NEW YORK >> A coalition of musicians is demanding the Recording Academy restore more than 30 categories cut from the Grammy Awards, alleging the reductions unfairly target ethnic music and were done without the input of its thousands of members.
A protest was held Thursday in Beverly Hills, Calif., at an academy board meeting. A modest turnout of musicians hoisted signs above their heads with such slogans as "Grammys Honor All Music" and "It’s Not Just About Rap, Rock or Country." Some Latin jazz protesters brought instruments and turned the rally into a spontaneous jam session.
It was part of a campaign by those upset by last month’s decision to reduce the Grammy fields, which this year totaled 109, to 78.
"Reinstate the categories," singer-songwriter Pepper Mashay told KABC-TV. "Reinstate all of them. Let the chips fall where they may on the talent."
In a letter delivered to the Recording Academy Thursday afternoon, musicians ranging from Carlos Santana to Paul Simon and Herbie Hancock demanded the reinstatement of the categories. "We will not be disenfranchised," the letter warned.
Grammy President and CEO Neil Portnow said changes would be in effect for the 2012 Grammys. He urged dissenters to work with the academy, which would examine the effect of the changes for the 2013 awards.
But protesters hope the process could be reversed in time for next year’s Grammy ceremony if at least one board member asks the academy to reconsider.
"Hopefully during that time, someone will rise and be brave enough and do this," Bobby Sanabria, a four-time Grammy nominee in the Latin jazz category and a leader of the movement against the changes, said in an interview Wednesday.
"He’s being arrogant in saying that it’s written in stone when we have a chance to get these categories reinstated," said Sanabria of Portnow. He has called for the resignation of Portnow and the board of trustees.
The academy announced the changes April 6; the move came after a more than yearlong examination of the awards structure, the first in the Grammys’ 50-plus year history. Portnow said at the time that the changes would make the Grammys more competitive, and the awards more coveted.
But the move upset many academy members, who were taken off guard by the announcement.
Simon wrote an individual letter to Portnow asking him to reconsider, writing, in part: "I believe the Grammys have done a disservice to many talented musicians by combining previously distinct and separate types of music into a catch-all of blurry larger categories. … They deserve the separate Grammy acknowledgements that they’ve been afforded until this change eliminated them."
Santana and his musician wife, Cindy Blackman Santana, wrote their own letter to the academy, saying: "To remove Latin Jazz and many other ethnic categories is doing a huge disservice to the brilliant musicians who keep the music vibrant for their fans — new and old. … We strongly protest this decision and we ask you to represent all of the colors of the rainbow when it comes to music and give ethnic music a place in the heart of music lovers everywhere."
Sanabria, who is working with musicians including Eddie Palmieri and Arturo O’Farrill, said ethnic music was unfairly targeted, and called it a "subtle form of racism."
"The effect will be that the music will be very, very homogenous, it’s already starting to sound like that already," he said. "Society as we know it now is very multicultural and very diverse, and the Grammys always reflected that."
Portnow, in an interview this week, said he understands the frustration of those affected. However, he denied many of Sanabria’s contentions, including the idea that non-mainstream categories bore the brunt of the reductions.
"In this year’s awards, in the 53rd (annual ceremony), there were 34 mainstream categories. Next year, with the changed revision, there will be 20 mainstream categories. That’s a significant reduction in mainstream areas. In non-mainstream categories … there were 71. In the upcoming 54th awards, there will be 54," he said, saying that percentage-wise, mainstream categories were more effected.
"Not only non-mainstream categories were affected here," he said. "The facts here don’t play that out."
Portnow also took issue with Sanabria’s assertion that the changes were conducted arbitrarily and in secret, saying the changes were implemented by representatives of the members.
"This is a committee that is made up of members of the academy who include musicians and producers, engineers and experts in the various fields," he said. "There was well over a year and a half discussion within that group, in that committee. They recommended the overall changes to the process to the board of trustees, which was discussed thoroughly."
Portnow said the changes were already adopted and unless "the board choses to act in a fashion not consistent with its rules and regulations, (these concerns) will be dealt with in the next cycle."
He also criticized Sanabria for making what he termed personal attacks against him and other board members.
"It is not rational nor is it logical to have a discussion to ask people to resign," he said. "I don’t think it endears their cause to board members either."
After the academy announced the changes, meetings were held in chapter cities across the country to reach out to members. Portnow said he’s willing to meet with members of Sanabria’s coalition.
"They’ve done a great job in mobilizing the community to do something. If the community has been mobilized, let’s take it to the next step … a positive direction," he said.
Said Sanabria: "You don’t stick a sword in somebody’s back and then when they’re bleeding say, let’s come together."
"He disrespects us," he said. "He’s so out of touch with everything."
The Recording Academy’s board meeting ends Friday. If it concludes with the changes still in place, Sanabria is vowing boycotts of the Grammys, broadcast partner CBS and sponsors of the show. He said he will also urge people to resign from the academy.
"We have to fight this. This is not just a music issue. This is a cultural diversity issue," he said.