The 88th iteration of the Academy Awards, which took place this past Sunday (Feb. 28), spent much of its three hours and thirty-seven minutes holding its audience over the coals for a lack of diversity among the past year’s nominees, with host Chris Rock dedicating his opening monologue to pointing out the “sorority racist” contour of Hollywood business. It was a long way from the old song-and-dance routines of Billy Crystal.
It wasn’t the only awards show to receive significant criticism over the lack of diversity among its nominees. Across the pond, the lead-up to the Brit Awards was punctuated with artists like rapper Big Narstie and singer Lily Allen lambasting the lily-whiteness of the U.K.’s equivalent to the Grammys. The topic got its own hashtag (maybe nothing to brag about on a couple levels), echoing the Oscars: #BritsSoWhite.
And — much like anyone in charge of a large organization subject to a significant amount of criticism from those on and offstage — now the head of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and Brit Awards, Ged Doherty, has responded to the criticism with a letter laying out the steps he plans to take with the Brits in order to ensure a richer cultural palette next year.
“The transparent BRITs Voting Academy is made up of 1,100 people from across the music industry, but, in truth, it needs to be updated,” he writes, going on to announce the formation of an advisory committee that will include “members of the BAME music community.” Putting the regrettable deployment of an acronym that lumps various minority groups together aside — BAME stands for “black, Asian and minority ethnic” — Doherty also explains that he spoke to a black person, the artist Stormzy, and plans to also speak to other (presumably BAME-adjacent, at least) people as well. Doherty concludes by calling for “equal male/female representation” in the Academy, “and at least 15 per cent BAME participation, in line with national trends, as well as being more diverse with regard to age and regionality, so that it can be more truly representative of modern British music.”
You can read Doherty’s letter in full below.
The BRIT Awards 2016 was a night for British music to be proud of. A spectacular show with best-selling British and international artists giving incredible performances. As a BRITs veteran of more than 30 years, it was one of the best I’ve seen. But there was an elephant in the room last Wednesday at The O2, and, as chairman of the BPI, the music association which organises the Awards, I can tell you that it was sat firmly on my lap.
It was an elephant some might characterise as a lack of diversity among the nominees, but which, for me, was more about the lack of recognition of the emerging music that is a huge part of British youth culture. It’s this imbalance that lies at the heart of the criticism directed at The BRITs nominations process.
There are valid reasons why the nominations took the form they did; in particular that they tend to honour artists who have achieved the highest levels of popularity and that there are no individual awards for specific genres. But this does not mean that we do not need to change.
Britain always prides itself on being one step ahead musically. The most innovative and exciting sounds have come from our shores, from the very birth of Pop to the emergence more recently of Grime. Britain has led the way and that’s because we’ve always celebrated and loved what’s different. This was not adequately reflected at this year’s BRITs, however, and we have been slow to look to ourselves and recognise that the processes behind The Awards have somehow become disconnected from this heritage of diversity.
The Awards should, first and foremost, reward the very best and most popular British music, but the playing field for that judgement must also be even. Everyone, regardless of background, should have an equal opportunity to impress.
The transparent BRITs Voting Academy is made up of 1,100 people from across the music industry, but, in truth, it needs to be updated. The basis on which people were invited to join was their music expertise. But while this remains a prerequisite, we recognise this is no longer enough, and that facets of diversity such age, ethnicity, gender and regionality must also be taken into account if the outcome of the nominations process is to be more closely aligned to social trends. We are therefore surveying its make-up, which, I suspect, is largely white and with a bias towards older men. This does not mean that there is an underlying prejudice at play, but the unintended consequence is that emerging genres of music may not be properly recognised.
There is a second issue. Currently, to be nominated, you must have achieved Top-40 success — but we must now go further. There are performers, including Grime artists, who may not have achieved major chart success but who have attracted large followings including through social media. This level of engagement is at present not part of BRITs eligibility and this, perhaps more than any other factor, has caused the nominations to be seen as unrepresentative by some.
The work to put this right has already started. I recently met with artist Stormzy to discuss his concerns, explaining why his December top-10 hit ‘Shut Up’ missed out on eligibility by one week, and that it is now eligible for 2017. I explained that The BRITs organisers are, with the guidance of a new advisory committee that includes members of the BAME music community, exploring initiatives that will enable the event to more effectively celebrate diverse, breaking and established talent. I was delighted that Stormzy engaged with us on this, and I’ll be approaching other artists and producers with a similar invitation.
We are making a further commitment by taking steps to ensure that, ahead of 2017, the Academy will, wherever possible, have equal male/female representation and at least 15 per cent BAME participation, in line with national trends, as well as being more diverse with regard to age and regionality, so that it can be more truly representative of modern British music.
I believe our industry is fully behind these changes, and I’d like to encourage anyone who has a contribution to make to this debate to share their views with us.
We’re not the only industry facing this issue. Hollywood is now looking hard at itself after Sunday’s Oscars, and every part of society, not just the entertainment business, needs to step up and make sure it embraces its full range of talent. This is true not just for awards shows, but for all the businesses that support the creative sector.
Music has a better record than most when it comes to the diversity of its talent, but it’s essential this is more fully reflected across its positions of leadership also. I’m determined the BPI, with the support of the music community, will be an innovative leader of change, and that next year’s BRITs will be an event everyone can be proud of.
Ged Doherty, Chairman BPI & BRIT Awards Ltd.
2 March 2016