Reggae Grammy Awards

Buju Banton, Grammy Winner 2011

Firstly, congratulations to Buju Banton for winning the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album with Before The Dawn – and on the very same day he’s back in court to face charges for drug trafficking.
Unfortunately, time and again the Reggae Grammy nominations have failed to reflect the best the reggae industry has to offer. When the list was announced for this year back in early December, you could almost hear a collective sharp intake of breath as people asked, ‘Where are the albums by artists like Gyptian, Serani and Busy Signal? And why does anyone even remotely connected with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear and Lee “Scratch” Perry always seem to win, even when turning in lacklustre performances?’
This year’s entrants were Bob Sinclar [a French remixer / producer, specialising in dance music], Buju Banton [with an album compiled whilst he was in jail], Andrew Tosh [with an album of his father’s songs], Gregory Isaacs [with possibly the worse album of his career] and then Lee “Scratch” Perry and Sly & Robbie with albums that seem to have been conjured from nowhere and few people have heard. Alas, this list bore little comparison to what was actually released during the previous twelve months, and especially considering that a] Damian Marley & Nas’ Distant Relatives was an epic of truly groundbreaking proportions and b], Gyptian provided the reggae genre with its biggest crossover hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
This in itself isn’t unusual. Look through the list of past winners and names like Beres Hammond, Sizzla, Tarrus Riley, Garnett Silk or Morgan Heritage are nowhere to be seen – in fact the latter have never even been nominated! We thought a turning point had been reached in 2004 when Sean Paul won it with Dutty Rock, despite having initially been kicked out of the reggae category by the committee members. The Recording Academy had to reinstate it amidst private concerns that those who sat on the committee weren’t fit for purpose. That’s when Christy Barber, now a Vice-President of VP Records but then working for Tuff Gong / Def Jam, was drafted in to try and freshen things up and was horrified to discover there were no black faces on the panel and furthermore, that there was just one registered voter in Jamaica, out of an industry that employs thousands! This sorry state of affairs had remained like that for nearly twenty years without ever being challenged or questioned, mainly because few people knew how the process worked and those who did know weren’t telling, but were content to run it as a private members’ club. To be fair, the Recording Academy itself [which governs the Grammy Awards] wasn’t exactly proactive in helping to educate people about its procedures, and its insistence on mailing out voter forms to Jamaica and then expecting them to be returned within two weeks posed serious problems for people living there, as the island’s postal service is notoriously unreliable.
Just to recap, you can register to vote for the Grammys if you’re a record producer, artist, video director, engineer, musician or journalist with six US releases [or liner notes in the case of writers] to your names. Albums are submitted to committees representing their respective genres, who then forward a list to Grammy voters in readiness for the nominations. Yet the majority of those who vote – mainly white industry members scattered throughout America – have never heard of most reggae newcomers or even artists the stature of Beres Hammond, which is why anyone named Marley or familiar faces from the past tend to get their votes.
The problem here was immediately apparent. More people needed to register from within the reggae industry and especially in Jamaica itself; then there would be more likelihood of deserving and representative albums winning a Grammy. It’s that simple, or at least that’s how it seemed once Christy persuaded the Recording Academy to forego “snail mail” to Jamaica, send PDFs instead and accept email votes. This represented a significant step forward and so duly fired with enthusiasm, she embarked on an unprecedented voter registration campaign in Jamaica, doing the rounds of local television, radio and press, spreading the message and underlining the importance of industry people taking out membership, paying their $150 annual subscriptions and registering to vote for popular music’s equivalent of the Oscars.
During her trip, she helped to register VP’s roster of artists, met with local music associations and spoke to hundreds of people, most of whom assured her they were going to register. If she’d have been successful it would have transformed the local recording industry, helped bring long overdue credibility to the Reggae Grammy Awards, and given us all a reason to feel proud of the genre – and especially those talented individuals doing most to ensure its future development. Yet despite her efforts, less than thirty people registered on the island, and twenty of those she registered herself. Only one artist called her off her own bat and volunteered their support – Etana. The rest simply didn’t bother, despite having agreed to, or having bitterly complained about the dreadful state the Reggae Grammys were in. As a consequence of this, albums by Serani, Gyptian and our own Gappy Ranks, which were all submitted this year, didn’t receive enough votes to secure a nomination. That’s because those same, mainly white voters in the Mid-West plumped instead for Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sly & Robbie, Gregory Isaacs and Andrew Tosh, despite probably never having heard the albums in question. Christy now describes the day the votes came in as one of the worse in her entire career. That was on December 1st of last year. Gyptian and Serani were waiting for her at a club ready to celebrate their nominations, and were devastated by the news. Gyptian’s Hold You had been entered in three categories – reggae, dance and urban, but didn’t get nominated in any of them, whilst Damian & Nas had been entered eight categories but didn’t get nominated in any of them. [Distant Relatives hadn’t even qualified for the reggae category, as seventy-five percent of their album wasn’t deemed to be of that particular genre.] No disrespect to Buju, but it was the singers, players of instruments, record producers and other industry professionals of Jamaica who lost it. Christy Barber told the people there that if they didn’t register to vote, then nothing would change and look what’s happened. We got the most uninspiring line-up of nominations in the Awards’ history and VP Records, who are the world’s biggest reggae label and reggae music publishers, aren’t even represented in that category. That’s more than a shame, it’s a real insult and as a result, the Reggae Grammys have become more devalued ever.
There’s now a real danger that the reggae category will be discontinued altogether, and especially if there aren’t enough submissions to make it worthwhile, which may well be a consequence of the industry’s continuing inertia. And to think that Christy repeatedly asked the RA for a second category [for Reggae singles] five years running, but now has her work cut out to save the one category we have left.

John Masouri

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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