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Grammys on the Hill Honorees on How Music Can Bridge the Partisan Divide

"A lot of our strongest advocates are on the Republican side," says Jimmy Jam. "It's the one place we agree upon things."

Without actual political power to pass laws supporting artists and songwriters, the Recording Academy instead marshals its most potent lobbying weapon to influence Congress: star power.

So every year, for Grammys on the Hill, the Academy honors a combination of politicians (this year, Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas) and music dignitaries (star-making production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) to help the music business communicate its bi-partisan agenda. One priority is the American Music Fairness Act, which would give recording artists a royalty payment for terrestrial-radio airplay for the first time ever, despite fierce opposition from broadcast groups.

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Jam and Lewis will also perform. In deference to potential votes, maybe they’ll play one of their best-known songs: Lionel Richie’s “Don’t Wanna Lose You.”

Below, Billboard chats with each of this year’s honorees about their music advocacy efforts and their hopes for this year’s event.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis

The first time Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis discussed the songwriting business, they were in middle school 40 years ago, a decade or so away from producing a string of hits for Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey and many others, as well as winning five Grammy Awards. “The only business that Terry and I talked about back in that day was we were going to split everything 50-50,” Jam recalls. “We shook hands, and our handshake was our agreement, and that’s still in place.”

As the duo’s career progressed, the discussions of copyrights, royalties and publishing became more complex, and Jam and Lewis evolved into songwriter advocates. Jam was the first Black person to chair the Recording Academy’s board of trustees in the early 2000s, and he and Lewis attended numerous Grammys on the Hill gatherings before being named artist honorees this year. “I’ve always schmoozed at that event,” Jam says on a Zoom call (which Lewis couldn’t join due to his daughter’s dance recital at Princeton University). “I love it.”

Jam and Lewis aren’t especially public about their politics, preferring to support specific issues on a personal level. In August 2018, Jam requested a phone call with Tina Smith, the U.S. senator from his home state of Minnesota; he wanted her to support the Music Modernization Act. “I said, ‘Listen, Prince would have loved this. You can’t be from Minnesota and not be on board with this,’ ” he recalls telling Smith during their call. She threw her support behind the legislation the next day, and Congress passed the MMA two months later.

“When you meet people and have conversations, it goes a long way,” Jam says, then cites a friend and music-business mentor, Clarence Avant, known as “The Black Godfather.” When Avant ran Tabu Records, Jam and Lewis were helping define the sound of 1980s R&B with productions for Tabu acts like The S.O.S. Band and Alexander O’Neal. “I always wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes,” says Jam. “Clarence always [said], ‘Make sure you get in those rooms where those decisions are being made because those rooms are very much important to be in.’ ” Now they are being honored in one of those rooms.

Florida Rep. Ted Deutch

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch has played piano most of his life, and a Bruce Springsteen song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” helped inspire his first run for office — a Florida state senate race in 2006. But as much as he loved music, he didn’t understand how complicated music-business legislation could be until he learned the laws were inspired by the advent of player pianos over 100 years ago — the term “mechanical royalties” comes from the mechanics of the instrument.

“That’s when I knew that there was a lot of work to be done. And I’ve spent a lot of time learning about copyright and boning up on the really challenging aspects of it,” says Deutch, a Florida Democrat and one of this year’s Grammys on the Hill honorees.

But despite the details, Deutch says the many music-related bills he sponsors in Congress are fundamentally simple and easy to explain to his colleagues, and the public, on a visceral level.

Save Our Stages, which Deutch co-sponsored, helped concert venues with funding to survive the pandemic after it passed in late 2020; the Protect Working Musicians Act, which Deutch introduced last October, would let musicians unite to negotiate better rates on streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. And the American Music Fairness Act, which Deutch co-introduced in the House last June, would require terrestrial radio stations to pay performers whenever they air songs, despite fierce opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters and other radio groups. They all have one thing in common.

“It’s really not that complicated,” Deutch says. “We ought to be asking the fundamental question, ‘At a time of radically changing technology, do we have a system that fairly compensates creators?’ That’s what we really need to focus on.”

Texas Rep. Michael McCaul

Many in the music business lean liberal, but when it comes to congressional music legislation, much of the progress comes from bipartisanship, with Republicans from former Sen. Orrin Hatch to Rep. Michael McCaul sponsoring crucial creators’ rights bills. “A lot of our strongest advocates are on the Republican side,” says Jimmy Jam. “It’s the one place we agree upon things.”

McCaul — a guitarist who plays every day, attends Austin City Limits in his hometown and saw U2 on its first U.S. tour in 1981 — tops this Republican list. McCaul co-sponsored 2018’s Music Modernization Act and the Save Our Stages bill, which brought $15 billion in funding to pandemic-challenged concert venues, and he’s working with Democratic House colleagues to pass the HITS Act, which would allow musicians and producers to deduct recording expenses on their taxes. (“It’s a matter of gathering focus in the midst of many competing priorities,” he says of the pending bill from July 2020.)

McCaul regularly attends Grammys on the Hill, which he calls “an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and highlight my music-related legislation.” Working with Deutch, McCaul in January introduced the PEACE Through Music Diplomacy Act to boost music-related exchange programs in an attempt to “advance peace abroad.” The bill, he says, “takes my belief in the power of music and appreciation for its creators to a global scale.”

Will music bills repair the ugly partisan wounds of the past decade by uniting Democrats and Republicans? Not a chance. But, as McCaul says by email: “I’ve always believed that music is a vital part of American society and a powerful tool to promote peace worldwide. And I think many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle recognize this as well.” His favorite Austin artists are singer-songwriters Kacey Musgraves and Patty Griffin, the former a staunch liberal, the latter an outspoken voting-rights advocate, so maybe there’s hope.

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 23, 2022, issue of Billboard.