Pharrell's Grand-Budapest-Hotel-inspired getup aside, last night's Grammys adopted a more somber tone than usual, as the issue of domestic violence took center stage. President Obama joined the ceremony via video message to denounce domestic violence, calling upon artists and audience members alike to unite against it as part of the White House's "It's On Us" campaign to end sexual assault. Brooke Axtell, an artist and activist who is also a survivor of abuse, gave a captivating spoken-word performance about her own experience with violence and assault. Finally, Katy Perry delivered an emotional rendition of "By The Grace Of God" (off her latest album, Prism) — a ballad that stood in stark contrast to her bubblegum-sweet Super Bowl show a week earlier. "When the President of the United States speaks out against domestic violence, it’s a big deal. When he does it before an audience of millions watching the Grammys, it’s an even bigger deal," Maria Corral, senior VP of marketing and communications at abuse victims' services agency Safe Horizon tells us. "We at Safe Horizon feel it’s especially moving that President Obama’s words were followed by those of survivor and activist Brooke Axtell. We need the voices of survivors and leaders coming together to continue lifting up this movement."
While Obama and Perry are the bigger celebrities, Axtell delivered the performance that jolted last night's proceedings from well-intentioned to deeply affecting. Her words took up some two minutes of the entire three-and-a-half-hour Grammys, but they shone. (Watch the full speech above.) "After a year of passionate romance with a handsome, charismatic man, I was stunned when he began to abuse me," Axtell shares. "I believed he was lashing out because he was in pain and needed help. I believed my compassion could restore him and our relationship, [but] my compassion was incomplete because it did not include me. When he threatened to kill me, I knew I had to escape." "I revealed the truth to my mom, and she encouraged me to seek help at a local domestic violence shelter," Axtell continues. "This conversation saved my life. Authentic love does not devalue another human being. Authentic love does not silence, shame, or abuse. If you are in a relationship with someone who does not honor or respect you, I want you to know that you are worthy of love. Please reach out for help. Your voice will save you."
In light of this powerful message, many pointed out the irony — even hypocrisy — of the three nominations this year's Grammys handed to Chris Brown, who pled guilty to felony assault charges after attacking his then-girlfriend, Rihanna, in 2009, sending her to the hospital. Axtell, however, didn't hesitate in accepting the offer to perform at the Grammys and to introduce Katy Perry. "It's an honor to collaborate with Katy in this way," she told People prior to the show. "It's going to bring a lot of encouragement and freedom to those who hear my story and know that they are not alone in this." Safe Horizon's Maria Corral echoes this sentiment. "It’s been a monumental year for public discussion around domestic violence, and last night’s Grammys were another incredible milestone," she tells us. "We hope that others who may be suffering in silence hear the message: Help is available and no one deserves abuse." In a country in which nearly one in four women has experienced domestic violence, this is a message that is sorely needed.