What’s right with Reggae Grammys process (and honouring our best)
There is something right with the process of selecting the best album in the reggae category for the annual Grammy awards which is being overlooked in the current round of sneering at the method and outcome. This criticism is something we routinely go through each year, with varying levels of intensity.
The greatest thing is that the Reggae Grammy is voted for predominantly by persons who are beyond the influence of a Jamaican music business which, I believe, is largely corrupt and very determined to remain that way. An unspoken part of the ongoing Jamaican-based disagreement with the Reggae Grammy is that so many people want to get their grubby little hands on the nomination process and ultimate winner; eventually turning the award into something as laughable as the slew of fake music charts in Jamaica.
Like most persons of such ilk, they want influence over and control of an existing, legitimate process, rather than expending the effort to establish one themselves - which they lack the personal integrity to imbue with believability. As usual, more Jamaicans are being encouraged to sign up with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which votes on nominations put forward by the Grammy committee responsible for the genre. That is good. Not least of all because, at over 14,000 members currently, even with a mass Jamaican sign-up, it is unlikely that there will ever be a situation where it is possible to bribe or cajole a path to a Reggae Grammy win for the undeserving.
Here is a Jamaican example of corrupting a process of identifying a legitimate standout. The last chart that I know of to have some sort of empirical basis was run by The STAR in the early 2000s when Claire Clarke (now Claire Clarke-Grant, head of TVJ), was the publication's editor. There were still record shops around and a major one was identified in most parish capitals, with more than one in major urban centres. They were not asked to report sales figures, but send in a ranking of their top sellers in order (I don't remember how many were required to be named). The data was entered and a specially devised computer programme generated a chart, which was published in the Weekend STAR.
It worked well for a while - the chart corresponded with what we heard being played and performed at events we attended and saw audiences responding to; it jibed with what the taxi operators were blasting and people were requesting on radio shows.
Then it started changing in two ways. First, some record stores started sending in lists with a swathe of songs on the same rhythm in the top 10, one behind the other. While one or more of the songs on the beat were genuinely popular, some were not. Then there were the songs which no one knew of which were listed as top sellers (sounds familiar?).
Record producers were bribing store owners (there was one particularly infamous one in urban St Andrew) to corrupt the chart. Rather than rubber-stamp the rubbish, the chart was scrapped; we have the free-for-all that exists now and the corrupt are all jolly.
identifying our best
Based on that experience and what I have observed in the conduct of so many persons in the business of Jamaican popular music, I believe something similar would happen if Jamaican music persons of the prevailing (or certainly very influential) mentality got control of the Reggae Grammy process. And, generally, the protestations over many years have not been about the award's existence, but who is getting it. There has not been a general concern over Jamaica identifying and honouring our best, but who has been so lauded.
Which leads to the second and more important part of this column, suggesting a process of how we in Jamaica can identify a best album annually. And that would be for a calendar year, January 1 to December 31, so we don't have a situation where an album released in the latter part of 2016 is not a winner for the award announced in 2018. It would be for albums produced in Jamaica, using Jamaican facilities and personnel in a proportion to be determined - we cannot handle the volume of reggae albums produced outside of Jamaica.
Album submissions would be made by the person responsible for the label on which it is released (which may be the performer). No EPs - albums. There should be no accommodation of shortcutting the path to amassing a comprehensive body of work.
And who would the submissions be made to? A clearly identified committee which goes through a public, transparent process. On that committee would be a single representative of institutions - the Broadcasting Commission, Entertainment Advisory Board, Press Association of Jamaica, Jamaica Music Museum, School of Music at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Reggae Studies Unit at the UWI, Mona, Jamaica Sound System Association, JACAP, JAMMS, JIPO (Jamaica Federation of Musicians) and the Ministry of Culture, Entertainment, Gender and Sport (there are sure to be other institutions I have left out - for example, a sound engineer has to be involved).
Whoever occupies the position of Poet Laureate would have to be part of the process. There would also be a limited number of individuals with a track record of sustained involvement in Jamaican popular music beyond the superficial - Edward Seaga, Dr Omar Davies, Chris Blackwell and Mutabaruka come immediately to mind.
Importantly, there should be strong representation by persons under 30 years old. Hell, under 25 years old would be even better. Older is generally wiser, but younger is generally more in touch with emerging trends. Each person's choice would have equal weighting in the eventual outcome, which would be an average of the committee members' assessment.
Those individual choices would be made public with set parameters for the voting process, each month's submissions named at the beginning of the following month. Criteria such as lyrical content, thematic consistency, quality of music production, packaging (including cover art) and vocal quality (no off-key roun' ere!) would be given a marking range with a clear grading scheme - just like an academic rubric. And the committee member would be required to give a short review of the album, taking public responsibility for their decision.
Then at the end of Reggae Month, the top five albums would be announced, along with a chairman's report expanding on the grading that has been made public.
Of course, there is a lot of refinement required to what is only a suggestion (one question is if we should separate reggae and dancehall), but we can - and should - establish an unbiased, transparent, honest process of identifying our best and showing the world that we are the rightful custodians of this emotional and financial treasure we have created.
Let's be custodians, not 'cuss-todians'. Get it?