This past Tuesday was a pretty good day. It didn’t rank in my Top 10 all-time days–not that I even keep such a list. It doesn’t approach the day I got married, the day our children were born, or when they graduated from high school, or when my son returned home safe from Iraq, or when I watched my daughter bungee jump in New Zealand. But it was still pretty darn good. The final ballot for the 2011 Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards were announced that day, and I was humbled to learn that I had two nominations, and my dear friend and partner in music, Kenneth Makuakāne, had eight. What a thrill and honor. And then Friday came along.
That night, Kenneth chose to remove one of the releases that he and I produced together (along with several others) on from contention. The release, “Nā Haku Mele O Hawai‘i”, was entered in the Compilation of the Year category. A label that released a compilation that also made the final ballot challenged the legitimacy of this entry on several grounds. The details of their objections are not worth getting into here. While Kenneth and I are in complete agreement that the objections were groundless, there was little time to engage in an extended debate. The Nā Hōkū Hanohano final ballot had already been distributed to members, and delaying any decision to either stick to that ballot or reprint and redistribute a new one would have jeopardized the process and possibly result in members being rushed to return the reprinted ballots. There was even the possibility that the results could not be tabulated in time for the awards on May 29.
As we are both members of the Board of Governors for HARA, the situation was even more complex. The Board has been subject to much criticism from members over the years, with accusations of favoritism, manipulating the awards, and other misdeeds. I cannot speak to the rest of the history of the academy, only the time that I’ve been on the board. In that time, I have not seen a single instance of any decision made by the board or any act at all that was influence by anything other than the desire to maintain the integrity of the organization and the awards. No significant decisions that affect entry eligibility are left to any individual, but are discussed in our selection committee. The committee makes a recommendation, and the entire board ultimately decides. All ballot tabulations, both for the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards and board elections, are done by outside agencies, and even the board itself does not know the details. We learn who the winners are on award night, just like everyone else in the audience.
Some people feel that members of the board should not be eligible for the awards, and have expressed as much. Why not? Who would want to serve on the board if they knew that any work they had done would not be eligible for the awards? Does serving on the board raise the visibility of board members? Maybe. I’ve been nominated for three awards during my time on the board. How many have I won? None. My position certainly hasn’t helped me. Not that I believe that any of them were better than those awards that won, or any of the other finalists, either. In each case, I believe the members or adjudication committee made the right choice. No complaints.
Whenever a decision is made on any issue involved a board member or members, such as in this case, we must recuse ourselves from voting on the issue. We may address our colleagues on the board, express our opinions, and answer questions on the matter, but we may not vote. That is fair, credible and beyond reproach. In this case, Kenneth and I let our colleagues know that we felt that some of the objections were baseless, and others irrelevant to the entry of “Nā Haku Mele O Hawai‘i”. It was a valid entry. The selection committee–comprised of both board members and independent members of the industry–had already ruled so.
Should members of the board be held to a higher standard? Should we have to avoid controversy and even the perception of a conflict of interest? I’m of two minds of that. First, I would not hold any of my colleagues on the board to a higher standard than any other member. It would not be fair to expect otherwise. Do I hold myself to a higher standard? Absolutely. I personally would not do anything that reflected poorly on the board, or could be perceived as taking advantage of my position. In this case, since Kenneth was the individual most responsible for this release. He conceptualized it, brought everyone else into the process of creating it, and so much more. As such, I simply stated my support for whatever he decided. Ultimately, he decided it would be best to withdraw “Nā Haku Mele o Hawai‘i” from the final ballot in the Compilation of the Year category. And as I promised him, I supported him completely in the decision, and relayed that support to the rest of the board. I really liked our chances with “Nā Hōkū o Hawai”, and felt it was as good as any compilation released last year. It would have been great to allow our members to decide, but when our integrity–and that of the board–is called into question, we decided it wasn’t a battle worth fighting. We could have asked that the board communicate the labels objections and our position to the membership, but I don’t believe that would have satisfied them, either. No matter what the outcome was, we would lose–even if we won the award. And the board would again be slandered with charges of favoritism. If anyone suggests that our withdrawal was an admission that we did anything improper–we did not. We are simply placing what is best for the board above ourselves. We appreciate the support of our fellow board members, most of whom did not wish us to be held to a higher standard. But it was our call.
I recall a conversation with Kenneth many years ago, when he had to make an equally difficult decision, and while there are many differences in the details, it is pertinent to this situation. If we felt that “Nā Haku Mele O Hawai‘i” was the best work we would ever do together, we’d fight tooth and nail about it. However, if we really felt that way, why should we continue to make music at all? What would be the point? I believe that his best music–as a composer, artist, producer and engineer–are yet to be done. I feel the same way about my own work, and look forward to continuing my collaborations with Kenneth this year and in the years to come. Even though I’m not on the ballot for it, what I’m most proud of this year is the fact that Kenneth’s release “Kawaipono” made the final ballot for Best Hawaiian Language Performance. As it is an adjudicated award, it is even more special. It says more about our work together than any other nomination that either of us has received–ever. No matter what happens on the final ballot for the one remaining nomination I have, or the seven that Kenneth does, it’s already been the best Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards ever from my perspective.
I’m not writing this support to solicit anyone’s support or sympathy. As I bring this essay to a close, I’m not even sure I’ll post it. It’s therapeutic, and a way of letting go of the whole situation. If you are reading it, obviously I did. And I’d like to ask you not to comment on it, just think about it–or not. It’s your call. Today does not even appear on the radar in my list of my worst days of all time. Not by a long shot. Not that I even keep such a list of those, either. It’s not a great one, but there are many more good ones to come.
Good luck to all the nominees, or at least most of them.