama delighted the audience when she came on stage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles alongside Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, host Alicia Keys and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith to deliver a message of diversity and female empowerment.

Songstress Alicia Keys, a 15-time Grammy winner, is set to host Sunday’s televised ceremony — the first woman to do so in 14 years.

In the pre-gala ceremony, at which most of the more than 80 prizes are handed out, Carlile — this year’s most nominated woman — won her first three Grammys ever, in the Americana and American Roots categories.

Pop diva Gaga — sporting an off-the-shoulder silver number with a bold ruffle and thigh-high slit — meanwhile won an award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for her heart-pounding hit “Shallow” from the blockbuster film “A Star Is Born.”

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The song also won in the visual media group, and Gaga scored a third trophy for best pop solo performance for “Joanne.” “I’m so proud to be a part of a movie that addresses mental health issues,” said a tearful Gaga, who thanked her co-star and duet partner Bradley Cooper. “A lot of artists deal with that. And we got to take care of each other.”

Ladies’ Night

The early wins by women offered a positive sign that change may be afoot at the Recording Academy, which has faced intense backlash over its apparent struggle to embrace diversity. For the second consecutive year, black hip-hop artists earned a slew of nominations in top categories — but observers are still wondering if those will translate into big wins.

Hip-hop artists and a bevy of talented women were leading the pack, with early awards going to Lady Gaga, folk-rocker Brandi Carlile and Childish Gambino.

Rapper Kendrick Lamar — who won a Pulitzer Prize for his album “DAMN.” but has yet to snare a Grammy for Album of the Year — earned eight nods while Canadian rapper Drake snagged seven. Women artists scored nominations in all of the top categories, after being largely muted a year ago: Gaga, Carlile, rapper Cardi B and pop futurist Janelle Monae are among the frontrunners.

A thrilled Carlile beamed as she accepted three consecutive trophies at the early ceremony. “Americana music is the island of the misfit toys. I am such a misfit,” Carlile said, speaking about the difficulties of coming out as a lesbian in her teen years and never attending school dances.

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“To be embraced by this enduring and loving community has been the dance of a lifetime. Thank you for being my island,” she said.

Vagina Monologues

The glitzy concert portion kicked off with a bang, as rising pop star Cabello was joined onstage by Ricky Martin, J Balvin and rapper Young Thug for a rousing bilingual performance. Monae wowed the crowd with an edgy medley of her songs backed by an entourage of female dancers, dropping the line of the night: “Let the vagina have a monologue.”

The second consecutive year, black hip-hop artists earned a slew of nominations in top categories — but observers are still wondering if those will translate into big wins.

Pop mega-star Ariana Grande — who released her highly anticipated album “Thank U, Next” just before the Grammys and then opted not to perform in a row with organizers — won for best pop vocal album for “Sweetener.”

Drake, Lamar and Gambino — the rap alter-ego of actor Donald Glover — also all turned down performance offers — and Gambino opted to skip the event. In addition to Song of the Year, the rapper also won the coveted prize for best music video and the trophy for best rap/sung performance.

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Nothing Better Than This

Hopes that women would get their due comes after the head of the Recording Academy — which includes more than 13,000 music professionals — told them last year to “step up” if they wanted to do better on Grammys night. The brazen comment drew outrage and prompted the executive, Neil Portnow, to say he would resign when his contract expires this summer.

Drake, Lamar and Gambino — the rap alter-ego of actor Donald Glover — also all turned down performance offers — and Gambino opted to skip the event.

Gaga’s initial two wins were out of five nominations, including for both Record and Song of the Year for “Shallow,” which she performed with co-star Bradley Cooper. Songstress Alicia Keys, a 15-time Grammy winner, is set to host Sunday’s televised ceremony — the first woman to do so in 14 years.

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She vowed this year’s performances would be the “sickest” yet. Country legend Dolly Parton took the stage with Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and others after being honored for her musical and philanthropic contributions.

A performance honoring the legacy of the late “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin is also expected. What is better than this, there is nothing better than this,” Keys said. “Tonight we celebrate the greatness in each other, all of us, through music!”

© Agence France-Presse