On Sunday, January 28th, The Recording Academy will celebrate the 60th Annual Grammy Award ceremony. With much anticipation, heading into this year's show there are plenty of storylines and artists to watch for. Kendrick Lamar is coming off his most commercially successful album, yet still has the widespread critical acclaim, and depth, his other albums have boasted. Childish Gambino has proven himself, across multiple mediums, as being a supremely gifted storyteller and artist. Jay-Z has shown us what rap can look like in its late 40's, and the evolution of an artist. And Bruno Mars has taken late 80s and early 90s R&B and thrusted them right into today's popular music.
In preparation for this weekend's award ceremony, I spoke to one of my favorite voices in music - critic, writer, and artist, Mel Smith. We talked about the voting process for the Grammy’s, structural racism in music, stanning for Kendrick Lamar, and more! Here's our conversation:
Thanks for doing the interview! To start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Mel: What’s up Stanley, my name is Jamel “Mel” Smith and, in layman’s term, I am a 23-year-old critical, carefree Black creative who loves all things entertainment and is a part of the creative community and industry. My day-to-day titles include being a graduate student in NYU’s Music Business program, singer/songwriter/producer, cultural critic, and podcaster on Thursday nights. I’ve been very fortunate to cultivate a young career that has taken me from Tuscaloosa, AL (where I hail from) to Atlanta, GA to New York, NY, where I am currently interning in Sony Music’s sync licensing department. I have also been blessed enough to work with a line of major and independent record labels and brands such as Universal Music Group, Def Jam Records, Smithworx Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and GRAMMY U. With all that said, I am very honored to be discussing this exciting process with you. I appreciate the opportunity.
Can you talk some about the voting process? Who’s eligible, and the period between which albums are eligible — cut off dates? How do you become a voter, and who votes for albums?
Mel: The voting members behind the GRAMMY Awards include music industry pros who represent a diverse set of backgrounds—from vocalists to songwriters, engineers to producers, and everything in between. The qualifications include the following: voting members MUST have creative or technical credits on at least six commercially released tracks on a physical album or 12 [credits] on a digital album. Voting members must also be in good standing with their $100/year dues. However, if someone doesn’t meet the requirements, he or she may still apply to become a voting member with an endorsement from at least two current Recording Academy voting members.
Yearly, Recording Academy members and record companies enter recordings and music videos released during the eligibility year (normally between Oct. 1, 2017-Sept. 30, 2018) in the GRAMMY Awards process. The GRAMMY voting process is comprised of several stages consisting of submission, screening, nominating, special nominating committees, final voting, and results. The Recording Academy’s voting members are all involved in the creative and technical recording fields. They participate in the nominations that determine the five finalists in each category and the final voting, which names the GRAMMY winners.
I challenge cultural critics and artists of color to continue to publicly examine how Black art is commodified and start demanding compensation for our excellence, whether that is in how we are honored or in how [much] we are exposed.
A lot has been made about structural racism within the film and TV industries. There have been similar complaints about the recording academy — e.g. Adele winning AOTY over Beyoncé, Macklemore winning Rap Album of the Year over Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift’s 1989 winning AOTY over To Pimp A Butterfly, and so on — but there haven’t been widespread protests like we’ve seen in the film and TV industries. I could be off base here, but there seems to be a difference.
What would you attribute the lack of protest in music to? If anything.
There have been a few social media initiatives re: the inequality of the awards, namely the #GRAMMYsSoWhite hashtag on Twitter following the events you mentioned—most recently, the 2017 AOTY loss. However, most social advocacy has been a branch of the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite created by April Reign in 2015. I believe there are cultural critics, like myself, who make space for a nuanced conversation re: the diversity (or lack thereof) and the integrity of the GRAMMY Awards (#JusticeforToPimpAButterfly).
I don’t think there is a lack of protest regarding structural racism in the music industry. However, I find myself hitting a road block in conversations about this topic due to the public’s inability to examine the commodification and commercial exploitation of urban music as something Black artists should "appreciate" but also critique. I DO believe progress has started to take place; especially when we look at this year’s Album of the Year category—4 artists of color (3 Black), a woman, and NO WHITE MEN. I also think that based on the results of this year’s diverse award season, we will be able to more accurately measure that progress. The front runners of this conversation understand that the tool to change is persistence (as seen with the #OscarsSoWhite initiative.) I challenge cultural critics and artists of color to continue to publicly examine how Black art is commodified and start demanding compensation for our excellence, whether that is in how we are honored or in how [much] we are exposed.
Who are some of your picks for this year’s awards? You can answer this in two ways — who you think will win vs. who you want to win. There may be no difference, but in the event there is a difference can you talk about that some?
Mel: Yes! My favorite thing to discuss with my music homies. (Lol) This has been an exciting award season with artists such as Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, Bruno Mars, and SZA being amongst the biggest nominees this year—an unprecedented event for the Recording Academy; to have “urban" artists lead the nominations. My biggest pick for this year’s awards is Kendrick Lamar’s "DAMN." for his respective genre-specific categories, as well as, Album of the Year. If anyone knows me or follows me on social media, they know how much I stan for the artistic and critical excellence that is "To Pimp A Butterfly”. I am simply looking for redemption this go ‘round. He’s a genius and the Academy should honor that with the 'biggest award of the night’. Of course, Jay Z is a front runner in the race with his tour de force, "4:44”. I wouldn’t be upset with an upset from him. Picks that would be surprising and exciting are Childish Gambino’s “Redbone" win for Record of the Year, “4:44”’s win for Song of the Year, and SZA’s win for Best New Artist. Wholly, an award ceremony sans politics would offer the Recording Academy and the public a great opportunity to expand concepts of artistic excellence in regards to songwriting across the board, using hip hop as a worthy reference. THAT is what I am mostly looking forward to—the implications of the night.
**Prayer list picks: PJ Morton “First Began” for Best R&B Song and “Gumbo” for Best R&B Album. He truly had one of the best albums of the year. A classic record!
A big part of me thinks Jay-Z will win, not so much because 4:44 was the best album, but because, well, he’s reached a status that few artists have in terms of longevity.
Stanley: I agree! PJ’s album was incredible! I’ve been to a few of his shows, and I always left wishing he could somehow capture elements of his live sets in the studio. I thought this album bridged the divide.
With regard to album of the year, I’m pulling for Kendrick hard. But, of all of the years he’s been nominated for AOTY, this is his weakest album, in my opinion (though, still a very good album). A big part of me thinks Jay-Z will win, not so much because 4:44 was the best album, but because, well, he’s reached a status that few artists have in terms of longevity. I think he has a lot of momentum going in to the awards. I think it’s common for the Academy award “make-up calls” awarding artists that’ve been making quality work for a while but have never won AOTY (Bob Dylan in 1998, Santana in 1999, Steely Dan in 2001, Herbie Hancock in 2008). I just think he’s due, but again, I’m pulling hard for Kendrick, DAMN was better.
I think Bruno Mars will probably win Best R&B album, but PJ is very deserving, as well as Ledisi and Daniel Caesar. I have my reservations about Bruno. Most of them boil down to his lack of pushing the genre forward, rehashing old forms and styles, and his lack of lyrical depth.
I don’t see Childish Gambino leaving empty handed. But I’m not totally sure which category he’ll take an award home for. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s going to win for Best Traditional R&B performance.
How do you think Cardi B will fare? She’s nominated for Best Rap Performance.
Mel: Yes! I have been following PJ for years and he is truly one of the most consistent artists and performers of our generation. And he deserves to be honored for such a masterful project.
I definitely agree with everything you said about Kendrick and the AOTY award. I’ve always said that his best bet to win the award was with “To Pimp A Butterfly”. That is an once in a lifetime album and he made it; it’s his magnum opus. So, to see politics run WILD that year with the award going to “1989” was insane for me to watch as a huge fan of musicality and Kendrick Lamar. However, DAMN. is still a worthy contender. Of course, part of me is looking for redemption from his last two snubs but also, DAMN. deserves the nomination and the award, IMO. When we talk about albums and break down what the elements of a great album, DAMN. fits the bill. But 4:44 does as well, so I could see him upsetting DAMN’s win. Of course, DAMN.’s rare combination of commercial success and critical acclaim puts him above everybody in the category, however, when we look at politics, Jay Z definitely has the advantage. I’m pulling for Kendrick as well, man. He deserves a lot. I’m rarely impressed but what he does is intimidatingly good. He’s brilliant.
Bruno Mars is definitely another case study when we discuss the identity politics involved in the GRAMMYs. Of course, that’s another topic of discussion but he is a frontrunner in the category for reasons not necessarily being because he has the strongest album in the bunch; in fact, his album “24K Magic” was reviewed quite mediocrely due the reasons you mentioned. And that’s all I will say about that. However, I do believe that there will come a time when we have to reckon with who Bruno [Mars] is in the industry, as well as, in *our culture. I believe his next album will provide us with those answers.
YES! CHILDISH GAMBINO! He had one of the best albums in my opinion and definitely one of the best songs with “Redbone” (which I could see winning Best Traditional R&B AND Record of the Year). I’m team Childish Gambino; he’s another one of those intimidatingly brilliant artists, especially when we look at the full scope of his career with Awaken My Love! and Atlanta. I’m excited to see how he does during the ceremony.
I think Cardi B will have a great night (due to her performance on the main stage) but I don’t think she will take the Gold home. I’d be surprised if she does, actually. The demographics of the Recording Academy will lean more towards Jay Z and Kendrick for Best Rap Performance. "Trap music” hasn’t quite been welcomed into the conversation regarding merit-based accolades. However, I am glad that the GRAMMYs are featuring her with Bruno on the main stage. I know the Academy is trying to implement inclusion into their shows and even though urban music get the shaft in other ways, I can see some effort with WHO they feature as performers. Hopefully, she maximizes that moment.
Stanley: I’m in line with that frame of thinking regarding Bruno Mars as well. The next album will answer a lot of questions for me. We’ll see where he goes next.
That’s a really good point about Trap Music not fully being accepted. Which makes me think about all of the genres, typically, and traditionally, black, that the Academy was hesitant to accept - rap and r&b categories. When rap is finally included in ‘89, Will Smith wins the award for best Rap Performance. That’s kind of comical to me. I like Will Smith, but best Rap Performance? That’s a bit much lol.
I’m not particularly a fan of artists like Migos and Future, but they’ve proven themselves to be consistent staples of Trap music and Popular music. Yet, they have a combined 3 nominations, ever. Though Cardi B has had some commercial success, she has yet to prove herself on a consistent basis, like the above mentioned artists. But, she may become the face of trap music, and already has as many Grammy nominations as Future. I think we saw a similar hesitance/shift with Chance The Rapper’s mixtape and the inclusion of stream only music.
The success of urban music, in relation to award recognition, has always been based on its proximity to whiteness...
Mel: Exactly. The success of urban music, in relation to award recognition, has always been based on its proximity to whiteness (hence, Will Smith’s award and more recently, Macklemore’s win against Kendrick). Trap music, though commercially popular in white spaces, has not reached a positioning of critical acclaim when we talk about [their] chances to receive a GRAMMY. But who knows what the precedent will be in the next few years. It’s interesting to see the evolution of Hip Hop’s place in the show and in mainstream culture today but here we are experiencing its cultural apex. I think bringing up Chance is beneficial to this conversation. The growing infusion of trap music in mainstream spaces and conversations will more than likely cause the GRAMMYs to reimagine their antiquated definition of what hip hop is. However, I think it’s best to note that the performances of said trap artists have to actually have merit. I’m all for giving the award to Cardi and/or Migos, if they are the best in the category.
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