The Grammys Snubbed Jamaican Artists, But Reggae Doesn’t Need Awards To Validate The Genre

Photo: Lester Cohen/Getty Images.
Dancehall and reggae deserve so much more. Leading up to the 2022 Grammy award ceremony, dancehall artist Spice made her red carpet debut where she spoke to the Associated Press about the appropriation of reggae and dancehall music and the history of Jamaican artists not receiving credit. “I feel like reggae and dancehall could have been more recognized because oftentimes other genres take from our culture and we do not get that rating that we deserve. But I feel absolutely great that we’re still in the nomination for the Grammy so it’s still a big thing for dancehall and Jamaica,” she shared. She made history being the first hardcore dancehall artist to be nominated for the category with her debut 10 alongside other Jamaican artists like Jesse Royal, Sean Paul, Gramps Morgan and Etana. However a non-Jamaican, Arlington, Virginia-based, white reggae band SOJA, an acronym for Soldiers of Jah’s Army, was nominated with their Beauty in the Silence album and consequently ended up taking home the win.
Reggae is a genre born in Jamaica that emerged from ska and mento in the late 1940s and early 50s. After 1962 when Jamaica was declared an independent country, roots reggae became the score that not only bolstered national identity but its inextricable link to the Rastafari movement called attention to the ways in which Black people had been oppressed. And yet, the Grammys chose to ignore this history in who they deemed the “best.” The irony.  

Dancehall and reggae artists do not need their work to be validated or legitimized by an institution that has failed to bring itself up to speed. The music is valid and worthy because we made it.

We know that the Grammys are rife with discrimination and racial bias — the conversation comes up annually — and how Black performers across the diaspora are the ones at the receiving end of this inequity. Dancehall, in particular, has had countless encounters with being appropriated leaving its creators outside the fringes of success, a point to which Sean Paul has been consistently vocal about. When you take all of that into consideration, perhaps Caribbean artists and fans of its music should not place so much significance on being acknowledged by an institution that continually refuses to recognize our worth. 
It’s not like it’s beyond the capacity for the Recording Academy and the Grammys to make accommodations. In the past they have modified categories or have created new ones to better reflect the ways in which people consume and interact with music. Most notable of these efforts was in 2017 when Chance the Rapper nabbed seven nominations for his third mixtape Coloring Book based on how well the project performed on streaming charts. When he won “Best Rap Album” it made history as the first streaming-only album to earn the title. The same willingness to adapt has not been extended to Caribbean artists and their musical production, an overwhelmingly clear disconnect between the institutions holding up the music industry and what’s actually happening in the Caribbean. 
Dancehall, also created in Jamaica, is a completely separate genre of music that, in comparison to reggae, is a more youthful voice. Its raw and uncut lyrics share the realities and aspirations of people from a particular socioeconomic class within the country. Its artists don’t have the opportunities to be properly considered since the Grammys have yet to give dancehall its own category. This has resulted in dancehall artists submitting their works in a category that has entirely different criteria. Spice’s 10 comes off the heels of her 2018 project Captured where she prompted an important conversation about beauty standards and dark-skinned Black women’s mobility in music. With 10, Spice proves her ability to carry the voice of women within dancehall and her desire to explore other genres, but even her submission in the reggae category, despite being a dancehall artist, is proof of where the Recording Academy falls short. Most dancehall fans felt the same kind of urgency for the institution to acknowledge groundbreaking works such as Popcaan’s 2018 album Forever (and to be frank, everything he has put out prior and after), but he was met with the same fate, despite the artist’s international reach and cultural influence. 
The implications of SOJA winning the 2022 “Best Reggae Album” suggest to Jamaican artists that they are not capable of producing and receiving accolades for their own music. Of course, like any genre, reggae has been popularized and its influence transcends past the geographical boundaries that it once existed in. However, the category has not been consistent with its supposed intention (to reward the best) and instead leads to the erasure of Jamaican artists, particularly the ones that were nominated this year, who have worked tirelessly to innovate the genre or have maintained reggae’s traditions. Sean Paul’s Live N Livin is a textured offering that becomes a meeting place for the new and old school of dancehall, Jesse Royal’s Royal is so indicative of his ability to both modernize the genre and carry along with him a new crop of young producers from the island who are revolutionizing reggae’s sound, Etana, who received her second Grammy nom, brought Afrodiasporic music tradition together with Pamoja and the effervescent Gramps Morgan draws inspiration from country music to create Positive Vibration.
With that said, it’s uncertain what the aim of the Grammys’ “Best Reggae Album” is. Is the purpose to award artists who continue reggae’s tradition, or who innovate it or to acknowledge artists who adapt the sound to their own locale? Whatever the goal, it’s clear that it’s time to divest from the desire to be recognized by this institution. Dancehall and reggae artists, like other Black cultural producers and productions, do not need their work to be validated or legitimized by an institution that has failed to bring itself up to speed. The music is valid and worthy because we made it. While winning a Grammy does come with the benefits of exposure and new musical opportunities, with a continued decline in relevance, there’s no way it can be an accurate reflection of the immensely talented group of people and genre it claims to represent. Additionally, it does little to take into consideration the ecosystems that sustain Caribbean music and how these genres reach their audience outside of the eyes of the institution. 

SOJA winning the 2022 “Best Reggae Album” suggest to Jamaican artists that they are not capable of producing and receiving accolades for their own music.

Until recently, major streaming platforms were inaccessible for music fans in the Caribbean. Much of the geographic-specific data for Caribbean artists reflected its audiences in cities known for the large presence of its diaspora, so streaming numbers and data were always skewed. Even when music arrived on certain platforms, it was not being categorized under the right genre. A variety of music from the Caribbean, including soca, chutney, dennery, jab jab, bashment soca, parang, zouk, compa and others, were either being described as reggae, “Caribbean” or world music, failing to acknowledge the distinction between each genre. 
In the wake of SOJA’s win, many fans on social media began to offer solutions of what could be done to better honor and acknowledge music produced from the Caribbean and empower the artists who champion it. Calls to institute regional award shows, support existing ones, or revive ones from the past were made. People also made calls to government bodies to provide more material avenues to support the artists from their region, and hopefully fans feel more incensed to support their favorite artists through streaming, purchasing units and merch, and being present for live shows, but perhaps the Grammy’s reggae category is finally having its reckoning. 
Many Black artists from other genres have expressed their gripes with the limitations of the awards: Tyler the Creator has spoken about the binary of rap or R&B that Black artists are limited to. That same year The Weeknd called the Grammys corrupt and countless women artists have expressed how the institution has not done well to acknowledge their contributions in music. Across many genres, the importance of the Grammy’s are waning. For Caribbean people and lovers of the music produced by the region, it is an indicator of what they assume the value of their work to be. What does it say when Jamaican artists are not able to receive an award for creating Jamaican music? It says all the silent parts out loud. 

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