Werde: Move the Grammys to Atlanta

Rico Brooks speaks to Bill Werde at Syracuse in 2017.
Genevieve Batson

Rico Brooks speaks to Bill Werde at Syracuse University in 2017. 

The Recording Academy has a moment to seize.

“Own your moment.”

When Rico Brooks, the manager for top hip-hop producers including Metro Boomin (Migos' “Bad and Boujee,” Post Malone’s “Congratulations,” 21 Savage's “Bank Account,” to name a few) came to speak to the Bandier music business program in Syracuse late last year, this was his advice to the 150 gathered students. He meant it through the lens of artistry: when you have one of those moments when the planets align and fans and the music industry alike deign to stop and actually care about your art? You better be smart. These moments don’t always come. And they come again even less frequently. So make them count.

After class, I took our speaker out for drinks, as I’m wont to do, with a question on my mind:

Was Atlanta as a whole owning its moment? Hip-hop and R&B are now the most popular genres in America. These songs and artists are driving the music business. And who is driving hip-hop and R&B? I can’t see a stronger argument than Atlanta.

Look at the current Billboard Hot 100 chart. Two of the top three songs have Atlanta talent front and center: Young Thug co-writing and rapping on Camila Cabello’s “Havana” in the top spot, and 21 Savage at No. 3 on Post Malone’s “Rockstar.” But Atlanta is all over the top 20, from Migos (two songs) to Future (as featured on Taylor Swift’s “End Game”). And we still haven’t mentioned Metro, who produced “Bad and Boujee” and a fistful of other top 10 hits. Or Gucci Mane. Or … you get the point.

So why not move the Grammys to Atlanta? If it can move to New York City, it can certainly move elsewhere. Atlanta has hosted the Olympics, and will host the Super Bowl next year. There’s no question it has the infrastructure to support the event. Hell, given the Georgia Music Tax Credit that the Recording Academy and Georgia Music Partners just helped to pass, it’s a good bet that the Grammys would recoup some of the reported millions that they lost by moving the event to NYC.

But there are bigger reasons than finance and logistics. The challenges that the Recording Academy has had with the hip-hop and R&B communities are well-documented. As far back as 1989, Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff refused to attend and accept their award for best rap performance when they learned the new category wouldn't be televised. And only one rap album, Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, has won album of the year. Every year, someone doesn’t win a Grammy that many people believe should, but this criticism has been especially sharp — and arguably well-grounded  within the hip-hop and R&B communities. Three Grammys ago, you had Beck (!) beating Beyoncé for album of the year. Then it was Taylor Swift over Kendrick Lamar. Last year you had the spectacle of Adele saying from the stage that her album of the year trophy was rightfully Beyoncé’s. Did I mention Beck beating Beyoncé? I mean, come on.

It’s worth seeing this moment that Atlanta is experiencing in the context of broader moments of reckoning for the broader entertainment industry and society as a whole. Status quos of all sorts — but especially those that are white and/or male  are being challenged to rethink their histories, dynamics and policies. As Jermaine Dupri told me when I reached out to him, “Every major music company in New York and Los Angeles has a version in Nashville. These people believe in Atlanta for its culture but not its economic power." Dupri, of course, produced a string of top 10s for the likes of Usher and Mariah Carey as he ran his So So Def company out of Atlanta in the '90s and 2000s. He was actually recruited and served as president of the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy in the early 2000s.

The majors used to have physical distribution centers in Atlanta that doubled as offices for local executives. Those all went away in the financial carnage of the last 15 years. But the music business is growing again, and it’s time to revisit these decisions. Given the new tax credits — by all accounts, similar credits spurred exponential growth for the film industry in Atlanta — the time is right for the majors to invest in real infrastructure in the South, and especially in hip-hop.

Dupri said the Recording Academy had the same membership issues 15 years ago. He went to national retreats and met the leaders of the other 11 chapters: “The people that I saw that made me feel comfortable were Jimmy Jam, my engineer Phil Tann, Nile Rodgers… But I didn’t see anyone who was remotely my peer or my competition on the board of the Grammys. No one who was right in hip-hop at the time. No one with a No. 1 record.”

I am not here to write another flame-throwing “Grammys don’t get hip-hop” or “Grammys have a race problem” piece. For all of its faults — perceived and real — the Grammys are my favorite night in music. I have been a longtime supporter and public advocate for the Recording Academy, as well as their incredible and essential MusiCares foundation. When Academy president Neil Portnow reached his 10th year of service to the Academy, I personally conducted the interview that ran in Billboard. It was under my guidance and outreach in 2013 that Billboard and the Recording Academy partnered on the creation of the annual Power 100 event that has become a highlight of Grammy week. These are people I consider to be friends. And there is a nuanced discussion worth having as a broader industry — one that I think is missed in many of the understandably frustrated pieces already published. 

One discussion is obviously about race. Portnow did an interview with Pitchfork last year, the day after the Adele/Beyoncé telecast. He unequivocally addressed a question about race:  “I don’t think there’s a race problem at all. Remember, this is a peer-voted award. So when we say the Grammys, it’s not a corporate entity — it’s the 14,000 members of the Academy.”

I don’t say this to be pithy or glib. But if the headlines of the past year have entrenched in me any one, single belief, it’s the relative implausibility that any group of 14,000 Americans doesn’t have a race problem. It’s semantic, but it’s also the point. A “race problem” in this case is unlikely overt racism. But it’s people, likely even well-intentioned, who remain a little too unaware of or too comfortable with what it means to be the status quo. Of how “the way things are” will simply self-perpetuate until an institution takes urgent and material strides to create certainty beyond certainty that just results will be accomplished. The Recording Academy began some major staff changes a few years ago that have resulted in a more diverse leadership body. This in turn has led directly to some of the progress I’ll discuss in a bit. But obviously, there is still a long way to go.  

The other nuanced discussion is around process — the process by which rules are changed within the Recording Academy, by which members are accepted and vetted, and by which leaders are elected. Because knowing, as I do, the work that’s been done behind the scenes, and the quality of character of the people driving slow, sometimes painful change within the Recording Academy, these are the details where the devil resides. 

The National Board of Trustees is the most powerful body in the Recording Academy  Portnow reports to them. Four elected officers and forty trustees who make the rules. And by the accounts of people close to the decision-making process, they have at times been slow, and highly protective of the status quo. That said, it may surprise you, as it did me, to learn how much progress has been made — policy changes and votes by the trustees that haven’t made headlines. 

A couple of years ago, after years of internal debate, the board passed requalification measures  now, every five years, members have to show current eligibility on a rolling basis. And it’s not just about pruning those who might be out of touch. More recently, and as yet unreported, the board signed off on a new, new member certification process, to give the Academy more control and flexibility in creating a more relevant, representative body of voters. These changes haven’t yet gone into effect, but details are being worked out and are likely to be shared later this year. (An aside: the bylaws are shared with the public, and provide often very complex explanations of process.)

Changing the status quo is hard, in no small part because it requires those with power to vote against their own interests. Under requalification rules, for example, it was conceivable that not only would some Board members with decades in the industry see their friends drop from the voting ranks, but that certain Board members themselves would conceivably not make the cut. Like a board at any large institution, there are older, more protective factions, and there are the change drivers. It’s worth noting, especially in this male-dominated business, that the two Board powerhouses with their foot most squarely on the gas pedal of this change are women: Mindy Abair from the Los Angeles chapter and Tammy Hurt from  — where else?  Atlanta. 

I know the temptation is to be frustrated by the pace of change. Institutions can take years to evolve behind the scenes, before progress is seen in the public. The progress is slowly, finally surfacing though. I can promise you there will be no discussion come Monday morning about a white male unjustly winning album of the year — no white male is nominated this year, for the first time in the Grammys' 60-year history. Hip-hop, R&B and Latin music are heavily nominated in major categories. As the Board finalizes plans to improve membership, transformative change should continue to unfold in the years ahead. 

Please don’t read any of this as “mission accomplished,” but if anything, a mix of encouragement that the Board has begun making the necessary tough changes. And a reminder to push even harder and faster. This year’s Grammys represent a big step forward, but also the need for urgency. 

The public messaging of the Recording Academy on these matters has seemingly centered around “We are doing outreach, but the hip-hop community isn’t responding.” They would perhaps do better to work on a PR strategy that overtly conveyed their commitment to inclusivity. Last year Frank Ocean declined to submit his album for Grammy consideration. This year it was the most streamed artist in the world, Drake. You can explain these away or get defensive about these decisions, but that would obscure a larger, more important reality. The Recording Academy risks losing a generation of black artists — a generation that could portend a permanent break from the hallowed institution. Today’s hip-hop stars didn't necessarily grow up seeing themselves or their music reflected in the winners presented on stage.

Atlanta provides some instructive insight as to how this whole process is working  and not. In conversations with several of the executives close to those topping the charts out of Atlanta now, it’s clear that they are often completely unaware of the process and politics involved with the Recording Academy  until they lose a Grammy or fail to be nominated for what they believe is a deserving work, and start asking around. This is the path, for example, that both Rico Brooks and Kei Henderson, one of 21 Savage’s managers, followed. 

The Atlanta chapter is doing its outreach. By all accounts, chapter president Michelle Caplinger is pretty aggressive in setting up meetings and dinners with folks from the local hip-hop community as she hears about certain executives or artists emerging. But by the time a new hip-hop producer has that level of name recognition, it may be a little late for the welcome wagon. 

The Recording Academy correctly says that they don’t control Grammy winners. It’s a vote, and the hip-hop community needs to become members and start voting. This is true. The number of national Board seats  and thus the real power to drive change  are determined by the number of members in each chapter. So yes, it it worth repeating: If you don’t like the Recording Academy’s policies or results as it relates to the hip-hop industry, or any other part of the business, become a member. Vote. This is a time of change for the organization, and while that change won’t happen overnight, it is demonstrably beginning to happen. If you want to shape it, get involved.  

To look at the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy is to see that this is not a simple, overnight fix. The 20 listed, elected chapter governors demonstrate racial diversity. But what that list shows is a complete lack of current hip-hop representation. Not a single person connected to what’s topping the pop or hip-hop charts right now is on that board. And here’s the kicker: Rico Brooks, manager of one of the hottest producers in the industry, ran for a seat last year and lost. I heard from several folks connected to the Recording Academy that they try to recruit and folks from hip-hop just don’t come. Rico came, and voters in the Atlanta chapter decided someone else was more worthy. 

The efforts that are playing out at the National Board level will take time to be implemented and trickle down to the chapters. In the meantime, some more investment in local recruiting would go a long way. Caplinger has a staff of one. What would it say about the Recording Academy’s commitment to rapid inclusiveness if she had more hours to spend building these important bridges? 

And what would it say if the Grammys moved their big show to Atlanta?

One of the most fascinating and surprising aspects of my behind-the-scenes discussions were that not everyone in Atlanta embraced the idea of an Atlanta Grammys. Dupri, for example, felt that Atlanta wasn’t ready for that moment. He noted a lack of connection between the local business community, which includes headquarters for Coca-Cola and Porshe, and the music scenes. “Go to New York or Los Angeles and there are music billboards all over town,” he says. “There’s a car company In Long Beach that hired Snoop Dogg 10 years ago and still uses him. I have yet to see that happen in Atlanta — local companies using 2 Chainz? I have a song called ‘Welcome to Atlanta.’ If my song was ‘Welcome to New York’ and I lived in New York and the song was as big as it is? I’d have 10 deals. Atlanta is still in a learning mode.”

This is one point where I respectfully disagree with Dupri though. Yes, there’s a risk that the Grammys could come and go and leave the city’s local scene unchanged. But more likely, such a move would catalyze enormous growth and crucial awareness. And it would show respect. Brooks recalled what it meant to folks in Atlanta when Jon Platt, chairman/CEO of the major publisher Warner Chappell, came down for the BMI R&B and Hip-Hop Awards, which moved to Atlanta in 2016. Platt was the only chief executive of the big three publishers to make the journey. “It means a lot to people when the big boss shows up,” says Brooks. What would it mean — to music, to Atlanta and to the hip-hop and R&B communities — if all the big bosses showed up for a week in January? 

So please, Recording Academy, consider an Atlanta year for the Grammys. Be the change so many of us want to see in the world. Use the move to shine the brightest spotlight music has on Academy membership efforts and investment opportunities in contemporary urban music communities. Revel in the symbolism of the music business going above and beyond to do right by the black music community. Use your own tax credit. Hip-hop and R&B and Atlanta are all having a moment. It’s one the Recording Academy and the larger music business can, and must, help these communities own.

Bill Werde is the director of the Bandier undergraduate music industry program, and the graduate Audio Arts program at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. He is also the former editorial director of Billboard. Reach him on Twitter at @bwerde.

2018 Grammy Awards