As social change has swept the world over the past couple of years — most notably through a widespread reckoning with racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 — those within the music industry have doubled down on making meaningful change, too. That includes the Recording Academy, which in 2019 began an aggressive push to diversify its membership and, in 2020, created the Black Music Collective and hired its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
In the spirit of those efforts, the academy has created a special merit award recognizing songs with profound influence: best song for social change.
“There has been a great interest within our creative community to celebrate songs that have truly impacted our world and to do it in a way that would not be tied to a specific musical genre,” says Ruby Marchand, the academy’s chief awards and industry officer. “The idea has been floating around for quite a while, but it took the acumen of a handful of proposal writers this year who came together to finally put in writing exactly what this idea could ultimately represent.”
For years, other major music award shows have included similar honors. In 2011, the MTV Video Music Awards introduced best video with a message (now called video for good), which has recognized songs tackling subjects like racial justice (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”), LGBTQ+ acceptance (Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”) and body image (Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts”). The BET Hip Hop Awards added an impact track award in 2012.
The best song for social change award will be similarly far-reaching in scope. “There is no limit to the breadth of themes that may encompass these criteria,” says Marchand. “What’s unique about our award [is], first of all, it’s a songwriter award, so it’s recognizing the unique art and craft of the song,” along with how the song has created social change.
A committee of 20 to 25 academy voting members will choose the honoree, using an app that contains all eligible submitted songs plus lyrics, liner notes and social impact statements from those recommending the tracks. Many of those voters themselves “write, record and perform songs that have had strong social impact across a broad group of themes,” says Marchand. The 30 songs receiving the most votes in the first round of voting will be discussed, then whittled down to 10 finalists. As with its other special merit awards (for lifetime achievement, trustees, music educators and the technical Grammys), the academy will announce only the honoree, at the Grammy Nominees Reception on Feb. 4, 2023.
Unlike in the regular Grammy categories, the song for social change award will be open to any song released in the past five eligibility years, which is currently Oct. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2022. “The five-year period allows a song to resonate, to find its critical mass, to actually have an impact that can go beyond any given year,” explains Marchand. And the academy isn’t excluding music that has already received Grammys or nominations — so previous song of the year winners “This Is America” and H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” for instance, could potentially gain a new accolade.
“Music has always been reflective of the times in which it was released, so it’s fitting that the Grammys honor artists speaking out about what’s going on in their communities,” say Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, founders of #TheShowMustBePaused. Some, like Black Music Action Coalition co-founder/co-chair Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, would like it to be included in the general categories, receiving “the same level of attention as the other awards.” But, as Stiggers adds, the honor’s creation should, in and of itself, have an effect.
“I believe that it will inspire other artists to put out music that will positively impact our community,” says Stiggers. “It’s a step, and we have to applaud each step that we take on this road to justice.”