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Grammys update award names and nomination rules in a bid to address racism and corruption accusations

By | Published on Thursday 11 June 2020

Grammy Awards

The US Recording Academy has announced a number of changes to the Grammy Awards in an attempt to overcome past accusations of corruption and racism. It has also said that the 2021 ceremony will definitely go ahead – although perhaps not as you know it.

The headline grabbing change within the announcement is the dropping of the ‘urban’ word in two categories (although it’s been added to another), the changes coming as the wider debate over the appropriateness of that genre term intensifies within the industry.

That debate has also put the spotlight back on comments made by Tyler, The Creator earlier this year after winning a Grammy himself. He criticised award events for too often automatically nominating black artists for awards labelled urban – or badged with a sub-genre under the urban banner – without really considering what music those artists have actually made. He’d just won the Best Rap Album prize for a record that was more pop.

Among the changes announced by the Academy yesterday were the rebranding of the Best Urban Contemporary Album category to Best Progressive R&B Album. Best Rap/Sung Performance is becoming Best Melodic Rap Performance. Best Latin Rock, Urban Or Alternative Album becomes Best Latin Rock Or Alternative Album. But Best Latin Pop Album becomes Best Latin Pop Or Urban Album.

Grammy organisers say that changes to the Latin category names – in particular shifting the urban word from one category to another – aim to “migrate the genres of Latin urban and represent the current state and prominent representation in the Latin urban genres”.

Whether these rejigs result in any real change remains to be seen. While the dropping of the urban tag for the R&B category has been generally welcomed, a simple name change does not really deal with the issues raised by Tyler, The Creator. Nor the other common accusation that many award events are prone to hand black artists genre specific prizes even when they’ve made records which many reckon should get the higher profile non-genre specific gongs, particularly Album Of The Year.

Meanwhile, the newly rebranded ‘best melodic rap’ category has already received criticism for sounding a bit like ‘best attempt at pop’. And it seems certain that that would have been the category that Tyler, The Creator’s ‘Igor’ album would have been put into this year had it existed. So his comment, saying “it sucks that whenever we … do anything that’s genre-bending or anything, they put it in a rap or urban category”, would still stand, despite this shift.

Explaining the decision to update the category names, and especially the decision to move away, somewhat, from the urban word, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr tells Variety: “It’s something we’ve been discussing for a couple of years … [that] term has been a hot button for a while”.

“A lot of creators and people in that genre [urban] didn’t like that description and felt it pigeonholed certain styles of music”, he goes on, “so when our constituents brought that to us in the form of a proposal, we listened and voted to approve, as asked by the people in that community. Progressive R&B gives us a chance to lean more into the modern R&B and hybrid-style recordings and give us a little bit of flexibility in that category”.

Elsewhere, conflict of interest rules have been tightened ahead of next year’s event. That’s a reaction to an issue that the Recording Academy has previously insisted wasn’t an issue.

During the acrimonious departure of former Grammys boss Deborah Dugan in January this year, one of her many, many accusations was that the awards were rigged to an extent. She claimed that the nominating committees that made the final decisions on award shortlists were shrouded in secrecy, due to being corrupt.

Said committees, she alleged, routinely ignored the votes of the 12,000+ academy members in order to give prizes to their own clients and associates. In some cases, she claimed, artists were able to sit on the committees for awards that they were themselves eligible – on at least one occasion resulting in such an artist being bumped up from eighteenth in the ranking based on member votes to one of the five artists nominated for Song Of The Year.

The Recording Academy dismissed all of these accusations at the time, but has now nonetheless implemented new conflict of interest rules for its nominating committees. Members of these committees will now be required to declare whether they have any ties to artists being considered – financial, familial or otherwise. Failure to do so would result in being barred from taking part in future events and, if it is discovered in time, being removed from the group they are participating in that year.

Previously, the rule was that if you had a conflict of interest relating to any particular artist (or you were that artist) you were required to leave the room while the specific category they were up for was being discussed. Mason Jr says that the changes in this domain just makes the rules “a little more robust and clear in terms of the requirements” rather than them being a massive overhaul.

In another change to existing rules, there is also now no cap on the number of releases an artist can put out while still being eligible for the Best New Artist category. That’s a category that has been through a number of changes already in recent years, as Grammy organisers try to decide what constitutes a ‘new’ or ‘breakthrough’ act in the age of streaming and DIY releases.

Changes to the rules are all well and good, but some have wondered – what with this whole public health crisis and the continued uncertainties around when large-scale events will be able to return – will the Grammys even take place next year? Mason Jr insists that they will and on their planned January date as well.

“At this point, we are absolutely planning on having the show on 31 Jan 2021”, he tells Variety. “We are simultaneously developing three plans for what the show would look like: One is the traditional show the with the full crowd, two is a limited crowd, and three is no crowd, and there’s creative around all three of those ideas; how and where we would film it. But none of them involve changing or postponing the date”.

So, it seems that we will get to see all of these rule changes in action, with or without an audience to applaud the winners and to debate what will almost certainly still be the controversies around selections, shortlists and category definitions.

Reviewing the rules is a good thing of course. Although the best way to overcome the controversies would be to finally recognise that pitting artists and genres against each other is inherently stupid, that awards like the Grammys are really just a big marketing platform and cheeky junket for the more corporate end of the music industry, and the world would probably be a better place if we just called them all off forever.

But if COVID-19 can’t achieve that, I guess us moaning about it at the bottom of the CMU Daily isn’t likely to achieve much either.