By Themba Mkhize
Gather around for spoilers.
The scene opens to a view of impression-making album covers. This set belongs to the summer releases squeezed out before September, making them eligible to be considered for the upcoming Grammy Awards. The next two months will be spent repeatedly listening to our favourites, and this will naturally fuel speculation until nominations are officially announced. In comes the chorus of discontented voices which will converge from all about. They are either disappointed that the pendulum did not swing their way this time, or has not swung their way for too long now.
Each year the voices swell louder, and so, one year the Recording Academy establishes a committee to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion in their processes. When many people are displeased in the short term, the Recording Academy will release statements to the effect that they have done their best, and will, continue to do better with time. Their goal is really to rebuff arguments that pit them as tone-deaf and disconnected, as that would make them poor representatives of music fans worldwide.
This has been the recent trend. This year is no different. Again, artistes and fans are bemoaning a lack of transparency in nomination at the Grammys. The Grammys’ status as an elite, career-defining award and symbol of musical success is being contested by some of the world’s most influential artistes.
It is easy enough to disregard some as sore losers and biased fans. Others are more likely the victims of shortlists. The rule is that everybody can’t make the cut. But more important to me is the examination of what we have come to expect from the Grammy Awards, how we have come to expect these things and whether or not it makes sense for us to.
Despite having its status as the cornerstone symbol of musical success contested, the Grammys remains easily the most elite award for popular music throughout the world. As with anything considered elite, politics is never far off. Acclaim and prestige will be on offer to those who are favoured by powerbrokers. Industry politics and structural biases will influence the organization of these elite constructs, and they are hard to flush out even when they become glaring.
Former president and chief executive officer of the Recording Academy, Deborah Duganis, confirmed that prejudice, conflicts of interest and the exertion of undue influence were realities she grappled with during her short tenure. Her lawyers contended that her being ousted in early 2020 was direct retaliation for her attempt to reform the organization in a way that did not align with powerbrokers. The status quo has largely been preserved.
But there are other ways it can be shaken. Artistes like The Weeknd and Drake are at the throat of the Recording Academy, demanding transparency on their processes, or calling for the Grammys to be abandoned wholesale, having outlived its relevance. That which is elite eventually loses its charm as culture changes and stakeholders form new perceptions and cultivate new desires.
Many Jamaicans, for example, have long had an issue with the treatment of Jamaican music at the Grammy Awards. Our music is primarily represented under the “Best Reggae Album” category. Artistes have made their displeasure known. The Grammys’ definition of Reggae subsumes, roots rock reggae, Jamaican dancehall music and everything else in between. Some artistes and fans believe dancehall to be underrepresented. Most Jamaicans have never heard of some of the albums nominated. In Jamaica, some of these albums are perceived to have little cultural significance. High quality, culturally relevant reggae and dancehall music which actually has an impact is oftentimes overlooked.
It goes further too. The award is traditionally presented after the show. At least one musician has complained about the level of accommodation offered and the basic level of respect he expected to be treated with, but was not.
So why do we care about the Grammys? Why do we want to be nominated? Why do we expect them to represent our perspectives on the best of Jamaica’s music when they are probably far removed from our perceptions and do not claim to be representative either?
To me, it is clear that the Grammys are not our own. They were never designed for us. They do not represent us. They do not try to.
But, like many things we were not meant to have, we desire not to walk away from it, but to be accepted as worthy of it. It is the most basic social urge – to qualify and be held in the same regard as those who are considered as the best. And so we continue to seek their acceptance, even when it does not serve us to do so, and even when they think themselves an authority on matters which they are not qualified to represent us on.
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