by Arley Salimbi Gill
In early April, the world awaited the return of one of the most-watched awards shows on the planet — the 64th Grammy Awards.
The Recording Academy, and the Latin Recording Academy, produce the Grammy Awards every year, drawing millions of viewers worldwide, including some in Grenada. However, despite looking forward to this year’s show, I must admit that the process that leads to artists being nominated, and subsequently being awarded on the night of the show, is still very unclear to me. How does an artist progress from writing a song — to having the song nominated, to winning a Grammy?
Before I delve into what music lovers in the Caribbean region deemed an unfair or poor judging decision — the awarding of Best Reggae Album to SOJA — Soldiers of Jah Army — I believe that the show’s nomination and voting process need an explanation.
To win a Grammy, songs must be nominated; and, to be nominated, musicians must produce songs within the period designated by the Recording Academy. The nominated work must be released in the United States and be available for sale or sold in the US, through a broadcast distributor (Amazon or iTunes, for example), and not through an artist’s website.
Additionally, you can submit your work as a new artist, where there are fewer restrictions and the greatest chance of being nominated and winning a Grammy.
After an artist’s work is nominated for an award — we must ask ourselves — who are the people reviewing the nominated work, and voting on the nominations? According to the Recording Academy, the voting pool is made up of artists’ peers, representing the various categories. To be an eligible voter, you must meet one of 4 criteria, including: credited with releasing music — digital or physical tracks, at least 12 tracks, with one being in the last 5 years.
The other voter eligibility criteria are having 6 credits on commercially released tracks available for sale and distributed through physical distribution sites, with at least one track in the past year; having won a Grammy before; and, fourth, getting an endorsement from a current voting member of the Recording Academy.
And, to win a Latin Grammy, your recording can be released anywhere in the world; but it must be recorded in Spanish or Portuguese within a LARAS stipulated timeframe.
I hope you have realised by now that the Recording Academy process does not seem to accommodate Caribbean artists — especially soca performers and calypsonians. SOJA — an American reggae band — winning Best Reggae Album — may have had little to do with artistic quality; but, more to do with the Recording Academy’s nomination and voting criteria. For the record, the late, great, Robert Nesta Marley never won a Grammy!
As an armchair judge, sitting in my living room — would I have nominated and awarded a different reggae album for Best Reggae Album of the Year? Absolutely! Not being familiar with SOJA’s music, I would have voted for any of the other artists in that category: Spice, Jesse Royal, Sean Paul, Gramps Morgan, and Etana.
And, as I was silently rooting for Gramps Morgan, my winning vote for Best Reggae Album would have been, Positive Vibration. My favourite reggae songs of 2021 came from that album; songs such as: If You are Looking for Me; A Woman Like You; My Love; and, Water in My Whiskey. There are other great songs from that album that are instant reggae classics — songs that will be sung by future generations of reggae lovers.
SOJA’s award for Best Reggae Album elicited mixed reactions from the Jamaican public and from contemporary Jamaican reggae artists. Music lovers throughout the Caribbean region have also expressed differing opinions on the issue. However, SOJA’s win, regardless of your viewpoint on the issue, could have been the fulfillment of a dream of reggae pioneers, whose hope was to see reggae music transcend the boundaries of Jamaica and become universally embraced by artists and devoted music fans around the world.
Interestingly, the Recording Academy has a category for global music, and for years now, we in the calypso and soca world have voiced our concern — we believe that calypso-soca deserves its own category.
The Grammy Awards are one of the biggest stages in the world for singers, writers, music producers, engineers, and industry insiders. Winning a Grammy engenders a tremendous amount of pride and prestige among peers. Therefore, the inclusion of a calypso-soca category will provide a platform for calypso and soca entertainers to promote their music to the broader music fraternity, and to a wider commercial audience. In the end, it is a win-win scenario; the Grammy Awards become more musically diverse; and, artists and their music — soca and calypso — are amplified and promoted to a worldwide audience.
However, despite my longing for greater recognition for calypso and soca — it worries me that we, in the Caribbean region, are still relying on an American institution to validate the musical contributions of our singers and musicians. Artists in the region should set the standards for what they consider quality music. And determine, too, how best to honour the challenging work and dedication of writers, producers, and singers.
Depending on the Recording Academy to tell us what is “good” calypso, soca or reggae music — or which music or musicians are deserving of recognition — is akin to the North American cultural invasion that we are experiencing here in the region; whether the cultural invasion is reflected in our preference for “American” food, clothing, cars, and lifestyle over that of our own. Sadly, this is another form of neo-colonial thinking and practice and, in many ways, it’s a new form of imperialism that’s present and rearing its ugly head in our culture.
We need to establish a truly global music awards — where diverse musical genres can converge; and, where artists can collectively celebrate their work, as well as each other’s contribution to our artforms. The celebration of world artists should not be based solely on commercial music sales, but simply on the quality of the music they produce. The celebration should be a recognition of artists’ creativity and musical contributions to the world.
Furthermore, I imagine leading musical experts representing cultures from around the world adjudicating and celebrating artists and their work; and the adjudication based on a set of criteria that best fit the music that the expert judges are evaluating. For example, there should be a category for “best song’’, or “best album”, with input from the people that are buying and listening to the songs or the albums.
Moreover, the venue for this global music celebration should rotate annually; and, this proposed global musical event should receive the worldwide respect and honour a celebration like this deserves. Furthermore, there is a role for UNESCO to play in making such a global effort a reality.
This change will not happen overnight. It will take time and effort to compete with — or even replace — the Grammy Awards as commercial artists’ standard-bearer of music.
However, the effort needed — and risks involved in making this change a reality — are worth taking. That’s because singers, engineers, writers and others in the industry in the Caribbean region can no longer sit and watch as the Recording Academy relegates calypso and soca music to the sidelines of the North American and global music industry.
And, music lovers in the region are tired of waiting patiently for the Recording Academy to tell us when we are good enough, and worthy enough, to access one of the biggest musical stages in the world.
Arley Gill, an attorney, is a former Grenada Culture Minister. He currently chairs the Grenada National Reparations Committee and the Spicemas Corporation.