Voting for a winner in one of the 84 Grammy categories is similar to selecting a victor in various federal, state, and local races for general elections. The right to vote for elected government officials is open to those who meet the citizenship, age, and other special requirements.
Much the same, the Recording Academy has rules and conditions specific for the voting body. Designed as a membership, the decision-makers of categories must currently be a part of the music community at large, whether as a performer, songwriter, producer, engineer, instrumentalist, and/or other creators. Simply put, music industry peers determine Grammy winners.
That’s an exact point that Rap, R&B, and Reggae genre manager Len Brown finds himself having to emphasize more and more each year, especially when the nominations are revealed. The new class of nominees was announced ahead of Thanksgiving, leaving R&B artists like H.E.R., Givēon, Chloe x Halle, and, of course, Beyoncé honored and genuinely thankful for the considerations.
Fans of major acts like Brandy, The Weeknd, Teyana Taylor, and Summer Walker erupted on social media after their names were visibly absent from the announcement.
Talking on Zoom from his home in December 2020, Brown’s reaction to the nomination uproar read concerned and disappointed. While he’s not a voting member himself, he still stands behind the balloters’ decision on the nods.
“The results are what they are, and that’s a direct result of about 11,000 voting members,” Brown tells Rated R&B when asked about his thoughts now that nods are out. “That’s one of the perks of obviously being a voting member and one of the things we let people in the music business know that this is a peer-based award. This is an award that your fellow musicians, that you look up to or revere, have a say in and this is the result of that.”
Brown, a former music journalist for Mixologi and other various publications, is no stranger when it comes to online backlash as he’s been in his current managerial role for close to three years. His solution to the annual Grammy complaints is simple: join the Recording Academy and become a voting member.
“The Recording Academy is made up of a good group of people within the music business that can make an impact on how we go forward. Not just in our genres, but the business as a whole,” Brown advocates.
“The focus there is on the awards, but one way to ever get more intimately knowledgeable about something is to do it from the inside. You can’t do it from the outside. You have to be a part of this organization to understand it and break it down to a point where you will figure out what you can affect. How can you affect the people you call your peers in this Academy, and how do you make that reflect the current state of music? Because I think that’s something that I feel everybody is clamoring to like, it needs to be relevant.”
He adds, “Relevancy is always subjective, and it’s apparent as well because relevancy is out there in our faces every day via the media. But at the same time, everybody doesn’t think the same. Therefore, being able to galvanize and come together as a community is something that the Recording Academy is about. If you’re a leader in your musical abilities and you’re a leader in your genre, you should be a leader here as well. We hope that we get more people involved and more people adamant about keeping this current and keeping us current. We’re a product of the music business we look to serve.”
Now that the dust has seemingly settled, Rated R&B caught up with Brown to ask a few burning questions about the 2021 Grammy Awards. We discussed thoughts on the Best R&B Album nominations, the impact of mixtapes and EPs, thoughts on sampled-based records, Brandy’s lack of recognition, and more.
It seems like every year, it gets more challenging for the Recording Academy to meet the nomination expectations, particularly in the R&B field, for artists, labels, and fans. Why do you think that is?
I think that could be part of the education piece I mentioned earlier. A part of the pushback is from the media and the public on their perception of who should be nominated and then the reality of who’s nominated. As you should know, those things sometimes don’t align, but what can be a step to get them to align? I think that’s something that we always educate people on because, as I mentioned in my last remark, membership is a big thing about this and voting. You don’t vote unless you’re a member. You can’t be a member unless you work in the music industry or if you are a musician yourself, a full-time musician. That is what we look for in membership. These are the folks that we want to be a part of this Academy to help make those decisions. Ultimately, those decisions fall on the voting members. Suppose there is a snub and a quote-unquote travesty or whatever you want to call it. In that case, that’s based on people’s opinions on what they think is the best. At the end of the day, what it comes down to is [that] musicians have a choice to let their voice be heard when it comes to this award show. We are here to help them do that because they’re the ones that move the culture with their music and their art. They [can] also move the culture with their votes.
In June 2020, the Recording Academy renamed the best urban contemporary album category to best progressive R&B album. This marks the first time in the history of the category’s third name change that the word “samples” was included in its definition. What were the Recording Academy’s feelings about samples being used in recordings before that?
Samples aren’t prohibited, so that’s never been a thing. That’s never been something that we’ve stopped anybody from doing [in terms of submissions]. Samples within songs are perfectly fine. That could be a nomenclature thing where it’s just the words in that particular definition. Still, the essence of the category remains the same. Members can have the opportunity to make changes [such as category definitions] within the Academy. As a membership organization, that is one of the powers our members hold. One of those changes was to change the [category] name from [best] urban contemporary to [best] progressive R&B to lockstep with where R&B is going currently, which is in a progressive state where everybody is taking more chances. Everybody [also] is trying to push the boundaries of R&B further. To have a category that will encapsulate that is something that I feel like members felt strongly about and made a proposal for it, and it passed.
Women like Kehlani and Jhené Aiko are pioneers for commercially-released EPs and mixtapes receiving recognition in R&B album categories. Robert Glasper, a past Best R&B Album winner, is nominated for Best Progressive R&B Album for his F*ck Your Feelings mixtape. What elements about EPs and mixtapes do you think standout to the Recording Academy as opposed to those of a conventional album?
I feel like nowadays, this is the current state of music. People are putting out more EPs than albums. I think that’s not a Recording Academy question to answer because we are an Academy for musicians. The way musicians, labels, publishers, and you [can] go down the list, independent artists, choose to deliver their music isn’t up to us; it’s up to them. They choose to deliver their music the way they want, and we receive it because that’s what we enjoy. We love to see the flourishing artists, new and old being able to do such a thing. In terms of how we see it, our definitions are also in the rulebook on Grammy.com, but I know that we look at an album as any body of work that is at least five tracks and 15 minutes long. Those are the rules that we put in place to recognize those achievements from artists putting out music so rapidly and so frequently these days.
Many of the 2021 Grammy nominations reflect socially-conscious songs that address the current social climate surrounding injustices against Black people, from Beyoncé’s “Black Parade” to Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown” to H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe.” From an R&B perspective, what were some other themes from this year that the Recording Academy looked for when considering the new class of nominees?
It’s hard to answer because as an Academy, we’re made up of so many different people with so many different tastes and feelings. So, to try and narrow it down to one perfect phrase or perfect word to describe it all. I can’t do that. Everybody’s had their feelings. If you look around you, there’s so much going on in the world: COVID-19, racial injustice, social inequities, economic issues, and so many other issues that the world is going through, not just the United States. I’m sure a lot of that weighed on a lot of people’s minds when it came to voting and who they felt should be nominated this year in such an extraordinary year.
Brandy, who had a strong comeback year, was expected to lock nominations within the R&B field for her album b7 and the song “Borderline” but didn’t receive any. How much does the Recording Academy pay attention to comebacks and critical acclaim when making selections on nominations?
I think that’s something that the voters would have to answer. I’m not sure what they thought about when they made their choices because I’m not a voting member. I would hope somebody would put that into consideration. In a year where there’s so much music coming out and so many choices to choose from, it can be a little hard. There are only five nomination slots. So if you do the math, chances are something might not fit into that five. I’m not sure why that is. Our voting body makes those decisions in terms of who will be in that top five. If we get more participation, who knows what that voting body [will] look at and what they perceive as timeless music or great music. For them, I feel like that’s something that could be another conversation in terms of getting more members. That would be an ideal thing for the music industry.
R&B traditionalists like Toni Braxton, Kem and Charlie Wilson were completely shut out from the list of 2021 nominations. Do these legacy artists or their breed of R&B music still have a seat at the table within the Recording Academy?
I don’t see why not. We cover all R&B from new to old and traditional R&B. There’s a particular category for it. So I feel like all R&B artists are welcome. I feel like there can be something to be said about the onus on the Academy versus the onus on the Academy voters. To understand the process and understand the Academy is to understand the voting body and its governance and, obviously, the voting structure and all those 11,000 members being able to vote. They’re the ones that ultimately make that decision because nobody in the Academy from an appointment perspective does any voting or choosing or anything of that sort when it comes to the Grammys.
Throughout 2020, the release of deluxe albums and complete sets have been incredibly high. How do you think those re-releases can benefit R&B artists who were left out of nominations for a particular eligibility year?
I feel like you always want to make sure you put your best music out. And I feel like that’s just an industry trend. There can be many reasons why an artist would choose to put out a regular album versus [a] deluxe album. I can’t say that doing one or the other will get your nomination because that would be untrue for me, and I would never say anything like that. You can correlate that if you’d like, but I leave that to the media to decide, so that’s on you. I feel like quality over quantity, but it’s always a good thing if you have more quality.
Lastly, the Best R&B Album category is coming up on its 26th anniversary at the 63rd Grammy Awards. At the 2002 Grammys, for the first time ever, all five nominees in the category were women. Now, 19 years later, the 2021 Best R&B Album nominees for the very first time are all men. With the feedback from artists and fans alike who felt women dominated the R&B game in the last year, how do you think the Recording Academy decided those nominations were truly relevant and reflective of the past year?
I feel like that’s based on our membership’s tastes. I think all five nominees made great albums, but so did a lot of people. I’ve heard good albums from a pretty good chunk of the music community in the R&B world. I would never put anybody against anybody. I’m not going to say Gregory Porter is worse or better than such and such, or I’m not going to say Teyana Taylor is worse or better than such and such. They’re all phenomenal artists that put out phenomenal bodies of work. What’s been chosen is what’s been chosen. I feel like this is an opportunity to have musicians out there that are, hopefully, asking themselves that same question. Maybe thinking to themselves, “Perhaps I should be a member of this Academy and at least let my voice be heard via the vote. And then see, I can make a change in that because I feel like in my heart of hearts, this is where the music should be going.” I would only hope that this will be a nice calling to those musicians to hopefully come and join because this is something that you can have a chance to affect.
Learn more about becoming a Recording Academy voting member here. Winners of the 2021 Grammy Awards will be announced live on Sunday, March 14. The ceremony, hosted by Trevor Noah, airs on CBS at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT.