Queen's Policy Engagement

Do Marleys always win the Reggae Grammy?

A discussion of nationality and location in the global music industry by Dr Kim-Marie Spence.

Do Marleys always win the Reggae Grammy?

There has been a longstanding controversy in Jamaica about the Marleys and the Reggae Grammys. In recent article in Jamaican dancehall blog,  DancehallMag, dancehall artist QQ, while noting the real legacy and work of the Marleys, noted that “there is this saying in the industry that if you get nominated, you want to get nominated in a year the Marleys are not in it”. He is not alone. Each year a Marley wins, the controversy raises its head. But it is not the only controversy. In 2022, there was ire at a white American reggae band, SOJA winning. In 2023, there was joy at an all-Jamaican slate of nominees. In 2024, muted celebration as another Marley, Julian Marley won the Reggae Grammy, making it the 14th win for the Marley Family.  This discussion expands the current Reggae Grammy discussion to that of the wider Grammy diversity discussion, thereby including issues of location and nationality, especially regarding non-American music genres in the discussion.

While one cannot use social media comments as representative, the muted nature of the celebration on Jamaican twitter when a Marley wins the Reggae Grammy has been consistent. However, Marleys have lost the Reggae Grammy nine times, though that includes twice to other Marleys. The most prolific Grammy winner of the Marleys, Ziggy Marley lost to Shaggy & Sting in 2019. Likewise, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers lost four times to Jimmy Cliff, Shabba Ranks, Inner Circle and Shaggy in 1986, 1992, 1994, and 1996 respectively. In short, Marleys do not always win.

Additionally, the losses also demonstrate the impact of chart rankings on the Grammys. They lost to incredibly popular albums. The 1996 loss to Shaggy’s Boombastic was not surprising. Boombastic was certified platinum in US and gold in the UK. The lead single, also “Boombastic”, was a global hit and a top 5 single in Europe, South America and Australasia. Marleys lost to Shaggy & Sting (2019) and Koffee (2020) whose albums both figured in the top 10 of the Billboard Reggae Charts for that year. While noting that the Grammys are a music industry award and therefore awarded on critical acclaim rather than popularity, it is interesting to compare the market rankings of the Marley reggae albums. Since 2011 creation of the Billboard Reggae charts, six Marley albums have won the Reggae Grammy. Of the six, three of them did not chart on the Billboard Reggae Album Year-End Charts. Interestingly in 2017, two Marleys that did chart on the Billboard Year-End Reggae chart were not nominated for the Reggae Grammy (likely due to difference in timing among other issues). One of them, Damian Marley’s Stony Hill went on to win the Reggae Grammy in 2018. In summary, while the Marleys have had a prolifc run with the Reggae Grammys, with 14 wins in its 40-year history, they do not always win.

The discussion of the relationship between Reggae Grammy and the Marleys is symptomatic of issues regarding the parochialism of the Grammys and contrasting views regarding reggae’s ownership. The Grammys is the by far the international music industry’s best known awards. Winning a Grammy is the dream of musical artists and their ecosystems – producers, writers, composers and more. However, as has become hard to ignore in recent years, the Grammys are an American award. The Grammys are awards given by the Recording Academy of the United States (hereafter the Academy).  In 2020, as a response to a global conversation about discrimination emanating from the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s homicide, Academy heads made changes to ensure the diversity of Academy’s voters and also the language around awards.

One change was the award for World Music Album was changed to Best Global Music Album to signify “change.. from the connotations of colonialism, folk, and ‘non-American’ that the former term embodied while adapting to current listening trends and cultural evolution among the diverse communities it may represent.” There was recognition of how there was need to address issues around nationality and location in the Grammys. Interestingly Academy membership does not seem to require American citizenship. According to Academy rules, a voting member (one that can vote for awards) needs music industry peer recommendations, proof of a music career with 12 verifiable credits and tracks commercially available in the US. Cristy Barber, Grammy-nominated producer and formerly of VP Records, Island Records, Columbia and Ghetto Youths International, noted that when she started her campaign to have more Jamaican music industry people as Academiy members, there was then ONE voting member in Jamaica. That was the Reggae Grammys’ 20th year. This campaign continues. The American element affects other international music forms, not just reggae. For example, no K-pop group has yet won a Grammy, including BTS, arguably the most popular pop group on the planet. BTS has Billboard Number Ones; winning top Group at the Billboard Awards three years running and being named the IFPI top global recording artists in 2020 and 2021. They have likewise performed live at the Grammy Awards three times. These are only a sample of BTS’ international awards and recognition.

Academy members can vote on awards. Reggae Grammy Award winners are not limited to those involved in the reggae industry. I should note that I am not making an argument for such either – as there are pros and cons to either position. It does mean that name familiarity will play a role, particularly to those outside the industry. Bob Marley and the Marley legacy is known the world over, as demonstrated by the success of the recent Bob Marley biopic One Love. For example,  Japan’s reggae and dancehall scene was started by a tour of Japan by Bob Marley in 1979. The Marley legacy and output is such that there are four years when multiple Marley artists or groups are nominated – 1992, 2002, 2010, 2012. Additionally, the inclusion of dancehall music under the Reggae Grammy category further complicates the name recognition issue, with dancehall not enjoying mainstream popularity in the USA.

Another complicating factor is the low sales within the reggae/dancehall genre. Despite an enduring popularity as demonstrated by reggae festivals and dancehall events on every continent, it is not a genre that sells albums. Longstanding Billboard reggae columnist, Pat Meschino in charting the rise of one of reggae’s current stars Chronixx in 2017 noted how his sales number did not reflect his status within the genre despite a year that saw him having both American and European tours, performing on the Tonight Show and in Japan. Yet his album Chronology sold 2,000 copies in the first week, but it was enough to top the Billboard Reggae Charts that week. Low album sales is one reasons it is so easy for an otherwise popular reggae interlopers to dominate the Billboard Reggae charts. For example, Snoop Lion topped the Billboard Reggae Charts in 2013; and Joss Stone did the same in 2015. Snoop Lion was the moniker of popular rap artist Snoop Dogg when he briefly converted to Rastafari in 2013. Interestingly, Joss Stone’s number one reggae album Water for Your Soul only sold 29,000 units. By contrast, her previous album The Soul Sessions Vol.2 debuted at number 10 on the Billboard 200 with 24,000 units sold in the first week.

Reggae is a global genre. The sheer international force of reggae is reason for its non-inclusion in the amorphous global music category. Reggae, alongside European and Latin pop music, is not eligible for consideration for the global music award. As with the Marley name, reggae has travelled all over the world.  Reggae has spawned international scenes with Jawaiian reggae; a Japanese award-winning reggae sound system Mighty Crown; a German reggae magazine Riddim being one of the leading reggae magazines in the world, and so forth. The globality of the music is the main income earner for Jamaican artists. Reggae and dancehall artists make much of their income from touring, as in the Chronixx case. It is also the reason many current reggae and dancehall artist release many more singles than albums. For example, Reggae Grammy-winning artist Koffee has released two albums – Gifted (2022) and Rapture (2019), but about five non-album singles. Popular dancehall artist Skeng has two albums, six EPs, and 44 singles, many of which do not appear on any of his albums or EPs. The reggae artist list is therefore a better indication, but Reggae Grammys are awarded to albums. Additionally, the origin of Grammy nominees does not reflect reggae’s global position. The Grammy nominee list reflects the geographical limitations of the Academy and the music industry success metrices, with most nominees from Jamaica, the USA and the UK. In 40 years of nominees, there has been one Ivorian, one Ghanaian, a Bermudian with one French and one Greek in joint projects, including this year’s co-winner, Alexx Antaeus of Colors of Royal.

Jamaicans feel an ownership of reggae. All Jamaican Reggae Grammy nominee slates are celebrated. Reggae emanates from the struggles of Black Jamaicans in a post-colonial world. Its themes of anti-oppression, liberation, Afrocentrism and reparations are key to its popularity. Likewise Dancehall originates from the struggles of urban Black Jamaicans who rebel against Jamaican respectability politics, a more local cause, but once that resonated globally as well. Despite its global reach and prominence, reggae authenticity is still felt by Jamaicans and also those highly placed within the industry to require a strong Jamaican connection. International reggae artists make ‘pilgrimages’ to Jamaica. The current international reggae scene’s stratosphere or ‘starosphere’ continues to be dominated by Jamaican talent including Koffee, Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Sean Paul and many others. However, there is also good non-Jamaican talent. One such example is the Reggae Grammy award-wining band SOJA. Their win in 2022 made them one of three non-Jamaicans to win the Reggae Grammy; and the only ones not of Jamaican descent. Other non-Jamaican winners arguably include Steel Pulse and Shaggy, as Jamaican diaspora is often seen as Jamaican (not all diasporas are considered such).

There was outrage when American band, SOJA won. Moreover, SOJA won against a group of Jamaican nominees including Sean Paul, Spice, Gramps Morgan, Etana and Jesse Royal. SOJA is however a longstanding reggae band, who have been in existence since 1997, and have been charting since 2013. Interestingly while the Jamaican public reacted badly, some industry insiders defended them as hardworking reggae artistes who were not ‘culture vultures’ and also noted few Jamaican voters in the Academy as  a factor.

In their Grammy speech, SOJA thanked the “founding fathers of reggae music and the island of Jamaica”. However, cultural appropriation has been a serious and sensitive issue within reggae’s and dancehall’s histories. Reggae and dancehall by Jamaican musicians have long faced structural obstacles compared to their American peers, such as confinement to summertime and to ‘urban’ radio stations by the mainstream American music industry; and less likely to be signed by major labels that have the money and relationships to make a crossover hit. This is even as dancehall and Jamaican music fuel top 40 hits by others such as Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”. Currently, Jamaican producing team Steelie and Clevie are suing leading reggaeton artists for royalties as reggaeton is built on their rhythm/riddim Dem Bow. These are only the latest transgressions.  Reggae is built on a history of power divides which limit artists’ ability to/desire to negotiate their copyright. One issue was previous generations of reggae artists not knowing about copyright. Once such example is that of Sister Nancy, whose song “Bam Bam” is an international hit. For years, she had no idea of her copyright or its value due to “Bam Bam”s popularity. The Marley family’s own copyright issues after Bob’s death are notorious. In short, there is validity to the sensitivity around foreigners performing reggae and dancehall. However, without the global nature of reggae and dancehall, the performance circuit by which most of the Jamaican music industry earn would be much limited.

Back to the original question – do Marleys always win when nominated for the Reggae Grammy? The answer is no, even while their name familiarity is a distinct advantage. However, that question is symptomatic of entrenched issues in the international music industry regarding the interaction and alignment of nationality, location and power. These are issues that the market, itself built on this inequity, will not solve. There is therefore a place for both industry and policymakers. As with Cristy Barber, this year’s co-winner Alexx Antaeus and others have been campaigning for increased diversity of the Academy’s membership to include those with a greater knowledge of reggae and Dancehall beyond Marley or what sells as this would greatly help.

Similarly, the Jamaican government has in recent years taken steps to highlight the cultural ‘ownership’ of reggae with the UNESCO declaration of reggae as part of Jamaica’s intangible heritage in 2018. Interestingly at the time of inscription, there were discussions of the place of France and Japan among others as centres of reggae. However, intangible heritage inscription is not the same as copyright. Moreover, it is unclear whether Jamaican collective copyright is possible or even desirable, given the need of Jamaican musicians to tour. The question for Jamaican policymakers is then how to protect Jamaicans’ reggae and dancehall livelihood and place within the music(s) they created. Some answers might lie in initiatives by other governments that seek to highlight and introduce their talent to a wider market, such as Export Music Sweden. In a survey of music funding schemes, Pitchfork writer Marc Hogan highlighted how many countries do fund their (pop) music including Australia, Norway, Iceland, Canada, South Korea, Spain, and France. One longstanding criticism is that these represent relatively richer countries compared to Jamaica. However, few countries, rich or not, are the birthplaces of not just international, but global genre(s), such as reggae, dancehall and ska.

With such public and private initiatives, maybe Academy voters will know more than the Marleys.




Dr Kim-Marie Spence
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Dr Kim-Marie Spence is a Subject Lead and Lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy at Queen's University Belfast. Her research interests include cultural industries and cultural policy, with a focus on the popular music industries of reggae/dancehall and K-pop. She was previously Film Commissioner/Head of Creative Industries in Jamaica.

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