By Billboard Staff for Billboard
In November 2018, The Recording Academy overhauled its membership submission process for the first time in 60 years. The new approach: a community-driven model, created in collaboration with the academy’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, that aims to widely expand the kinds of genres, backgrounds, ethnicities and age groups represented in the Grammy voter pool. This past June, the organization announced its inaugural member class under the new model: Of the 1,340 music creatives who received invitations, 49% are women, 41% are from traditionally underrepresented communities and 51% are younger than 40. Several new members speak here about why they wanted to join, what they hope to accomplish as Grammy voters and why they’re excited for the 2020 ceremony.
Producer-singer-songwriter Kiran Gandhi, 30, creates experimental electro-pop. A former drummer for M.I.A., she released her second LP, Visions, in 2019 and regularly speaks on politics, women’s empowerment and music worldwide. In 2015 she won The Recording Academy’s GrammyU business-plan competition with her idea for a new streaming service that would benefit artists, consumers and labels equally.
My intention in regards to becoming a voting member was very clear: I really wanted to be part of the change to nominate and vote for diverse and unique musical acts — acts who are telling stories often untold, whose lyrics don’t contribute to the oppression of other people. I wanted to vote for musicians who use their music for good. I’m so excited to vote for someone like Lizzo.
I used to love watching the Grammys with my family, and I still love watching the Grammys. I didn’t watch much TV growing up, but the Grammys are something my family would prepare for. We’d guess the winners among ourselves and have a really fun time as a family watching them. I think my family watched them with me because they knew how much I loved music and pop culture.
It really wasn’t until 2015, when I entered the GrammyU business-plan competition, that I began to learn the depths of what the Grammys do. I had no idea it was a full-on community and that there were so many people behind the scenes working year-round to support musicians. I didn’t know about MusicCares, which is so brilliant, because obviously so many musicians don’t have access to health care and are so susceptible to things like losing their instruments or facing health risks when traveling. When I won the GrammyU competition, that’s when I started wanting to attend meetings and learn more and ultimately apply to become a voting member.
It would be a dream to go to the ceremony this year. I have to see if I can afford it. When I went as the GrammyU business plan competition winner, I had front-row seats. I remember sitting behind Diplo and Skrillex, and at the time they had the song with Justin Bieber, “Where Are Ü Now.” I had a really beautiful time. — AS TOLD TO KATIE BAIN
Once an alt darling, the Mexican singer-songwriter — whose 2015 Hasta la Raíz (To the Root) LP won the Grammy for best Latin urban/rock/alternative album and the Latin Grammy for best alternative music album — has in recent years achieved a higher profile for her blend of folk and pop. She became an academy member a decade after her first Grammy nomination.
Back in 2009, I was nominated for a Grammy for my album Hu Hu Hu. At that precise moment, I didn’t have a manager and didn’t have a proper team. It was really a very somber time in my career, when I really didn’t know what direction to take. And precisely at that juncture, I got this nomination [for best Latin pop album]. I went to the ceremony and arrived at the red carpet alone — literally. I didn’t even arrive in a taxi; I walked. I remember living that experience, completely alone, with no contacts, walking the carpet with my ticket and absorbing everything that happened around me.
I didn’t see Latin music as present as it has been the past two years. I didn’t see it as something that artists cared about. Now, you hear the names, the expectation. And as more Latin artists like myself get involved, [the awards] will become even more inclusive.
I now truly realize I’m a singer of Mexican music who has the opportunity to share her music in many places that aren’t Mexico. That has made me say: “It’s important to be part of [the academy]. It’s important to participate and understand how things work.” Being recognized was not something I used to lose sleep over. But being nominated and receiving an award made me understand what the music industry is — and that I have an impact that goes far. That’s when I understood I also have to do my part so music can evolve. There’s so much versatility in music now. I’m a huge fan of possibilities. And all have the right to be heard. There are musical genres that can’t be allowed to die. We need to be inclusive and celebrate diversity. — AS TOLD TO LEILA COBO
Tommy Brown — known as TBHits — has had a busy two years: After contributing three tracks to Ariana Grande’s Sweetener, the 33-year-old produced five songs on Thank U, Next, including the title track and “7 Rings,” both Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s. Now he’s a first-time Grammy nominee, for both album and record of the year.
I’ve heard so many things about the Grammys, but I wanted to experience it firsthand. I wanted to actually be in the room during the process, to give a point of view from a newer group of people in the industry who are currently navigating a lot of the channels as creatives, [to give] a production and songwriting perspective as somebody who has had more recent success.
I think the academy is doing really well with the people that they’re bringing in. That’s the first important step that needed to be taken. It’s a very, very diverse room, and I’m just happy to be welcomed with open arms by the people that have been there for so long. They’re on the right path with bringing in younger, fresher ears. My firsthand experience in my first year has been incredible, but I’ll know [about what aspects of the Grammys may need changing] as I get further along. I’m just excited about seeing how the votes came out this year and seeing the artists that have a chance. I hope we can bring youth and fun to the Grammys, so it’s not just the same way that it has always been. I don’t want it to be stagnant. 2019 shifted music in a great direction — it was more about the artist and not just about the song.
Toward the end of last year, music was very heavily rap-driven. And I think it was the perfect time for songs like “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings” to come and put a twist on pop music. I’m grateful for everything that happened. We put a lot of hard work into that project — it came from the heart and came from the right place. For me, it’s one of the biggest albums of 2019, not just numberswise but contentwise. It was an important part of culture that was brought to the table. I thought I would be up for producer of the year, but hey, that means I’ll just have to do everything again one more year in a row!
Everybody [in this industry] works really hard, and the Grammys are the recognition. There’s nothing like winning a Grammy. It’s the icing on the cake. It’s the ultimate measure of success for our culture. Now, I’m just looking forward to the event. I’ve never been to the Grammys or to an awards show. And I always told myself I’d wait until I had a big year to go. My friend was like, “I think it’s that time,” and now I’m like, “Yeah, I think so too.” — AS TOLD TO JOSH GLICKSMAN
Mix engineer/producer Ghenea is a first-time voter but no stranger to the world of the awards: His father is veteran pop engineer Serban Ghenea (a best engineered recording, non-classical, winner in 2018 and 2019), and Alex has already attended the ceremony several times. (“I got to meet Taylor Swift,” he says. “She’s very nice.”) Alex has made his own name in pop music, remixing hits by Nick Jonas (“Levels”) and Ariana Grande (“Into You,” featuring Mac Miller) and mixing blackbear’s still-rising 2019 smash “Hot Girl Bummer.”
I think winning a Grammy Award is one of the highest honors in music. It’s the people that actually work on the music that are voting, versus just people on the outside. So it’s basically your peers who are selecting what they think is the best each year. I just wanted to be able to participate in the process.
The most important thing for me is that the way the Grammys honor people is through the actual quality of the work, in terms of creativity and the way boundaries are pushed. I would just hope that people would try to continue to honor the best work and not turn it into a popularity contest. I want to vote on things that I actually believe are good, that are pushing boundaries either sonically or in the way they’re written, melodically or structurally.
I kind of grew up around music my whole life. Because I am a mix engineer and producer, I think of the actual technical aspects and how the song was written, more than just whether it was a really good song or a lot of people liked it.
I’d definitely say it has been cool to actually go to the Grammys as an up-and-coming musician or producer, to get to feed off the energy of all the acts. It’s very inspiring as a younger person to be able to go to an event like that, go back home and continue to work on records with added inspiration. — AS TOLD TO ANDREW UNTERBERGER
During the past decade, singer-songwriter Asiahn has performed and written with artists like Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lopez, Dr. Dre and others. She’s at work on a new album slated for a spring release.
I went into the Los Angeles Recording Academy chapter earlier this year to meet some of the staff and get educated on the whole process. We happened to be having these great conversations about diversity and how they’re wanting younger, up-and-coming artists to be a part of the academy. They said, “We checked you out, and you’re actually eligible to become a member. We would love for you to become a voting member.” I was like, “Really? OK, this is rad!”
The academy used to seem so far away, like it was this sacred community. But we, as artists, have way more access to it than we think we do. I love how they were doing so much more outreach this past year, to educate everyone on how the system works and how we can actually be a part of this whole thing. They did a really great job recruiting with diversity in mind, and letting the members who are eligible know, like, “This is how the academy works — would you like to join? Here, let me sit down and give you this rundown.”
The Grammys can become somewhat of a popularity contest. I think there were some very deserving projects this year that I actually listened to and was a fan of, but there were also some I found just by looking at the shortlist and listening to their music before I voted. I’m hoping to give a more unbiased opinion about music. I just want to give a younger perspective. Plus, I was on some of those lists as well, and I was like, “Oh, hey now, might as well vote for myself!” (Asiahn was eligible for best R&B album, song and performance nominations.)
In becoming a voting member, I have been speaking with people about The Recording Academy and helping put other queer artists of color in front of people’s faces. At least we have someone standing in the room now saying, “Hey, this project is dope, and we need to look into this.” We still have a lot of walls we have to break down within the industry, but we’re getting somewhere. We just got to have our advocates in there. Not only for each other, but just for great music in general. It’s still about the music at the end of the day. No one should have a bias against an artist because they’re LGBTQ. I’m there to make sure identity doesn’t get in the way of giving artists a fair chance at success. I want to make sure that all of these things I’ve gone through as an LGBTQ artist have not happened in vain.” — AS TOLD TO STEPHEN DAW
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of Billboard.