Damian Marley, Stony Hill (Tuff Gong, July 2017)

Do the Marleys Have an Unfair Advantage at the Grammys?

Among Jamaicans it's generally felt that if a Marley is in the running, they're pretty much guaranteed to win, no matter if their album is "savage, average, or garbage".

Jamaica is this cool place on the world map that is hardly visible, but everyone knows of the little rock because of its musical legacy. When it comes to the Grammys, Jamaica is always present. In the 2018 staging it was Shaggy’s on-stage performance that ensured Jamaica’s presence at the live Grammy show, and when he uttered “I’m a Jamaican in New York” (the Grammys show was live at Madison Square Gardens), the crowd response peaked.

However, it wasn’t Shaggy’s performance which caused all the backstage rumbling that kept Jamaicans awash with emotion. It was Jr Gong, and, more specifically, the “Marley factor”. If you didn’t know, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley announced on social media that he won the 2018 Grammy in the “Best Reggae Album” category. You see two things were happening here. First, the reggae category is a stand alone one with a single award. And rightly so. Reggae music has been seen by musicologists for some time as a genre distinct from world music which has its own Grammy category (the winning album in 2018 was
Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration by South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo), and this is reflected in record stores all over the world, a testimony to reggae’s reach and impact — even though I’is one of at least seven Jamaican music genres, the others being mento, ska, rocksteady, dancehall, dub and nyabinghi.

Secondly, in spite of reggae’s appeal and influence, the reggae category is never announced during the live show and thus if Jamaican music appears on stage it is by way of collaboration enhancing the performance of artists in some other music category. We have only to recall Sean Paul’s red carpet appearances at the 2010, 2013 and 2015 Grammys and the memorable Bob Marley tribute at the 2013 Grammys featuring Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Ziggy and Damian Marley, and then Ziggy Marley performed at the 59
th Grammys in 2017. Anything else would be mostly Marley appearances between Ziggy and his musical siblings as the new generation within the longstanding Marley music empire.

This abundance of presence at the Grammys on the part of the Marleys has concerned Jamaicans in particular, and thus each year upon the release of the nominees for the ‘Best Reggae Album’ category, there is the inevitable combination of glee, grief, concern, and trepidation. I thought it was time to take a more objective look at the process, the history of wins, the politics and concerns expressed even by music industry insiders who sought to intervene in 2017. This commentary is meant to be expository, and asks more questions than it seeks to answer in an effort to show objectively what has occurred since the inception of the ‘Best Reggae Album’ category at the Grammys.

It’s important to note that the “Best Reggae Album” category is not the only one eliciting concerns about the basis of the award. In the 2018 round, questions were again raised about Kendrick Lamar being snubbed three times for “Album of the Year”, a category which has never seen a black rapper as winner (see, for example,
Frank Guan’s article “The Peaks and Pitfalls of the Grammys Were Politically Connected”, Vulture, 29 Jan 2018). And, in some quarters, folks are still asking whether a Spanish song — “Despacito”, for example, ran the airwaves hot in 2017 — can win a Grammy. It was denied three times over – not unlike Jesus and his disciples, if you will. The concerns run deeper than politics and language however, as they exist, it would seem, in relation to the entire Grammy operation. Entertainment personnel and not creatives run the operation, which has been critiqued for a heavily rich white male bent in taste and influence. Furthermore, the voting process is not well understood. Year after year, music lovers cry foul about the music quality, popularity and even sales reach of specific songs or artists which are overlooked, and in this category “Despacito” is a classic example. It is felt that wins reflect the influence of industry personnel, established versus emerging talent, and non-political art.

Back to the reggae category, it seems that people the world over had their hopes pinned on Chronixx sweeping the Grammy award for “Best Reggae Album” in 2018. The poll ran by the Recording Academy (RA) had the following question and outcome on Sunday, 28 January, just before the announcement of Gong’s win:

Who will GRAMMY voters choose for Best Reggae Album for the 60th GRAMMYs?

Chronixx, Chronology29%

Common Kings, Lost In Paradise16%

J Boog, Wash House Ting9%

Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, Stony Hill18%

Morgan Heritage, Avrakedabra 28%

A similar poll run by the site under the title – “Who should win the 2018 Reggae Grammy Award?” also emerged. When I last visited the results were as follows:

Chronixx, Chronology 91.31%

Damian Marley, Stony Hill 7.03%

Morgan Heritage, Avrakedabra 1.21%

J Boog, Wash House Ting 0.3%

Common Kings, Lost in Paradise 0.15%”

Chronixx was leading in the court of public opinion ahead of all the other nominees and in particular, the only one close to him was Morgan Heritage, who were nominated for their
Avrakedabra album, in the poll conducted by the Recording Academy. Unfortunately, the award is not granted on the basis of public opinion, sales figures, or even musical appeal.

For all the reasons cited above regarding the politics of the Grammys, it was generally felt that if a Marley was in the running, they were pretty much guaranteed to win, whether their album was “savage, average or garbage” (description taken from series of the same name launched by This general perception is what inspired industry insiders to meet with officials of the Recording Academy, details of which I discuss below.

The Grammy Awards, which was established in 1958 by the Recording Academy (originally Gramophone Awards), aims to recognise achievement in the music industry. While the perception of achievement musically can be highly subjective but likely to be centred loosely on music quality, appeal and sales, the Academy has repeatedly sparked concern about the awards because of the voting system. The category of “Best Reggae Album” was established in 1985, with Black Uhuru winning the first award. Originally called the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Recording, the honour was presented to artists for eligible songs or albums. In 1992, the name of the award changed to Best Reggae Album. Starting in 2002, awards were often presented to engineers, mixers and/or producers, in addition to the performing artists. Eligible works are vocal or instrumental reggae albums “containing at least 51% playing time of newly recorded music” which could belong to the genres of roots reggae, dancehall or ska music.

Over the years Jamaicans have offered severe criticism and displeasure about the Grammys over the selection of nominees, and especially the winners of the Best Reggae Album. But few of these critics are aware of the workings of the Recording Academy and the Grammy Awards. This statement by Cabel Stephenson (head of Free People Entertainment) is instructive even though somewhat arguable in relation to production.

“The Grammys are about the best production, and the winners are chosen by a constituency of voters. So Junior Gong did not win because his last name is Marley, but he had a great production, and he lobbied best among that constituency of voters. It is not a popularity contest, the Marleys are always representing reggae globally, they are the ones people see, the ones who have that structure around them..” (See Mills, 2018)

Indeed, winners are chosen by voters and it is no ‘popularity contest’. But the politics is deeper than that of understanding the voting process. Freddie McGregor, in 2016, voiced his criticism of the academy, calling the reggae arm of the institution “an embarrassment of indescribable magnitude to reggae music” (
Jamaica Gleaner, 2016). His criticism led to a meeting between executives of the Academy and stakeholders of the reggae/dancehall fraternity in Florida. Vegas, Major Lazer and Luke Morgan were among the industry attendees. A major criticism was that the Academy is biased towards the children of reggae legend Bob Marley, an accusation whose seriousness increased with the revelation that in 2016, Ziggy Marley’s wife, Orly Agai Marley, was elected governor of the Los Angeles chapter of the Grammy’s executive (Jamaica Gleaner, 2017). Not only is this the largest chapter in the US, but this is the largest chapter that decides on the eligibility of nominees and virtually decides on award winners on behalf of the Recording Academy. Unsurprisingly, when Ziggy subsequently won the “Best Reggae Album” award from among the 2017 nominees, there was a backlash. The meeting reportedly led to a commitment by the Recording Industry executives to improve the image of the “Best Reggae Album” category including nominations which better reflect prevailing music appreciation or popular sentiments.

J Boog, Wash House Ting

The nominees for 2018 seemed to have satisfied the Jamaican audience. The Marley in the mix did not deter expectations and anticipation. To be nominated you must have produced a piece of work during the preceding year. Is it that the Marleys’ rates of production are much higher than other acts in the genre? Or is it that the quality of their albums is far better than that of others? The consistent problem with attempting to define quality is that it is subjective; what one person may like others may not. What members of the Academy decide is worthy of being recognised is entirely up to their taste, and as some have argued, influence. These were some of the comments made after the Gong win was announced.

@spielgist noted:

Then @BigBlackBarry chimed in:

For the 34 years of the “Best Reggae Album” category, a Marley has been at least nominated half the time (17 years). However, in presenting an objective look at the category, Figure 1 shows the artists who have won and the frequency with which these wins have occurred. In looking at the data, the Marleys do in fact have the highest numbers, with Ziggy Marley winning the most awards as a solo act (four wins) until 2018, when Damian Marley matched this figure. The Melody Makers was led by Ziggy, with his siblings Stephen, Cedella and Sharon comprising the rest of the band. The group has won three Grammys. In total Ziggy has won seven Grammy Awards in this category. Stephen has won three as a solo act and three as part of the Melody Makers. He was also the producer of Damian’s two wins — for
Half Way Tree (Motown, 2001) and Welcome to Jamrock (Universal, 2005) giving him a total of eight Grammys. Bunny Wailer has won three awards as well, the same as the Marleys. Wailer being a key member of the Wailers does not help to counter the criticism of Marley association.

The comments suggest there’s a huge gap in perception, understanding, influence, and engagement in the awards process. It is this gap which Freddie McGregor tried to address in his meeting with personnel from the Reggae Academy. Most importantly, there is a gap in terms of the representatives selecting nominees, and those involved in the reggae and/or dancehall industry need to be properly represented to those persons tasked with the selection process. As it stands, the nominations are quite consistent.

Other winners of the Best Reggae Album include Morgan Heritage, Buju Banton, Toots and the Maytals, Sean Paul, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Beenie Man, Burning Spear, Sly & Robbie, Shaggy, Inner Circle, Shabba Ranks, Peter Tosh, Steel Pulse, Jimmy Cliff and the first winners, Black Uhuru. Burning Spear, Shabba Ranks and Jimmy Cliff have all won the award twice. Figure 1 gives a view of the winners and frequency of wins in the ‘Best Reggae Album’ category.

Figure 1: Chart showing all Grammy winners in the Best Reggae category and the frequency of wins (source: author)

Next Page (Link below): Expand the Laurels

Expand the Laurels

In the history of the Best Reggae Album category diverse acts have been nominated with some never having taken home the win. Figure 2 shows a depiction of the most nominated reggae acts (seven nominations and more). The most nominated include Black Uhuru, Jimmy Cliff, Ziggy Marley (as part of the Melody Makers and as a solo act), Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, Third World, Stephen Marley (solo and as a member of the Melody Makers), and Sly & Robbie (collaboratively and as solo acts). Ziggy and Burning Spear tie with 12 nominations, Ziggy having won seven of those nominations, while Burning Spear won only two. Sly and Robbie were nominated 11 times for several collaboration projects such as Sly and Robbie Presents – Reggae for Her, Devin the Dakta and J.L.’s 2017 nomination. Stephen Marley has been nominated 10 times as part of the Melody Makers and as a solo act, winning six of those nominations. Interestingly, Third World has been nominated seven times but has not been successful even once.

Figure 2: Figure showing the nominations and wins for the top nominated Reggae acts (7 nominations and up) (source: author).

To further explore the accusation of a bias by the Academy toward the Marleys, two things must be considered. How many wins did the Marleys achieve out of nominations? And how many studio albums produced were actually nominated for a Grammy? Is it the case that anything a Marley produces is automatically considered and nominated for a Grammy? Are the structures around their music production, labels to which they are affiliated, and lobbying done by such labels, to be considered in the equation around Grammy wins? Figure 3 shows the number of nominations for Ziggy, Stephen, Damian, Ky-Mani and Julian Marley. Also included is the Melody Makers. The group received the most nominations, for seven of their 11 studio albums; three of which received Grammys. Ziggy comes in second with five nominations, of which he won four. He also produced six studio albums and won for three. A win also came for his 2014 album
Ziggy Marley In Concert, which included live performances.

Of his four studio albums, Stephen has been nominated for three:
Mind Control (2008), Mind Control Acoustic (2010) and Revelation Part 1: Root of Life (2012), and won the Grammy each time. In 2016, Stephen put out Revelation Part 2: The Fruit of Life, but was not nominated. As part of the Melody Makers he also received wins and nominations. He also helped to produce Damian’s Half Way Tree and Welcome to Jamrock, which gives him a total of eight Grammy wins.

Jr Gong has been nominated for three studio albums:
Half Way Tree (2001), Welcome to Jamrock (2005) and Stony Hill (2017). Damian won every time he was nominated for an album. His other Grammy was received in 2006 when Welcome to Jamrock won the award for ‘Best Urban/Alternative Performance’.

Julian and Ky-Mani have been nominated once for
Awake (2009) and Many More Roads (2001) respectively, but neither won. (See Figure 4 for album releases alongside Grammy successes).

Figure 3: The Marleys’ nominations and wins. (Source: author)

Figure 4: A comparison between the number of studio albums released by the Marleys and their associated Grammy success. (Source: author)

It’s important to compare the data from the Grammys with other major music outlets. Billboard Music records the popularity of music according to sales, streams and airplay as well as album sales. Since 2006, there has been a documented list of the year’s Top 15 Reggae Albums. On average 3.4 albums featuring a Marley are on the charts, including Bob Marley, as sales and streams are involved. In 2007 and 2011 we saw the highest presence of Marley albums, with five being in the top 15. In 2007 the five were
Forever Bob – Bob Marley (#1); Mind Control – Stephen Marley (#2); Welcome to Jamrock – Damian Marley (#3); Africa Unite: The Singles Collection – Bob Marley and the Wailers (#9); and Gold – Bob Marley and the Wailers (#10). Both Mind Control and Welcome to Jamrock won the Best Reggae Album in the year they came out. In 2011 the five Marley albums were: Live Forever – Bob Marley & the Wailers (#1); Distant Relatives – Nas & Damian Marley (#2); Revelation: The Root of Life – Stephen Marley (#5); Legend: The Best of Bob Marley & The Wailers – Bob Marley & The Wailers (#7); and Wild and Free – Ziggy Marley (#8). Both Stephen and Ziggy won for their albums, while Nas and Damian’s Distant Relatives was not even nominated.

Arguably, what the Billboard data shows is that the nominated albums achieving wins in the ‘Best Reggae Album’ category were also high in popularity at the time. One might conclude that these albums are simply of good quality and very popular, leading them to not only be nominated but to win the award. However, such a conclusion would only be superficial in the context of the foregoing considerations regarding process and politics. Many Jamaicans have produced high quality music that has been overlooked by the Academy. We have only to think of Buju Banton’s
Til Shiloh (Island, 1995) or Sizzla’s Black Woman and Child (Brickwall, 1997). This would make it seem as if those who are indeed related to or even associated with the man who put reggae on the world stage would have an unfair advantage in terms of visibility.

However, is it a fair criticism to assume that the quality of the music is not deserving of the credit that the Marleys have been given on this same world stage? It is hoped that with more help from reggae and dancehall stakeholders, the Academy will be able to acknowledge a wider range of artists. Those nominated for a Grammy gain great exposure and success even without winning, therefore the strides in the diversity of nominations is a step in the right direction of adequate representation of reggae on the world stage. If a Marley does win, consideration should be given to the quality of the album and not necessarily the artist’s last name. In 2018, Damian Marley’s
Stony Hill is such an album: it is very strong and most certainly worthy of a nomination.

But still, there are questions that remain in Jamaica. “The executives are also aware that for the past five years or so, Jamaicans are not satisfied with the final list, as they believe that the Marleys have a major influence on the selection. So the aim is to get rid of this misconception that the Grammy is not a level playing field as it relates to the Marleys,” Jamaican broadcast journalist Clinton Lindsay told
the Jamaica Sunday Gleaner in 2017. “There were also talks about how to get the reggae industry at home and abroad more involved in the whole process, from nomination to selection,” he said. So there are changes in the works.

This all being said, the Marley-heavy nominations mean that not only do up-and-comers get pushed to the side, but also whole genres of music (such as dancehall) — and there’s gender disparity, too. Women need much, much greater representation at the Grammys. The goal is not to eliminate the Marley legacy, which is foundationally important to Jamaican music and well acknowledged as so, but to expand the laurels. The Grammy committee is apparently planning to make changes expected within the next two or three years, and they couldn’t come soon enough. There is so much Jamaican music — the Marleys are a wonderful way in, but there’s a need to show the range and, given the existence of the reggae Grammy, representation matters.


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