Do the Marleys Have an Unfair Advantage at the Grammys?

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

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".

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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Cooper, C. 2014. Soundclash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hebdige, D. 1987. Cut'n'Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. London: Routledge.

Hitchins, Ray. 2014. Vibe Merchants: The Sound Creators of Jamaican Popular Music. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

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Katz, D. 2003. Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae. New York and London: Bloomsbury Press.

Manuel, P., and W. Marshall. 2006. " The Riddim Method: Aesthetics, Practice, and Ownership in Jamaican Dancehall", Popular Music 25(3): 447-70.

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