The Rev. Jesse Jackson is entering the fray over The Recording Academy’s cuts to its Grammy categories: He’s asking to meet with the president of the organization and has raised the possibility of protests with the awards less than two weeks away.
The civil rights activist sent a letter to Neil Portnow, the president and CEO of the Academy, and expressed his dismay over the Academy’s decision last April to cut its categories from 109 to 78, the biggest overhaul in its then 53-year history. In the letter, Jackson said he had been talking to members of the entertainment community and asked that his organization, the Rainbow Push Coalition, “meet with you urgently to express our concerns and to see if we might help resolve this conflict … and allow the Grammys to do what they do best.”
In a statement to The Associated Press on Friday, Portnow said he was willing to talk with Jackson.
“We are receptive to meeting with the Rev. Jackson to explain how our nomination process works and to show the resulting diverse group of nominees it produced for the 54th Grammys – many in the musical genres he cited in his letter,” Portnow said. “We also agree with the Rev. Jackson that the Grammys are about music, not sales. They have, and always will, stand for excellence in music and celebrating the impact all music has on our culture.”
In an interview with the AP on Thursday night, Jackson said he wanted “cooperation, not confrontation” with the Academy. However, he did raise the possibility of a protest of the Feb. 12 Grammys, to be held in Los Angeles, if his talks with the Academy did not go well.
“We are prepared to work with artists and ministers and activists to occupy at the Grammys so our appeal of consideration of mercy really might be heard,” he said.
The Academy decided last year to shrink its voluminous categories after a yearlong examination of the awards structure. Among the changes: elimination of some of the instrumental categories in pop, rock and country; traditional gospel; children’s spoken-word album; Zydeco or Cajun music album; and best classical crossover album. In addition, men and women compete head-to-head in vocal performance categories instead of separate categories for each sex.
Some musicians in the Latin jazz community have filed a lawsuit against the Academy, claiming the reductions in categories caused them irreparable harm. While there haven’t been widespread protests against the cuts in the industry, there have been small but vocal protests, and artists including Carlos Santana have spoken against them.
The Academy contends the changes simply make the awards more competitive but don’t prevent people from entering into competition.
But Jackson said he’s concerned that they limit participation of those who have been disenfranchised.
“Music of all arts should be expansive and inclusive,” he said. “So much talent comes from the base of poverty and those in the margins. You limit the base, you miss too much talent.”
Jackson said he became involved because he had been contacted by people in the music industry, though he would not name them. He said he became involved after hearing concerns of those affected.
Princeton professor and activist Cornel West also expressed his concerns in a statement on Friday, saying: “I believe the elimination of the ethnic Grammy categories is unjust and unfair.”
Jackson has confronted the entertainment industry over concerns over diversity before: In 1996, he urged a boycott of the Academy Awards because of the industry’s treatment of minorities.
While some have gone so far as to call the Grammy cuts racist, Jackson said he did not believe that.
“I don’t think that we have to prove that to make our point,” he said. “We’re talking about expansion.”
He added: “Sometimes inclusion is inconvenient but it’s the right thing to do.”