"Tonight is for Kobe," singer Lizzo told the audience before she began belting out an energetic performance of her hit, "Cuz I Love You."
Host Alicia Keys then took the stage to ask viewers to keep Bryant, 41, his daughter, Gianna, and other victims from the helicopter crash that took their lives on Sunday in their prayers.
“Here we are together on music’s biggest night celebrating the artists that do it best, but to be honest with you we are all feeling crazy sadness right now,” Keys said as she entered the stage, adding that “Los Angeles, America and the world-wide world lost a hero.”
She said the audience was “heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
“Right now Kobe and his daughter Gianna ... are in our spirits, they’re in our hearts, they’re in prayers, they’re in this building,” she added. “Take a moment and hold them inside of you and share our strength and our support with their families.”
Keys was then joined onstage by Boyz II Men on Sunday to sing an a capella version of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” at the Staples Center — Bryant’s stomping ground — as the audience watched in awe.
Keys also reminded the audience that Bryant "loved music."
She added: "So we gotta make this a celebration in his honor. He would want us to keep the vibrations high. Music is that one language we all speak."
After the opening, Lizzo took home the first award of the night for best pop solo performance, where she told the audience that Bryant's death served as a reminder not to take life for granted or to stress the small things.
"This whole week I [was] lost in my problems, stressed out, then in an instant all of that can go away and your priorities really shift," she told the audience in her acceptance speech. "Today all my little problems I thought were as big as the world were gone. People are hurting right now."
Later in the night, the most anticipated award of the night, record of the year, went to Billie Eilish for "Bad Guy." The 18-year-old also scored big with best new artist, song of the year for "Bad Guy," and best pop vocal album for "When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?"
Also amping up the crowd was Usher, who channeled Prince in a tribute to the late "Purple Rain" singer. The 41-year-old was joined by FKA Twigs and Sheila E, who all received a standing ovation within the Staples Center, which was lit up purple in remembrance of the star who passed away in April 2016.
Demi Lovato, 27, delivered an emotional performance of her new song, "Anyone," which she said earlier this week was recorded days before her near-fatal overdose in 2018. Tears streamed down Lovato's face as she belted out the somber lyrics: "I tried to talk to my piano / I tried to talk to my guitar / talked to my imagination / confided in alcohol / I tried and tried and tried some more / told secrets 'til my voice was sore / tired of empty conversation / 'cause no one hears me anymore."
Late rapper Nipsey Hussle, who posthumously won best rap performance for “Racks in the Middle,” was also honored by a number of fellow musicians including Meek Mill, John Legend, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch, YG and DJ Khaled. Hussle's family, including his brother, grandmother and actress-fiancee Lauren London, accepted the honor during the show's pre-telecast.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay introduced the performance, which featured band players, background dancers and Legend wearing traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean clothing in honor of Hussle’s African roots. Mill performed a new song called “Letter to Nipsey” while others joined together for “Higher,” which is nominated for best rap/sung performance.
"Rest in peace Nipsey Hussle, rest in peace Kobe Bryant," DJ Khaled said at the end of the performance as a photo of the two late Los Angeles icons was shown within the Staples Center.
Camila Cabello’s performance of “First Man” — a song dedicated to her father — also induced tears. Cabello walked off the stage to her dad’s seat to finish singing him the song in front of him, while he teared up. Audience members were emotional, too, including Gwen Stefani.
Ariana Grande had a lengthy performance — probably to make up for the drama that surrounded her axed performance last year. Run DMC joined forces with Aerosmith to rock the Grammys stage.
Lil Nas X brought the story of “Old Town Road” to life by performing alongside the artists who helped the song stay at No. 1 for 19 weeks through various remixes, including BTS, Mason Ramsey, Diplo and the track’s main co-star, Billy Ray Cyrus.
Veteran rapper Nas then joined Lil Nas X for a new song, shouting out Bryant at the end: “Kobe, we love you.”
In addition to touching remarks about Bryant throughout the show, performers Lil Nas X and Rev Run paid tribute to the late Lakers legend by bringing one of his retired basketball jerseys on stage during their respective performances.
10 days before arguably the biggest night in music, the industry erupted when the Recording Academy announced it had put its recently hired CEO, Deborah Dugan, on administrative leave for misconduct. Dugan and her lawyers fired back at the academy, claiming that the awards show is rigged.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.