My Letter To Recording Academy President Neil Portnow

Several weeks ago, representatives from the Recording Academy visited Hawai‘i and conducted several meetings with members of the Hawai‘i recording industry. While the discussions were wide-ranging, the topic of the “consolidation” of the Grammy Award for Best Hawaiian Album was brought up. I did share my thoughts on the matter, and this past week composed and sent this follow up letter. I am looking forward to working with the Academy on issues that will benefit our local industry, both as an individual member as well as a member of the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts.

Neil Portnow
President, The Recording Academy
3030 Olympic Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90404

Aloha kāua e Neil,

I would like to express my gratitude to you and the other representatives of the Academy for your recent visit to Hawai‘i and the amount of time that you all spent interacting with the members of our industry and community. Your presence and participation spoke volumes to us regarding the significance of our place in the broader recording industry. I would like to communicate a few thoughts with you–some were brought up at our meeting and others I chose to save for this communication. Please understand that these are my personal thoughts, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of my colleagues on the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts’ Board of Governors or within our College of Hawaiian Language.

As I expressed at our meeting, I shed no tears at the consolidation of the Hawaiian Grammy into the new Regional Roots category. It simply was not worth consternation and vitriol that it produced within our community. To be clear, I believe there was nothing wrong with the category’s criteria, although I was very displeased with manner by which the instrumental criteria were added after the open meetings that were held with the Academy. The problem was simply the manner in which the voting was handled. While I understand the difficulty of establishing different voting qualifications for many categories, I believe that the Hawai‘i and broader Hawaiian music communities simply will not embrace an award in which their informed voices are drowned out by a sea of Academy members who are unable to make qualitative assessment on those criteria that define the category. To reestablish the award while not addressing the deficiencies of the selection system would be a grave mistake, and again throw our community into disunity, when what we really need unity.

I would like to discuss the Hawaiian and Native American awards from a different perspective. While I understand Bill Freimuth’s comparison of the consolidation with the World Music category in that both contain very diverse musical forms, there is a distinction. These forms are representative of the indigenous peoples of this nation–the same nation represented in the name “National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences”. The languages and cultures of these peoples, found in every state, have been subject to systematic suppression, and it has only been in recent decades that these peoples have been able to organize and work toward the documentation, reclamation and revitalization of their languages and traditional practices, including their music. As such, they are deserving of special consideration by the Academy, and awards implemented that do not marginalize them. Reestablishment of these categories should not be simply a numbers game. If implemented correctly, separate Grammy categories for the music of indigenous peoples within the U.S. would be powerfully symbolic–something that further supports the Academy’s mission to “to positively impact the lives of musicians, industry members and our society at large”.

I have been deeply bothered by recent discourse on the consolidation of the Grammy Awards. While I believe that it was done with honorable intentions, it was poorly implemented and communicated. The subsequent press releases and justifications from the Academy regarding the consolidation were also poorly handled, and from my humble perch amounted to little more than “spin”. I must add that I have been disgusted by the tone of many response and charges of racism leveled against the Academy. Some members of one of the academic societies that I am a member of, the Society for Ethnomusicology, have expressed their concerns regarding the consolidation and its homogenizing affect on musical diversity. I share their concerns, and also fear, as I expressed at our meeting, that the consolidation of the awards and subsequent discourse have further distanced the Academy from the grassroots membership whose support it clearly needs, given the current state of the industry.

While I was tempted to allow my membership in the Academy to lapse upon learning about the consolidation, I did indeed renew it. I believe that the only way to implement change, be it in government or organizations like the Academy, is to be an active participant. I look forward to working with you and others in the Academy to implement positive changes in the Academy. If I can be of service to you, the Board of Governors, the Pacific Northwest Chapter, or any department of the Academy, please feel free to contact me.

me ka ‘oia‘i‘o (sincerely),

Keola Donaghy
Assistant Professor
Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language
University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

cc: Barb Dehgan, Vice President, Communications & Media Relations; Bill Freimuth, Vice President, Awards; Erica Krusen, Sr. Director, MusiCares;Lourdes Lopez, Sr. Director, Communications & Media Relations; Shannon Roach, Executive Director; Michael Stephens, Sr. Project Coordinator, Pacific Northwest Chapter, Dr. Kalena Silva, Director, Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language; Dr. Pila Wilson, Chair, Academic Division, Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo

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