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Recording Academy Seeks New Voters as Hip-Hop Looks to Turn Grammy Nominations Into Wins
As the genre dominates streaming services and powers the industry's growth, its Grammy losses -- despite an abundance of nominations -- raise questions about who's voting.
While accepting the Salute to Industry Icons award at Clive Davis and The Recording Academy's annual Pre-Grammy Gala on Jan. 27, Shawn "JAY-Z" Carter talked about his well-known boycott of music's biggest night earlier in his career. The five-year dismissal began in 1999 after fellow rapper DMX wasn't nominated the previous year. It ended in 2004 when JAY-Z's now-wife, Beyoncé, was nominated for her debut solo album, Dangerously in Love.
"The academy, they are human like we are, and they are voting on things that they like," said JAY-Z. "We can pretend we don't care, but we do. We really care because we are seeing the most incredible artists stand on that stage, and we aspire to be that."
For the first time, hip-hop dominated the top three Grammy categories going into the 60th annual ceremony on Jan. 28, fueling hopes that a hip-hop artist would take home an award for record or song of the year -- two honors the genre has never received -- or win album of the year for the first time since OutKast in 2004. But those hopes were dashed when Bruno Mars went 6 for 6 to win the top three categories, plus three more in R&B. Kendrick Lamar's five wins out of seven nominations were once again primarily relegated to the rap field. JAY-Z, who led all nominees with eight nods, left New York's Madison Square Garden empty-handed.
The nominations review committee "got the nominations right, but the voters didn't deliver on who the winners should have been. People got robbed," says one major-label urban promotion vp.
Some R&B/hip-hop executives say they realize that mathematically, the wealth of nominations might have been too much of a good thing. JAY-Z and Lamar split the vote for hip-hop, and Mars came out the winner.
But as another label executive points out, that dismisses Mars' artistry, broad appeal and history-making achievements with his 2016 release, 24K Magic. He is only the ninth artist to win the record, song and album of the year trifecta, a select group that includes Adele and Simon & Garfunkel. Mars is also one of only five R&B artists to win album of the year, preceded by Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole and Ray Charles. "That's a huge win for R&B that shouldn't get lost," says the executive.
Hip-hop's general-field shutout, though, points to a still-unresolved issue with The Recording Academy: the lack of transparency surrounding efforts to build a more diverse voting membership. While applauding the increased diversity on the show among presenters, performers and nominees in attendance ("The Grammys were black AF," points out one artist manager), an A&R vp says the voting issue needs to be seriously addressed before the Grammys return in 2019.
Noting the widely held industry assumption that voting members still skew old and white (the academy doesn't disclose voter demographic data), the A&R vp says, "At the end of the day, is that old white guy going to vote for Lamar or Mars? That's the question."
The promotion vp concurs. "The academy needs to cast a broader net for qualified voters that understand R&B/hip-hop," he explains. "And people need to see and understand how the process works. There's still a big disconnect between the music community, the voting members and the millions of people who watch the show. It's a very commercial show driven by a very private process. That's tricky, because then the winners don't look like what people were expecting."
In fact, the academy's board of trustees is already finalizing more ways to improve its membership ranks, say sources. Requalification rules have already been established whereby voters must show their current credits within the last five years for eligibility. Also this year, the academy launched online voting to more fully engage its 13,000 voting members. And throughout the year, the academy stages seminars and panels through its chapters as part of an ongoing voter outreach initiative. The genre's historic presence in 2018 was also the result of a change that the academy made: the first-ever rap nominations review committee, a small group of experts that vetted the top nominations and helped to ensure that worthy contenders weren't buried in the initial vote. The resulting field recognized acts from SZA, Cardi B and Migos to GoldLink, Rapsody and 6LACK. Being nominated is a significant achievement. But revamping the votership will be key for the wins.