The Grammy awards got underway Sunday with superstars Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X primed for glory -- as grief over the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant cast a pall on music's marquee night in Los Angeles.

US singer-songwriter Lizzo
US singer-songwriter Lizzo rocks a Versace corset gown at the Grammys. AFP / VALERIE MACON

Dozens of people, many of them in tears, gathered near the arena to mourn the 41-year-old Bryant, who died Sunday in a helicopter crash in the hills west of the California metropolis. Flags were flying at half-mast.

Grammys 2020 nominees
Grammy nominees in key categories. Photo: AFP / Nicolas RAMALLO

The evening nevertheless still promises rollicking performances from the trio of Grammy frontrunners, as well as tributes to the veteran rockers Aerosmith and the late rapper Nipsey Hussle.

Early prizes handed out at the pre-gala event went to Lady Gaga, who won two for her soundtrack for the hit film "A Star Is Born," and Beyonce, who nabbed the prize for best music film for "Homecoming."

Ousted Recording Academy president Deborah Dugan
Suspended Recording Academy president and CEO Deborah Dugan has levied some tough accusations against her colleagues and her predecessor Neil Portnow. Photo: AFP / Angela Weiss

"Rest in peace Kobe, we love you," Steve Pamon, a "Homecoming" director, said in accepting the trophy.

Overnight country-rap sensation Lil Nas X, up for six awards, snagged his first Grammy for the music video of his smash earworm "Old Town Road."

"Um, thank you!" the bubbly 20-year-old told the audience with a wide smile glimmering below his white 10-gallon hat.

Eilish's debut studio album won its first award of the night in the engineering categories.

US singer songwriter John Legend
US singer-songwriter John Legend is one of the artists who will pay tribute to slain rapper Nipsey Hussle at the Grammys gala. Photo: AFP / Mark RALSTON

Pop's new guard is poised to usher in a new era -- but scandal backstage has threatened to tarnish the glitz.

Just days before the gala, the Recording Academy's suspended CEO Deborah Dugan -- the first woman to lead the embattled institution behind the Grammys -- filed an explosive discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hip-hop mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs
Hip-hop mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs hit out at the Grammys for failing to "respect" black music -- even as he was honored as an industry "icon". Photo: AFP / Mark RALSTON

She says she was suspended after raising concerns over sexual harassment, voting irregularities and other misconduct within the Academy -- one of music's most influential organizations, but one long accused of favoritism and a lack of diversity.

Dugan also alleged that her predecessor, Neil Portnow, had raped a foreign female musician -- an allegation he has rejected as "ludicrous and untrue."

Billie Eilish
Teenage pop iconoclast Billie Eilish, who was named Billboard's 2019 Woman of the Year, is expected to battle with Lizzo for top honours. Photo: AFP / VALERIE MACON

The backstage storm has threatened to cloud the Grammy celebration, despite a diverse slate of nominees that celebrates a mix of established and budding stars.

On Saturday night at the annual pre-Grammy gala hosted by industry legend Clive Davis, hip-hop mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs railed at the Academy.

"Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be," Combs told a star-studded audience as he was honored as an industry icon, according to Variety.

"We need transparency, we need diversity."

The magnetic Lizzo, 31, is poised to be this year's queen bee, leading the Grammy pack with eight nominations, including in all the top four categories (album, record and song of the year plus best new artist).

Lil Nas X, the 18-year-old goth-leaning pop iconoclast Eilish and the enigmatic 22-year-old R&B prodigy H.E.R. are also formidable contenders.

The establishment's newcomers will square off against veteran powerhouses including Ariana Grande and Beyonce, as well as alt-leaning acts Lana Del Rey, Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend.

Often remembered as much for its performances as its winners, the Grammys will feature Lizzo, Eilish and Grande, along with a genre-blending rendition of "Old Town Road" that will feature K-pop sensation BTS, country star Billy Ray Cyrus and the eclectic DJ Diplo, among others.

Artists including John Legend, Meek Mill and DJ Khaled -- all up for Grammys this year -- will perform a tribute to Hussle, who was shot dead last year and is up for three posthumous awards.

The British country-soul revivalist Yola, up for four Grammys including the prestigious best new artist prize, said she's still soaking in all the glamour.

Upon learning of her nominations, the bluesy singer with a big voice told AFP on Friday that she "cried for days."

"It was hilarious and emotional and I'm just so thrilled to be here," she said.

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