ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Recording Academy, which gives out the Grammy Awards, announced several changes today. They renamed some categories associated with black and Latinx musicians, and they also changed the requirements around best new artist. Here to talk us through the changes is NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas, who is also a former Grammy voter and judge, I learned today.
Welcome back, Anastasia.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari. Nice to talk to you.
SHAPIRO: So a lot of these changes have to do with the names of categories. Best urban contemporary album is now best progressive R&B album. Best rap/sung performance is now best melodic rap song. Well, what is the Academy trying to do here?
TSIOULCAS: Well, the Recording Academy, Ari, has been dogged for a long time about questions about how they do or don't celebrate black artists and other musicians of color. So these name changes are supposed to be an indication that the Academy sees how pop music is shifting. For example, they've now totally dropped the word urban in categories typically won by black artists because it's a term that's been criticized for other rising black creators.
SHAPIRO: But at the same time, they introduced the word urban in the changes that they made to the Latin music categories.
TSIOULCAS: Yeah. It's pretty ironic, right? Using the term urban in the Latin music context is supposed to acknowledge the rise of artists like Bad Bunny and styles like reggaeton, which is grounded in black Latinx culture. But it's strange that they removed the word urban in one place and put it in another.
SHAPIRO: Well, what about the changes to best new artist? Walk us through what's happening there.
TSIOULCAS: They've kind of been having a problem with this category, too. The way it used to be is that you could compete in best new artist after you were signed by a label and released a debut album. But nowadays, artists get noticed by making a zillion things online - TikTok, SoundCloud releases, mix tapes, all that stuff. So the Recording Academy has opened up this category to artists with more projects under their belts. And theoretically, that should make the best new artist category more diverse.
SHAPIRO: So altogether, what are these changes really supposed to do?
TSIOULCAS: Well, Ari, I assume that they were supposed to help address some larger systemic issues. Over the last several years, the Recording Academy has really struggled with diversity and inclusion, both among their prizewinners and in the organization itself. And that came to a head this past year. The Grammys brought in their first female president/CEO, but her tenure ended just five months later in a series of misconduct accusations on both sides. And this past year's awards were expected to be much more inclusive. You remember Lizzo was supposed to win or expected to win a lot of prizes, but she was largely shut out.
And, Ari, I want you to take a listen to something that producer and artist Diddy said at a pre-awards gala in January.
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DIDDY: Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys.
DIDDY: Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be.
SHAPIRO: Just because that was a bit muffled, I want to restate. He says, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be, which is a powerful statement coming from somebody with a lot of sway. So explain the timing of all of this. I mean, the Grammys are not going to take place for another six months. The U.S. is grappling with the death of George Floyd, reckoning with racial injustice. Is all of this just an acknowledgment of what's going on in the country right now?
TSIOULCAS: Well, in the Recording Academy's public statement this morning, they made no acknowledgement of the protests. But like many others in the music industry, they made a statement earlier this week and gave a million-dollar donation to Color of Change. And the Academy told me this afternoon that these changes have actually been in the works for some time and were voted on back in May. They're just making the announcement now.
SHAPIRO: And beyond the name changes and the more superficial things you've talked about, are they also making some changes under the hood to the voting process?
TSIOULCAS: Yeah. The Academy's former chief, the one I mentioned earlier, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC. One of her accusations was that the voting process itself was filled with cronyism and conflicts of interest. The Academy denied her accusations quite strongly, but they are now asking voters who participate in the process to disclose potential conflicts of interest. So at some level, Ari, her complaints hit a nerve.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas.
Thank you very much.
TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me.
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