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VOTE OR DIE! - Cristy Barber On The Reggae Grammy

04/01/2015 by Angus Taylor

VOTE OR DIE! - Cristy Barber On The Reggae Grammy

Every February the Grammy Awards come around: and the complaints about the reggae Grammy nominations and winners have become as predictable as the results themselves. But Cristy Barber - president of Ghetto Youths International, Grammy winning producer and unabashed Grammy evangelist - says it's time to stop whining, shape up and get involved. 
Angus Taylor, who has no interest in the Reggae Grammy or big industry awards in general, spoke to Cristy to see if her enthusiasm would rub off…

What’s the problem with the reggae Grammy?
People are just really uneducated on how the Recording Academy process works. It’s not just reggae. I sit in Nashville and work with famous country artists, all genres of artists and a lot of them don’t get it. You would be shocked. So it’s not like “Oh everybody’s so savvy but us Jamaican or reggae people who just don’t got it together” – it’s everybody across the board.

The problem is that the people who represent reggae music 24/7 do not vote. The solution is that the people who represent reggae music 24/7, that have the creative credentials to do so, should register to vote. It’s as easy as that. The problem is the people that tend to vote in our category are not always necessarily 100% in the know of what is going on in our industry, and that’s why they tend to vote for the people they do know or their all-time favourites. That’s where the name-recognition situation happens.


I’m not saying every time somebody wins that has a recognisable name it isn’t just due, that’s not true, but I would be an idiot to say that there isn’t a problem because I’m the one who raised the red flag and started this campaign. Everybody’s been aware of my campaign for ten years. And I will consistently talk to people like yourself who care to want to learn and hear because I share these articles with the Academy and they share them with other genres. You’d be shocked at how many people in like hip hop you’re going to educate with this piece.


I’m a white girl from Michigan but I might as well be Jamaican. I defend this music to the nail. I’ve worked at nine major labels, I take all my major label budgets to Jamaica, shoot my videos in Jamaica, record my records in Jamaica, I bring all the money back to that country. I have committed my adult life to this work. I’m not trying to beat up in my backyard, I just know how much we could do better.
I have to consistently keep educating and fight the good fight – so that Beres Hammond can get that Grammy one day, so that Morgan Heritage can, so Tarrus Riley can, so [Academy voters] can start to discover them.

How does the reggae Grammy work?
How the Academy is set up is every genre has its own screening committee. They have a screening committee for pop, for world music, for hip hop, for gospel, for reggae.

What the screening committees do is make sure each album is released within that calendar year in the United States of America. It has to be considered a new recording, nothing can be over five years old. And it has to be considered over 75% of that music genre.

Then the first round of voting happens. The ballot is sent out to all members that are paying their membership, the Grammy voters. All the people who made it through the screening committee, which is about 60 people, are on the first ballot and you just have to pick five of those that you like. Whatever five got the most votes from the first round end up on the final ballot, that’s how you get your top five. That’s how every genre works.

The Recording Academy is made up of industry voters and not everybody can be an industry voter. You have to have six creative credentials that the Recording Academy feels makes you an expert in the music industry in order to vote. Record label presidents, marketing people, A&R people, journalists, they’re not considered creative. What they consider creative is: producers, musicians, songwriters, sound engineers, video directors, video producers, the people who write the liner notes, the people who design the album packaging – they’re considered creative. In reggae we’re got probably one billion of those type of people – we’ve got creativity coming out of our ears.

And you just have to work on six projects, so let’s say you wrote the liner notes for six albums, there’s your creative credential. You fill out the application and turn in the proof of it. Once you do that six, you’re done - you don’t have to do six every year, all you have to do is just pay your membership dues every year. A one year membership is a hundred bucks. $100US. Now we all know that the money that we make in this music industry because Jamaicans are always “Oh my God, it’s all so much money for membership!” Really? Not that this person said it, but Busy Signal, all the money you make, you can’t afford $100? Morgan Heritage? It’s funny, you know?

So if reggae people aren’t voting – who is?
What tends to happen is most of these people tend to be the voters that take the Recording Academy voting seriously. If you watch the programme on TV it’s like the Carole Kings, the David Fosters, the Herbie Hancocks, that’s why you’ll always see those type of people performing, you’ll always see their albums nominated, because they’re very involved in the Academy and they taking voting seriously.

What happens in reggae is that if the people that are in the industry are not registered to vote, the people who tend to come over to our category to vote are people who are not necessarily so reggae-savvy and tend to vote for their all-time favourites or names that they recognise. So that’s why everybody complains every year. Lee Scratch Perry is an icon, Ziggy Marley is great – no-one’s going to debate that, or Sly and Robbie – oh my God, two of the greatest musicians we ever had. But you don’t always see artists being nominated that reflect what’s happened in our industry that year and you might see a record from those individuals that you might not even have heard of.


People will submit these records and are getting very smart because they know in our category there’s a name-recognition thing. Especially with Sly and Robbie – they will put Sly and Robbie’s name on there because it almost guarantees you a nomination because of the respect that they have with the Academy voters, who tend to be a white guy from Minnesota, who happens to know who they are. It’s not necessarily the person that’s sitting in Jamaica that’s been working at Big Yard all year and knows all the artists and the stuff that really happened in the reggae industry.


When people are on Facebook and Twitter talking about the Grammy committee they think it’s like some secret society or it’s like some people who don’t know the difference - actually, these people are a help. Making sure that the right releases are in there and the people that we know have been doing very well in our genre are actually getting through. It’s the voting process where the problem is, because there’s nobody in our genre that knows actually voting. That’s the problem we have – nobody in our genre cares enough to vote.

So how can this be fixed?
I have to consistently remind the boys “Re-up your dues”, so Ziggy is always paid up, Damian is paid up, Stephen is, Julian is – but there’s a lot of times that I have to remind them. Shaggy had his paid up and Gramps Morgan did. There’s a whole lot of people that didn’t, so this year a whole lot of people that should be voting – they were not voting. So if my whole industry isn’t voting, what’s going to happen?
For example the white reggae bands, Rebelution and SOJA and all that, have been raising their hands recently going “We’re selling the most records in the United States of America and we’re not getting any nods. What’s going on?” I work with Elliot, SOJA’s manager and Paul from their label. I sat them down last year and said “You guys got a gazillion people in your band, you’ve got a bunch of people working on your records that have creative credentials to vote. Register them to vote. Make sure they’re voting.


That’s why in orchestras it’s crazy because you’ve got like a hundred people in an orchestra and all those people have the creative credentials to vote. So imagine you have their album up for Classical and you’ve got a hundred votes right there. So SOJA this year they actually made leeway because they got a nomination. They didn’t win but they got nominated because Paul and Elliot did what they needed to do to make sure people voted for them.

You recently took to Facebook to post about people’s misconceptions – especially about the selection committee. You signed off by quoting Puff Daddy “Vote or die!”
I finally got so angry about it that I posted something. “If this infuriates you then go and fucking vote”. Every time the Grammys happen the phone starts to ring again. Everybody wants to know, everybody’s talking about it. Again, once the Grammys are over and everybody’s forgotten about it, I go back to the same thing again. I’m going to keep fighting, because I care so much about the genre, been in the reggae industry 25 years, I’ve obviously spent my whole adult life doing this.


It infuriates me that Beres Hammond doesn’t have a statue. It infuriates me that Morgan Heritage has never been nominated. I’m angry that She’s Royal didn’t get a nod. I’m angry that Busy Signal’s Reggae Music Again, which was a great album, for a deejay to do something like that, didn’t even get a nod. There’s people that deserve at least a nod. There are people in our genre that deserve a Grammy.

One of the most common complaints about the Grammy is that a Marley always wins. You work with some of the Marleys at Ghetto Youths International. Shouldn’t you be happy with the way things are?
Now here’s the thing that upsets me. The Marley name, yes it is a recognised name, but nobody can debate when Damian Marley won with Welcome to Jamrock that was the biggest record of the year. There are times when they are nominated and they win and it’s cornered. Stephen Marley, whether I work for him or I don’t, I consider one of the best producers in reggae music, definitely. I’ve been in the reggae industry for almost 25 years. I haven’t worked with many better.


People are always saying “It’s the Marley Grammy, whenever they release something they always win”. That isn’t true, because I actually had a Marley that made it through this year that didn’t even get a nod and that was Stephen’s son Jo Mersa. He didn’t get nominated. And Julian hasn’t won a Grammy – he’s got a couple of nods but he didn’t win. Ky-Mani, he put out great records, he’s never been nominated.


Now, the bottom line is they really went into uproar this year because of Ziggy. Ziggy does tend to run the more pop reggae route, like the white reggae bands do. That is kind of his lane. He kind of found a niche there but Ziggy is a registered voter with the Academy. Ziggy also does Grammy-U which is the Grammy University thing where during his sound-check he’ll have these students that are part of Grammy-U come in and answer questions. He gets involved with the Academy, so he makes sure he lets the voters know “I’ve got a record coming”. All artists can do that as well, so you can’t get angry that somebody’s out there promoting and making sure people know.
I work for the Marley family, everybody knows that. My point in these interviews is to say “I’m tired of the Marleys always getting the brunt of this name-recognition thing”. I fight this problem, and my problem isn’t the Marleys – it’s across the board. That’s why I say, if it’s really the “Marley Grammy” or a Marley gets it every time, what about Julian and Jo and Ky-Mani?

That comment doesn’t stand any longer. You have to come with a new argument, that’s the point I’m making. I know that every record I did with the Marleys deserved a Grammy, they won. Period. You know what I mean? Because like I said, none of us can debate Welcome to Jamrock. And Angus, you’ve been in the industry for a while, you know the same people I know – do you not respect Stephen Marley as a producer?

I do respect Stephen Marley as a producer.
See! And the record that we’re releasing in the summer is the best thing that he’s done yet. It’s going to blow people’s minds. And does it deserve a Grammy? Hell yeah! Am I going to fight to hope to pray to God it gets it? Hell yeah!

Historically the Jamaican music industry has always done things its own way. It’s taken the parts of what was happening internationally that it wanted and put its own spin on it. Is that a psychological barrier for this self-reliant industry - to getting involved in some larger entity like the Grammys?
No. Education is power, right? Anything that we do in the past does not hinder us from anything we do in the future, if we choose to educate ourselves. You know, we had a big publishing problem in Jamaica, the copyright laws and all that. Yes, we do kind of beat our own drum in the way that we do business, which is not the way that business is done on the world platform.


But Jamaica’s come a long way, and again education is power and that’s why people like you and me who’ve done this for so long, that’s our job – to make sure that we educate the newer artists that are out there, what not to do. It has been a hindrance in the past but there are a lot of great and intelligent artists and people in the industry, up and coming, the younger generation. There’s not a lot of people in our industry that are stupid. As long as you give them the education, none of that I feel hinders us from rectifying this problem with the Recording Academy.

It was a very interesting point you made about orchestras – the bigger the band, the more potential voters. Is there a clear indication to the reggae industry that more live instruments should be used, more horn sections, larger bands – therefore getting more voters on each album?
Well, I mean no, because let’s put it this way: let’s say you’re a deejay and you could use a Don Corleon, a Tony Kelly and a Lenky or whatever. Even all those guys are voters. I guess, yeah, the more people with creative credentials on your album, if you rally them together to vote, that’s more votes you would get. I don’t think necessarily it just means just have a bunch of live musicians, because dancehall is definitely my favourite genre of reggae.
I mean yeah, it helps. I ‘m musically eclectic, so my favourite music is from England from the 80s – Spandau Ballet’s my all-time favourite band, so I love a horn section. But do I want to hear that in a Supercat track? No, probably not! When I listen to Supercat there’s a reason I’m listening to that, when I listen to Spandau Ballet, there’s a reason I’m listening to that, you know what I mean? So I don’t really think that there’s… well, yeah, the more creative people you can have on your record, the more votes you can get if you’re making sure that everybody’s doing it, but that was the one thing with the orchestras, I mean it’s a big stretch from what we do, there’s like a zillion of them!

Why should we care about the Reggae Grammy? No award shows really get it right. Selma didn’t get a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Taxi Driver was beaten in 1976 by Rocky, and then years later they gave a Best Director Oscar to Martin Scorsese for The Departed by way of an apology. A lot of people are quite cynical about awards in general. Why should we care about them?
Because when an actor can say “Academy Award Nominee” or “Academy Award Winner” their price goes up by $10,000,000 a picture. I mean it doesn’t happen the same with the Grammys but it is the pinnacle of the music industry of the world. People can say “I don’t want to win a Grammy. I don’t care”. They do care about it. I just think people say that because they think that it’s out of their reach. I have been watching the Grammy Awards since I was ten years old. I knew I wanted to be a producer and I knew I wanted to work for Columbia Records, because that’s where Wham! was and George Michael is my all-time favourite. And I did both.

The bottom line is we all aspire for that larger platform. Whether you’re Mr Vegas or Kanye West or Tom Jones. Tom is my icon, who I met and he signed my Grammy medal, and the only words I could get out of my mouth were “Congratulations on winning Best New Artist in 1965” and he was like “Yeah that was my only Grammy”. Tom would love more. Everybody wants a Grammy. You can say you don’t, but you do. Trust me.

Look at John Legend and Common, he apparently slept with his Academy Award. Oprah and her team they won for the song, there’s certain things they didn’t win at but that picture made its mark. Stephen has a shelf in the studio that the Grammys are on – there are some of Damian’s and Ziggy has one because a lot of the boys record in that studio. Trust me, when you get it, you care. It’s only when you feel like you can’t get it that you say “Oh, I don’t give a shit about it”. Because trust me, if I can get nominated, there’s not a person in reggae that can’t do it. You’ve just got to want it.

No doubt people who work in the industry want it. But imagine somebody who’s not in the industry, they’re just a reggae fan, maybe they’re a teenager, they’re rebellious – from their perspective they might say “Isn’t the lack of participation in the Reggae Grammy a good thing? It’s like a corporate industry event that’s antithetical to the outsider ethos of reggae”. What would you say to that?
But it’s not a corporate thing. The Recording Academy is a Foundation. It’s a charity. It’s a non-profit. All the money that they get goes back into music schools. I mean we know the stats on kids that play instruments or kids that are exposed to music in schools, and how that develops them in their later years. I am like case in point – I mean middle America, didn’t love school, couldn’t stand it, but I was obsessed with music, I mean freakishly obsessed with music. When I was 18 years old I moved to New York with $20 in my pocket, knowing no-one – no family, no nothing. Hustled my way in the music industry, started as a writer – I worked for Word Up! magazine for ten years. I eventually knew I needed to become a producer. I wanted a Grammy. That was the whole reason I did this. It’s not a corporate thing – If I can do it, they can do it. Why wouldn’t you?

And it doesn’t make it like I sold out to the big corporations. Because I could have done that the whole time. I started at the major labels and used to have an office right next to Jay Z. I kicked Puffy out of a party. We all came up together. I could have gone to any other genre and probably been much richer and much more successful. But I stuck with reggae because I believed in it, and it opened its doors to me and gave me the opportunity to have this platform.
So it’s not a corporate thing. The Grammys are not that. This is about the celebration of music in no matter what genre you’re in. Everybody wants to be famous. You think Usain Bolt started run down there like “I’m going to the Olympics. I’m don’t give a shit about corporate?” That’s not even about corporate. That’s like world celebration. You could say the Olympics are corporate. But that’s about standing on the world stage, representing your country. How great a person could you be? And it’s the same in the music industry. Does that make sense?

A lot of people who like to complain about the Reggae Grammys online – I kind of think some of them almost enjoy it. It’s like a perennial sport to some people. Pile in, show you care about reggae, achieve nothing – see you next year.
I agree. Because the bottom line is, as much as I love my genre, we are like crabs in a barrel. It frustrates me a lot because we love to see our people go up but we’ll be the first ones to drag our people down. The part that really upset me was watching how influential Jamaica is, how influential they were with Tessanne on The Voice, how influential they just were when Kaci was in Miss Universe pageant, but we won’t rally behind the biggest export out of Jamaica, which is our genre. And more people to the party, the more authenticity. The Grammys thing has to start from the root. I love the trees, I love the flowers, I love the branches, I love the leaves, I love everything that has bloomed from this, but it has to start from the root.

There is a perception that the internet has changed the industry. That only a very small percentage of people at the very top strike it rich and the rest can’t make a living. So in ten years, will we even have genres at all? Will we have a Reggae Grammy or will it all be just kind of soul/pop, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Adele trying to appeal to as many people as possible?
I wouldn’t say so. I mean, this is something I tell people all the time. The first internet radio station was Radio Margaritaville, which was owned and started by Jimmy Buffet. Jimmy Buffett sold it to Sirius and XM. The gentleman who was running it for Jimmy went up to New York and they were doing the deal.

One thing that Sirius and XM started to do in the very beginning was put different people in a room and play music for them. They’d put like a twelve year old Asian girl, maybe an African-American 33 year old male, a 65 year old white woman – different people, nationalities, races in a room, play different music for them and they’d have them tick off like a questionnaire form. The gentleman said “Is there ever a time, when you put these people in the room, that they never say anything negative? Is there ever a time when you play music and they always like it?” and they said the only time that happens is when they play reggae.

Reggae music to me is the biggest music in the world. Everybody wants to do a version of it; everybody has an influence from it. I don’t think we’re ever going to lose our category because of how influential and how big it is. This is not my opinion, it is a fact. We have people like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, but there’s only one artist who no matter where you go in the world, whatever rock you turn over, forest you’re in or mountain you’re on top of, everybody knows - Bob Marley.

You might watch the Grammys and you’re not televised. But there’s a lot of us that aren’t televised. There’s like 90 categories and you only see eight live on TV because it’s all about the ratings, that’s true about that part. But the pre-show is amazing and you can stream online and it’s actually even more exciting than what you see on TV. I just think people in the reggae industry may not remember and need to be reminded, that it’s a very, very big deal. A big responsibility if you’re a part of it.

You’ve been campaigning on this for quite a long time. Do you ever just feel like saying “I can’t be bothered to do this anymore”?
No, I don’t care! As long as people want to hear me talk nonsense I’m willing to. You could book me at the Pegasus and put every new artist from every parish in that room and I’ll answer any question and tell them anything they want to know for twelve hours. Then I’ll tell them “Don’t believe anything I just said to you. Go and research it, because when you do you’re going to come back and realise what I told you was the truth”. I’m all about education and honesty in this industry. The more people I educate, the more people in the know, and the more people being successful, just makes us all successful. It doesn’t make any sense for me to be that crab in the barrel pulling them down. I’m the one that puts somebody on my back and somebody on their back so we can get out of the barrel.

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