Words by Jesse Serwer
Burning Spear accepting the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 2009
Pumped for the Grammy Awards tonight? I’m not. Year after year, Grammy voters continue to prove themselves out of touch with what’s actually going on in music. There’s no better—or worse, actually—illustration of this than the Best Reggae Album award. The category, which is now in its 25th year, typically recognizes important reggae artists of eras gone by instead of ones who are actually making important contributions right now.
A good case in point was last year, when Burning Spear took home the award for his album, Jah Is Real. Now, Spear made a solid, legacy-enhancing album that certainly deserved to be nominated. But was it more worthy than Busy Signal’s Loaded, which was one of the most consistent and progressive dancehall albums of the last half-decade but wasn’t even nominated? Meanwhile, rapper Heavy D was nominated for his foray into reggae, Vibes. No disrespect to Hev or his album ’cause I haven’t heard it. But that’s the point. No one else I know has, either. The only plausible explanation for Vibes‘ recognition that I can surmise is that Heavy D has a name that’s recognizable to the typical, mostly rock- and jazz-minded Recording Academy voter, where most dancehall artists don’t. This year’s nominees are Gregory Isaacs, Buju Banton, Sean Paul, Julian Marley and Stephen Marley, mystifyingly re-nominated for the acoustic version of Mind Control, the original form of which already won the award in 2008. Mavado, Tarrus Riley and Queen Ifrica are conspicuously absent, despite releasing what were probably the most acclaimed reggae albums of ’09.
Cristy Barber, VP Records’s vice president of marketing and promotions, recently decided to initiate change by launching a campaign to raise awareness about Recording Academy enrollment in Jamaica. According to Barber, as recently as last year Jamaica had only one active Recording Academy voter despite hundreds who are eligible. Recording Academy rules stipulate that voting members must have at least six creative credits on records that have been released in the United States, meaning anyone who has performed on, produced, engineered, designed artwork or written liner notes for a U.S. release, and has paid for a Recording Academy membership, can vote.
“For 25 years it seems the same people get nominated and win the award,” Barber told me. “It never reflects what’s going on. Everybody’s been grumbling about it for years. About four years ago I started to investigate it and found out we don’t have a lot of people in our genre that are actually voting. For the lack of a better analogy, [the typical voter] is a white guy from Minnesota. and he’s looking at the list [of eligible albums] going, ‘Oh Mavado, Busy Signal, Beres Hammond, Etana, ooh Black Uhuru, I loved ’em in ’72.’ Click. He’s just going with people he knows. He doesn’t have a clue who Busy Signal or Mavado is.”
Barber also found that the way the voting system is currently set up, it was actually impossible for someone in Jamaica to participate. Ballots are sent by snail mail from Los Angeles, and must be returned to L.A. within two weeks of the date that they were sent out. “Something coming from L.A. is never going to get to Kingston, Jamaica in two weeks,” Barber says. “If it ever does it will take four months.” She was able to successfully lobby the Recording Academy for the creation of a PDF form which international voters can use to vote online.
Last week saw the launch of a media campaign with the aim of recruiting at least 100 members of the reggae fraternity to join the Recording Academy in time to vote on 2011 nominations. Traveling to Jamaica, Barber appeared on TV, radio and in newspapers and met with individuals she had identified as eligible to vote.
“I had a list of 50 to 100 people I wanted to talk to, and over 300 people I know I can register,” she told me. “I literally walked back with 25 applications.”
A change soon come? We shall see.