Rediscovering Macy Gray: NBA Anthem performance brings singer back into the spotlight

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Macy Gray has been making hits since her 1999 debut, but her recent rendition of the national anthem at Sunday night’s NBA All-Star game has more than a few Zoomers — and maybe even a few Boomers — asking, “Who was that?” Gray’s trademark raspy, Billie Holiday-esque singing voice and non-traditional phrasing provoked a battery of responses, both online and in-person, including a now-viral response from Lebron James that seemed to show the LA Laker holding back a laugh. Just who is Macy Gray though?

Medium writer and poet Umohowet Taushi Yelayu was quick to inform the haters that Gray’s All-Star performance was completely on-point with the singer’s unique style, which she’s demonstrated since her first hit, “I Try,” went to number five on the U.S. charts. The single won Best Female Pop Performance at the 2001 Grammy Awards, and was a multi-national phenomenon.

Born Natalie Renée McIntyre in Canton, Ohio on September 6, 1967, Gray attended the University of Southern California to study scriptwriting, but a friend’s request to write a song opened a door she hadn’t previously considered. “I always had a kind of funny voice and it never occurred to me that I could sing,” Gray told The Guardian in a 2012 interview. Gray wrote several more songs, “just for fun and then I really got into it and got attached to it.”

Gray landed an Epic Records recording contract in 1998, releasing On How Life Is the following year. On the back of “I Try,” the album became a worldwide smash, selling seven million copies. Her 2001 follow-up album,The Id, did nearly as well, charting at number 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and was certified gold quickly thereafter. Gray also began a movie career, appearing in 2001’s Training Day as a featured actor, and making a cameo as herself in 2002’s Spider-Man. Gray has continued to work as an actor, playing small roles and cameo appearances throughout the last two decades. She is scheduled to appear in three films currently in pre-production.

Gray’s All-Star Game performance was not the singer’s first time at the National Anthem rodeo; in 2001, she was roundly booed for her rendition at a Pro Football Hall of Fame Exhibition Game in Canton, Ohio, when she forgot the lyrics. “I just forgot. I know the national anthem!” Gray told The Guardian. “I was in my hometown and all my relatives were there and it just flew out of my head. I skipped the entire first section.” 

Gray has known plenty of controversy over her twenty-year career; in 2007, just months before the release of her fourth studio album, Big, the singer was kicked offstage for using profanity during a performance at the Barbados Jazz Festival, when she delivered a curse-laden screed regarding the men in her life, and was subsequently met backstage by state authorities. Although her manager had informed Gray that cursing in public is against the law in the commonwealth, she “didn’t take him seriously,” according to NME. Rather than face imprisonment, the singer returned to the stage to apologize.

At the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, Gray raised eyebrows, and hackles, for her choice of dress, which featured the phrase, “My New Album Drops Sept 18 2001. Buy It.” In the pre-influencer age of the early ‘aughts, many took exception at what was then perceived as shameless self-promotion. “I read this article in the LA Times where the writer used it to talk about how artists would use these award shows to promote their albums!” Gray told The Guardian, adding, “What do you think everyone’s doing there? It’s all about helping sell your records.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone even noticing the ploy in today’s media influence-dominated entertainment landscape. As for the dress? According to Gray, “It’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.”

While Gray may not offer the standout presence she occupied in the ’00s, she’s maintained a consistent schedule of an album release nearly every two years. Stripped, released in 2016, debuted at number three on the Billboard Jazz charts. Not to mention her frequent collaboration with acts such as The Black-Eyed Peas, Fatboy Slim, Slick Rick, Marcus Miller, Dolly Parton, Justin Timberlake, and Ariana Grande. Gray most recently performed as “Atlantis” in the third season of Australia’s version of The Masked Singer.

As for any side-eye regarding her recent performance, Gray appears to be completely owning it. A recent post to the singer’s Instagram features a screenshot of a Google Trends post made Sunday, which reads “Macy Gray is currently the #1 trending topic on Google in the US.”

The caption reads, simply, “#1”