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How the Academy's New Black Music Collective Is Dismantling the 'Disconnect' With Its Community

Its leaders are already hard at work pushing for greater transparency and representation in the academy — and the industry at large.

The relationship between the Recording Academy and the Black music community has been fraught since 1989. That’s when DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith boycotted the Grammy Awards upon learning that the first-ever presentation for best rap performance (which they later won) would not be televised.

In the following 30 years, R&B and hip-hop have seen Grammy highs (album of the year wins for Lauryn Hill and OutKast in 1999 and 2004, respectively) and frustrating lows (snubs for both JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar in that same category, in 2018) as the 63-year-old academy has grappled with the community’s demands for greater representation and more transparency in the nomination process overall.

The academy took major steps to address those issues in 2017, when it established a rap nominations review committee, and the next year, when it adopted new membership guidelines following recommendations from its Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. This year, it welcomed 1,722 new voting and non-voting professional members (23% of whom are Black) and hired its first chief diversity and inclusion officer, Valeisha Butterfield Jones. And in the wake of Blackout Tuesday in June, the academy partnered with the racial justice organization Color of Change in an effort to take further stock of its role in ending systemic bias in the industry.

Among the new partnership’s first initiatives: launching the Black Music Collective (BMC), dedicated to “amplifying Black voices within the Recording Academy and the wider music community.” Its 22-member leadership committee, which met for the first time on Oct. 19, includes singer-songwriters (H.E.R., Yolanda Adams, Aloe Blacc), instrumentalists (Terri Lyne Carrington) and producers (Dion “No I.D.” Wilson), as well as label executives (Columbia’s Phylicia Fant) and representatives from such sectors as publishing (Warner Chappell’s Ryan Press), live music (Live Nation’s Heather Lowery) and video platforms (YouTube’s Tuma Basa). Six honorary chairs also serve as advisers: Universal Music Group’s Jeffrey Harleston, producers Jimmy Jam and Quincy Jones, former BET chief Debra Lee, John Legend and Epic Records chairwoman Sylvia Rhone.

The week before Thanksgiving, a group of the BMC’s members and organizers — Lee; Butterfield Jones; academy board chair and interim president/CEO Harvey Mason Jr.; Washington, D.C., chapter executive director and BMC executive sponsor Jeriel Johnson; and BMC chair and academy trustee Riggs Morales — gathered virtually to discuss the work ahead of them. “We have to earn trust first. Otherwise, this will be an utter failure,” says Atlantic Records senior vp A&R Morales, who first developed the concept of the BMC in 2018. “I’ve seen the academy’s inside process and found a stronger level of engagement was needed. That would go a long way in bridging a pretty unnecessary gap.”

Just a week after that discussion, the urgent need to bridge that gap became clear when The Weeknd called the Grammys “corrupt” and demanded “transparency” after he didn’t receive any 2021 nominations. And he wasn’t the only artist that the Black music community saw as a major snub: Lil Baby and Pop Smoke, considered rap album favorites, were absent from that category (though both were nominated for rap performance, and Lil Baby for rap song as well); and Summer Walker, expected to be a best new artist and R&B shoo-in, was left out entirely. On Nov. 25, the day after the nominations announcement, Mason told Billboard that he found The Weeknd’s comments “difficult to hear,” though he added he was “personally surprised that he was not nominated.”

For now, the academy and the BMC honorary chairs are focusing on the progress they did see reflected in this year’s nominations. In a letter to the BMC, the chairs pointed out “historic” gains: 10 Black women nominated in the Big Four categories, over 20 Black nominees represented in the general fields and, for the first time, six Black independent artists nominated for best rap album. “We’re listening,” they wrote. “Our work is not done and it will take some time, but the mission to be more inclusive continues.”

How did the concept for the Black Music Collective come together?

Harvey Mason Jr.: After I was elected board chair in 2019, Riggs emailed me a strategic proposal describing an initiative involving the Black music community that he was doing with the New York chapter. He thought it could be taken to the other chapters. As I got in a better position to institute some change, I began working closely with Riggs and introduced him to Valeisha. Then Jeriel came onboard, and the four of us started pushing this initiative forward.

Riggs Morales: I’ve spent the last 10 years working closely with the Recording Academy. I’ve seen the ins and outs, the highs and lows, and gained a particular viewpoint as to where the disconnect might be as well as what a fixable solution might look like. But it required both sides to understand each other better.

The first version of the initiative was initially drafted in a letter in 2018. Then we experimented with it on the local level in New York. From there, I needed a national viewpoint. So I had Jeriel look at it. And when Harvey happened to visit New York, I put it on his radar. The one thing I want to make clear is that this wasn’t a reactive idea to the times.

Jeriel Johnson: The BMC is about changing the narrative as we focus on increasing Black representation. It’s also about transparency: pulling back the curtain, dispelling all the myths and misconceptions. We want the Black music community to understand our purpose at every level.

What do you think is causing the disconnect between the Black music community and the academy?

Valeisha Butterfield Jones: Part of the disconnect is exactly what Jeriel said: a need for increased transparency. Being honest about the numbers [regarding the academy’s membership] and through that transparency finding out how we can be better collaborators and partners. Black music drives culture and influences every musical genre. So we have a responsibility at the academy to make sure that we’re engaging, listening, setting goals and taking action. Now the BMC is another step in that direction.

Debra Lee: [Former Recording Academy president/CEO] Neil Portnow asked me to serve on the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion in 2018. We spent a lot of time looking at how the board works and how the academy works in trying to figure out what the disconnect was with women. And as we went along, we realized the same disconnect was there for Black creatives.

The task force was also asking for more representation on the board committees, including the TV committee [a group of music and TV industry professionals who help develop and produce the Grammys telecast]. While serving for two years on the TV committee, I began hearing more complaints, especially from Black artists, about how R&B/hip-hop was being treated, with the way JAY-Z and Beyoncé were perceived to be treated. So when Harvey called me about the BMC in the wake of Blackout Tuesday, I was excited. It’s another way to raise issues about artists and executives feeling disrespected not just by the Recording Academy, but by the industry. And it’s important to encourage young people to be a part of this.

Butterfield Jones: What we’re grappling with at the academy is much like what the music industry and the world are grappling with as a whole. I’ll use the term coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 — intersectionality — in reference to the task force’s work involving gender and our focus on improving representation for R&B and rap, Black creatives and professionals. Top of mind right now is how we set goals that can really intersect gender and race as we get deeper into transforming the academy and, hopefully, letting that work become a model for the music industry.

Morales: Hip-hop and R&B are by far the most influential music genres in the world. So why isn’t that reflected in the academy’s acknowledgement and process? I think we’re getting to a much better place in closing that gap just based on the pleasantly surprising reaction we’re getting from folks inside and outside the academy. This is a community that felt it hadn’t been spoken to for quite some time. A lot of people have asked how they can get involved. And we want to take full advantage of that.

Johnson: Representation is so important because membership drives everything that we do: who we see onstage, who we see sitting at the board table and at the Grammy Awards, the industry’s only peer-voted award. So if your peers aren’t part of the voting membership, how are they going to vote for you? That’s why we’re placing such a strong emphasis on strategic outreach. Black music has a footprint in almost every genre in the world. So we’re also looking to increase representation in gospel, jazz, rock, country and pop.

How does the percentage of new Black members this year stack up against the BMC’s expectations?

Butterfield Jones: When I first came into this role, I looked at all the numbers and data and thought, “We’ve got our work cut out for us.” This new member class is the largest and most representative that we’ve had in years. As a Black woman executive, I know firsthand how much representation matters. And to see Black representation at 23% was a strong signal that we’re putting real rigor and intention behind our goals. Not only is it a strong number in year one of these goals, but the invitee acceptance rate rose to 74% from 55% last year. With new leadership, we’ll hopefully see more folks saying yes as we extend invitations next year.

What engagement strategies is the BMC developing?

Johnson: At the kickoff meeting on Oct. 19, people fully leaned [in to express] their concerns, asking questions, bringing ideas and offering solutions. We’re working on a few exciting things for Grammy Week, with details to come, as well as other major plans. A crucial part of that will be scaling this to the 12 chapters around the country so that they’ll have local BMC representation.

Mason: The most exciting and important part for me is how we collaborate with the Black music community. I don’t think we had done a particularly good job of reaching out, and outreach, inclusion and collaboration are what’s going to really move the needle.

I come from the Black music space. It’s still my wheelhouse, so I have a sense of what the issues are, some of which I’ve had myself. This is a step in breaking down barriers, trying to bring back some of the people that have been disenfranchised. It is what’s healthy and right for the industry. If we can get this right at the academy, with the BMC and the Black music community, we can be that much more powerful.

In October, the academy co-sponsored the #ChangeMusic virtual industry summit with Color of Change. How is that organization aligned with the BMC’s efforts?

Mason: When Valeisha came onboard, we talked about things we wanted to do right off the bat. After she researched and met with different organizations, we arranged a partnership with Color of Change in July and also made a financial commitment [donating $1 million]. We thought involving Color of Change with the BMC would be perfect. The same goes for working with the Black Music Action Coalition and #TheShowMustBePaused. We want people that are driving change within our industry to all work together. This is not proprietary or binary. The more great minds we have pulling the rope in the same direction, the more movement we can create and the more change we can initiate.

Butterfield Jones: One project we’re doing in partnership with Color of Change is the #ChangeMusic Roadmap, a tool kit that basically outlines best practices for the academy and people at all levels of the music industry, to help them enact racial and social justice reforms as we work together to be more equitable and improve Black representation.

Beyond the Grammys, where else are you seeking to boost representation within the academy?

Morales: Education is a big passion point for many of the BMC members. For years, MusiCares has been one of the most important sectors within the academy, but it’s something the Black music community really doesn’t have any idea about. So we plan on matching BMC members with academy sectors that make sense.

Butterfield Jones: We are also shifting our thoughts around to equity and inclusion — making sure that once you are part of the Recording Academy, you have the opportunity to break that ceiling and get into leadership roles within the academy. We want to get more folks into the room. But we also want to make sure there’s a pathway to leadership once they get in the door.

Which goals can the BMC accomplish immediately, and which will be more long term?

Butterfield Jones: The North Star is to earn the trust of the Black music community. Being able to move that needle in one year and have more Black representation in the room will be progress. I’m here because many different powerful Black women paved the way. We’re focused on making sure that people that look like us have a seat at the table and real positions of influence. And then from there, setting clear, five-year goals for building more Black representation because of that trust.

Johnson: We’ve established BMC’s purpose through what we call the Five A’s: align with the Black music community, attract new members to develop future elected leaders, amplify the voices of Black creators and professionals, activate new and existing Black music creators and professionals within the academy, and accountability.

Lee: Many people look at the academy and the music industry in much the same way they look at sports: Most of the players are Black, and most of those in charge are white males. When we can change that narrative, then there’ll be progress.

Johnson: I would love for the Black music community to say, “The Recording Academy is me”; that this is a home for them. And to put it in cultural terms, I want the community to say the Recording Academy is dope.

Morales: This next generation needs to see themselves in positions of power and influence, whether it’s as a creative or an executive. They need to be able to see one of their own and say, “I can achieve that.” Despite the positive reaction we’ve been getting, reality sets in pretty quickly that we can’t just rest on those laurels. We still have a lot of work to do. So check in on us in about a year and a half, and let us know how we’re doing.

Gail Mitchell previously served two terms as a Recording Academy trustee for the Los Angeles chapter.