Industry Executives Express Cautious Optimism About Grammys' Rap Changes: 'We Need People Who Understand the Culture'

Kendrick Lamar performs on April 29, 2017 at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
Rich Fury/The Forum via Getty Images

Kendrick Lamar performs on April 29, 2017 at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.

The urban music industry weighs in on the Recording Academy’s decision to add a rap nomination review committee.

While the Recording Academy’s addition of a nomination review committee for the rap fields at the Grammy Awards is welcome news for the urban music world, it is raising some perennial concerns: Who will be included on the committee and how transparent will the selection process be?

The addition of the rap nominations review committee is one of several rule and procedure amendments announced by the Recording Academy this week, effective immediately for the 60th annual Grammy Awards (Jan. 28, 2018). Those changes include instituting online voting for the Academy’s 13,000 voting members; songwriters credited with at least one-third playing time on an album being eligible to receive a Grammy in the album of the year category; and nomination review committees also being established in the contemporary instrumental and new-age music fields, in addition to rap.

That now brings the total number of nomination review committees -- including album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and best new artist -- to 15. Introduced more than 20 years ago, the review committee was conceived as a measure to further shift focus away from the popular vote to concentrate more on the creative craft.

Cortez Bryant, a partner in the Maverick management consortium and COO of Young Money, calls the addition of a rap nomination review committee a step in the right direction. He and fellow Maverick partners Gee Roberson and Shawn Gee helm a combined roster that includes Grammy Award-winning artists Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne and Jill Scott. While thankful for those wins, Bryant also notes, it’s “no secret that the Grammys have also looked really bad when it comes to the rap category.”

One case in point: when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis received the best rap album Grammy in 2014 for The Heist. The pair won over Kendrick Lamar, who was favored to win for his debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city. Macklemore later acknowledged that Lamar should have won.

“I commend them for putting together a committee to pay special attention to the fastest-growing genre in the world," Bryant continues. "But who's going to be on that committee? That will determine if the problem can really be solved. If it's a committee of people who don't understand our culture, then the results will likely remain the same.” 

Bryant’s sentiments were echoed by others who spoke with Billboard. “We need people who truly understand the culture to make these [nomination] decisions,” adds a major label executive familiar with the Academy’s awards process. The executive also referenced the tendency in recent years to largely nominate rap’s top-charting and -selling stars at the expense of lesser-known talents. “If we leave those decisions to the mainstream executives at large, we’ll continue to miss out on some of rap’s emerging gems. As long as there are only a handful of urban executives working inside the major label system, we have to hope and pray that they can push to keep the hip-hop culture respectable and relevant.”

One major label promotion executive was even more blunt in assessing the change and the inclusion it needs to foster. “They definitely need more of us [African-Americans] on the panels," the person said. "For the last three years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get invited to participate and keep getting the runaround, although I’m a voting member. Whatever the mystery is behind getting an invite, we need more transparency as to how that happens.”

As to what impact the rap nomination review committee may have in future determinations of nominees in the Grammys’ top four fields -- album, record and song of the year plus best new artist -- remains to be seen. Chance the Rapper, winner of best rap album for Coloring Book at the 59th Grammy Awards this past February, also became the first black hip-hop artist to be named best new artist since Lauryn Hill won in 1999. The last hip-hop act to win album of the year -- after Hill, who also won in 1999 for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which was actually categorized as R&B by the Academy that year -- was OutKast in 2004 for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.

“It still depends on this recurring theme,” says the promotion executive. “Who’s on the committee and in that core room? A committee is only as strong as the members on it.”

Citing black music as a powerful, driving force with a strong grip on radio, sales, streaming and pop culture, another longtime industry veteran remains optimistic. “The hope is that this nomination review committee will do its due diligence in recognizing the biggest names of the genre, up-and-coming talent and non-mainstream artists that have delivered impactful, quality rap music. Ideally, it will usher in a lush diversity that truly represents this expansive and urgent genre.”

2018 Grammy Awards