Lil Nas X, Mariah Carey and Pharrell Honored in Songwriters Hall of Fame
Late Thursday night, Lil Nas X took the stage at New York’s Marquis Marriott Hotel as the night’s youngest honoree as he accepted the Hal David Starlight Award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The honor, given to young songwriters impacting the music industry through original songs, was handed over to the 23-year-old artist two and a half hours after the start of the 51st induction ceremony annual. The night may have dragged on with back-to-back speeches lasting over 10 minutes punctuated by equally long performances, but Lil Nas X wouldn’t keep the audience around for long. In fact, it barely took him 45 seconds.
“This award means a lot to me for the simple fact that somehow I keep doing stuff and it keeps working,” Lil Nas X shared through a shield of faded curls, thanks to the “quarter-life crisis” he mentioned at the top of his brief speech. “I don’t know why the universe lets me have these moments, but thank you universe.” Besides thanking his team, that was all he really had to say. Aware of the veteran business he found himself in, he put his brief distinction into conversation with past acceptance speeches: “I have no children in the audience, nor a wife – or in my case, as a husband – to say thank you to you, but thank you to my imaginary husband and my children.
Lil Nas X was preceded on the night by Johnny Mercer Award winner Paul Williams, Abe Olman Publisher Award winner Jody Gerson and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees Rick Nowels, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, Steve Miller and William “Mickey” Stevenson. Rapper Q-Tip was tapped to present the award, crediting Montero-born artist Lamar Hill with “literally rewriting the book on modern music” as he joined Drake as the only two rappers in history to receive the Hal David Starlight Award, his name joins a list of past recipients that includes Alicia Keys, Taylor Swift and Halsey, among others.
This accomplishment highlights the growth between the once-suspected single-hit wonder who struck gold with “Old Town Road” and the trailblazer who – on records like “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and “Industry Baby — shamelessly embraced his positioning at the intersections of gender and identity as a black and queer pop-rap star. “It’s the mark of fearless, relentless creativity and an unwavering dedication to self-expression and representation for all,” Q-Tip added. “In just a few years, Lil Nas X has become one of the most important forces of this generation.”
Although his introduction was more of a celebration of his successes over the past three years than LNX’s own acceptance speech, the rapper concluded with a look to the future. “I hope to be back here,” he said before correcting himself. “I will – in 40 or 30 years, maybe.” It’s all about manifestation – or illusion, whichever works. Whereas accept a price at the iHeartRadio Music Awards earlier this year, the rapper insisted, “It’s okay to be delusional when you’re chasing your dreams.”
In recent years, recipients of the Hal David Starlight Award have performed at the ceremony. But after his acceptance, Lil Nas X returned to the public. Without decades of hits to reflect on, it was an evening of appreciation for the rapper who jumped out of his seat during St. Vincent’s rendition of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and the energetic mix of the Isley Brothers. according to their own induction. But the most poignant takeaways came after Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s induction by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as the Neptunes.
In a speech that spanned music publishing battles to his decades-long friendship and creative partnership with Hugo, Pharrell dwelt on the cosmic experience of music-making — something he calls “the ‘sparkle’, a sense of direction that propels an artist forward – and what comes next. “I know there are a lot of accomplished writers here tonight, but I’d like to speak to all future songwriters and songwriters for a moment,” he began. “You are the writer of the story, so you must be in control of your story. Your creations will be recorded and studied for years to come – so take control of your story.
Jon Batiste and his backing band celebrated the Neptunes with a medley performance that included some of the biggest hits from their extensive catalog, from Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” to Kelis’ “Milkshake.” Paired with Usher’s surprise performance of his Neptunes-engineered 2001 hit “U Don’t Have To Call,” the tribute reflects the narrative the producing and writing duo have established over three decades. It’s one of the defining moments of lighting in a bottle captured time and time again alongside genius skills.
“To get to that moment, it always starts with uncertainty, then that spark and a whole bunch of gifts and blessings,” Pharrell added. “You must remember that it was given to you. First, it was the opportunity given to you by the universe. Second, it is the inspiration provided by the world around you.
As the final inductee of the evening, taking the stage at midnight, Mariah Carey made a point of hammering home her own narrative: as much as she’s a diva, she’s a songwriter. She played the drama, checking her lighting was right and donning her sunglasses in the already dark ballroom. But she also spoke at length about how melodies and poetry have run through her since she was a little girl. Carey recalled “walking by myself and finding melodies and writing words in a book,” then pulled out a few sheets of handwritten notes to show that not much had changed. “Those are my legitimate notes,” she said. “But I just wanted to say that I have to constantly remind people that I’m a songwriter.”
With her induction, Carey became the 33rd woman to join the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In his introduction, Questlove pointed out that the recognition was long overdue, praising the depth and range of the singer’s catalog. “That’s the power of success, especially at the Mariah Carey level, because you can be overlooked in some ways and people will often forget you’re an artist,” he explained. “People forget and suddenly you become the product.” This is another example in which taking control of your own narrative as an artist has the potential to influence the shaping of your legacy.
“I want to remind people that it’s hard for black artists, especially black women, to achieve that status and survive,” Questlove added. “Success at this level, especially for black artists, is a real obstacle course. Very few certified diamond artists are still with us and the list of those who are not with us is long and sad. Whitney is on this list. Prince is on this list. Michael Jackson is on this list. Tupac is on that list. Biggie is on that list. Left Eye is on this list. It’s almost like there’s a price to pay if you sell over 10 million.
When the Lil Nas X protests bring him back to the Songwriters Hall of Fame stage three or four decades from now, his presence will be much more than a pop star with a few hit songs — not unlike the Isley Brothers, Carey, or Pharrell. It will represent the continued honor and celebration of black musicians while they are still pioneering, not just after the fire has gone out.