The Recording Academy, the body behind the Grammy Awards, has weathered controversy in recent years stemming from a lack of diversity in its membership, nominations and awards.
Between 2018’s #GrammysSoMale hashtag and former president Neil Portnow suggesting that women need to “step up” to be recognized to Diddy’s 2020 lament over the awards’ treatment of Black music, the Recording Academy has been put to task.
The academy has pushed to diversify its membership and organization, accelerating efforts over the last year. Will the efforts ensure the slate of winners Sunday night reflect current music tastes and sales charts, or will they fall back into prior less-than-inclusive patterns?
“A successful show will be a show that people love and we don’t get torpedoed … based on who wins and who doesn’t,” Harvey Mason Jr., national chairman and interim president of the Recording Academy, tells USA TODAY.
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The academy has made sweeping efforts to diversify its ranks over the last few years, starting with the development of a task force in May 2018 after its January 2018 ceremony celebrated mostly men and pop music. It’s since tried to diversify membership and create inclusive initiatives.
In 2020, the group launched the Black Music Collective, with honorary chairmen Quincy Jones and John Legend, and partnered with civil rights group Color of Change to create a guide that lays out actions the music industry can take to improve its treatment of Black people.
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It also hired Valeisha Butterfield Jones as chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. She previously worked in a similar role for Google and was the Obama for America campaign’s youth vote director.
“I think that really started our momentum in the right direction,” Mason says in a joint interview with Butterfield Jones. She added that the tone for diversity, equity and inclusion starts at the top and that she feels supported in her work.
“I’ve been in the space now for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen such an appetite and real commitment for change than I do now, from this organization,” Butterfield Jones says.
She points out this year’s new membership class is the most representative across race and ethnicity, age and gender that the academy has had in years.
Lil Nas X, Victoria Monét and Le’Andria Johnson were among the 2,300 people invited to join the academy’s ranks. Of the invitees, 48% were women, 21% of African American/African descent, 8% Hispanic and 3% Asian American/Pacific Islander descent (before the invitations, membership was 26% female and 25% traditionally underrepresented communities). Nearly three-quarters accepted invitations to become members, according to the academy.
“It’s one thing to invite new members, it’s another thing for them to say yes,” Butterfield Jones says. “To me, it signals that the community is watching and really believing in the change that we hope to be.”
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The Recording Academy recognized the Black community with nominations this year in major categories – Beyoncé got nine, the most for any nominee, including record of the year and song of the year, and hip-hop chart-toppers Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby and Roddy Ricch were recognized with record of the year nods.
The major categories of record of the year, song of the year and best new artist honored Black and female musicians. Women in country music and rock had a strong showing, too. Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Miranda Lambert and Ingrid Andress scored best country album nominations. Andress is also nominated for best new artist. For the first time in Grammys history, all the best rock performance nominees are women or women-fronted groups.
Mason is hoping to avoid vitriol from fans this Grammys night – though it seems inevitable no matter who wins, given the fact chart-topper The Weeknd failed to score a nod, prompting him to tweet “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.” On Thursday, just days before this year’s ceremony, the signer whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, said he plans to boycott the Grammys “because of the secret committees,” according to a statement.
“It’s been a challenge to always make everybody happy, and that’s something that is constantly at play for the academy, probably any awards show, for that matter,” he says.
Mason says focusing on having a voting body with membership that is up-to-date, relevant and representative will ultimately make a difference.
“That’s where we have to continue to focus and continue to improve and continue to invest our resources and making sure that we’re attracting the right members, so that we can continue to honor and respect the right music,” he says.
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‘I thought the Academy could do better’
Sean “Diddy” Combs, winner of the Industry Icon award at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy Gala before last year’s ceremony, challenged the industry to get its act together in the next year when it comes to diversity.
“Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys,” he said. “Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be.”
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His call to action and efforts from the Recording Academy did not improve this year’s album of the year nominations.
Those nominees were glaringly not inclusive, with only two out of eight nominations going to Black artists (Jhené Aiko is also Japanese, Dominican, and Native American.) Nominee Jacob Collier is part-Chinese.
“I was at that party,” Mason recalls. “I had just given (Diddy) his award. I shook his hand, I went down, sat down at my table. And then he started and honestly, Itended to agree with him in some respects. And I know that’s slightly controversial, but I ran as chair because I thought the academy could be better, and I thought we could do things differently and I thought there needed to be some change. I thought it was overdue.”
As soon as Butterfield Jones saw Diddy’s speech, she wanted to be a part of the solution.
“My grandparents used to always say some people are burned by the fire, others are defined by it,” she says.
Changing how Black music is viewed at the Academy has been a priority for Mason, as all as how Black music is represented in its awards.
“I hope that anyone who may still be critical of the work that’s done, I invite you to join us and be our partner,” Butterfield Jones says. “We have not taken our foot off the gas since that speech. And quite frankly, the work began before that.”
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