Soca at the Grammys: The Ministry of Arts seeks answers

“The Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism will soon begin talks with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States to have soca and calypso considered as categories at the Grammy Awards.”
Small, Essiba. “Add soca to Grammy Awards.” Trinidad Express. 17 June 2014. Web.

grammy-logo-300x199I read this news with awe that the government is leading this “thrust” to create a new Grammy category. Again, this is a signal that the “industry” that government is looking at to diversify the economy is not coalesced to make a case, either jointly with government or as a collective unit with clout. The statement that the Ministry of the Arts and Multiculturalism – Trinidad and Tobago will “begin talks” with NARAS does not sit well, or maybe it is just that: a conversation to see what has to be done. The minister does not actually say that he is making a case and looking for positive response from NARAS, so we’ll see.

Source: Statista – The Statistics Portal

Just recently in 2011, the Grammys reduced the number of categories, reducing or eliminating awards in jazz, gospel, Latin and even classical recordings. A couple things jump out; first, category inclusion seems to depend on having “enough entries and to be appropriate, meaningful and relevant” to the field (genre). Back in 2011 these new rules applied, still unchanged:

“To set a standard group of five nominees, a category must receive at least 40 submissions, which usually come from record companies. If 25 to 39 entries come in, the number of nominees drops to three, and if there are fewer than 25 submissions, that award will be suspended for a year. After three consecutive suspensions, a category would be eliminated. (After music is submitted academy members vote to determine the nominations; a second round of votes picks a winner.)”

Soca/calypso would have to have “commercially released” in the US, 40 plus submissions for voting members to consider.  Album releases are few and confined to compilations. Song releases are not “genre massive.” “Who Let the Dogs Out” won in the Best Dance recording category in 2000. Not much has happened to this music since then from the point of view of the Grammy voter.

getz-simonA bossa nova album, “Getz/Gilberto,” won album of the year in 1964 (“Girl From Ipanema” won Record of the Year too) yet in all the years since there has never been a bossa nova category despite the proliferation of that music “commercially released in the US,” an important criterium. Brazilian music and even South African music with all the popularity of Ladysmith Black Mambazo were relegated to the World Category despite the fact that “Graceland” won Album and Record of the Year for two years running notwithstanding being mainly the music of South Africa played by South Africans. Subsequent to that, South African music, and releases by identified Africans have won Grammys in the World category.

marley-legendExotic categories are hard to come by. Funk never had a category either! Reggae’s inclusion as an album category may have had the influence of Chris Blackwell, the benefit of a diamond certification by the RIAA of Bob Marley’s “Legend,” and the phenomenal sales of Shaggy’s “Hot Shot” as impetus for inclusion although Grammys insist that sales has no consideration. Many more opportunities for submissions. Hmm.

Another thing that jumps out in the stated desire to begin talks to consider soca/calypso category/ies is the lack of holistic approach. Words are a funny thing. Iwer George responding to the Minister’s announcement said,

“As a radio station owner and soca artiste, I have also done my part in the movement to keep soca and calypso going.”

Radio as a silo to focus for NARAS voters is limited here and in the US. Sirius XM has reggae but no soca!


The energising of the music industry as a diversification pole is supposed to be the domain of the Ministry of Trade via the recently formed CreativeTT. Wooing NARAS here would have been better facilitated by CreativeTT which has as a function, “to develop the creative product to compete internationally.” Co-ordinated effort among many ministries would suffice. While we still wait for the final report on TIME – Trinbago Interactive Music Expo, the march to move soca/calypso into the commercial mainstream globally is a toss-up between hype and reality. It must be noted that music publisher and promoter Alvin Daniell together with award-winning author and documentary film-maker Geoffrey Dunn have promoted a successful initiative to designate soca and calypso as official musical categories in the internet marketplace including Apple’s flagship iTunes Store at this time.

International Soca Award
Back in 2010, Sean Nero writing in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian noted that, “While there have been advances to the Recording Academy board of directors (Grammy Awards) from nationals, though individually, for a soca music category to be added to the honour roll, these overtures have been unsuccessful.Getting this brand of music recognition on the Billboard charts was the other route taken, but that too yielded no positive result.” At that time, Colin Jackman, president and chief executive officer of the Soca Awards Organisation, believed that his “International Soca Awards project was a critical vehicle towards securing Grammy Award status.”  Not much has changed.

Jackman’s efforts and advice are noteworthy since American immigration lawyer Neal Richardson Datta, here recently for the 2014 DeciBel Expo, echoed the same sentiments about the connection between receipt of “nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence” and US visas for exceptional music artistes. The nexus between legally working in the US and formal recognition by that music industry is real. These efforts by local private sector should not be dismissed by an indifferent public service seeking timely policy mandate completion nor an apathetic and clueless buying public, but holistically included in effective plans.

Soca is regional in flavour and quantity. Soca Monarch proved that and producers from St Vincent, Barbados and St Lucia are making hits here and in the diaspora. A T&T lead can only be a first step to a regional music. We have a way to go still: formation of influential umbrella organisations, the finalisation of a national cultural policy, the enforcement of copyright laws and the improvement of those laws in a digital age and for our context. The final say on whether we will see a Grammy Award for Best Soca Album or more realistically a Grammy Award for Best Caribbean Album will be with the Grammy voters!

18 June 2014

P.S. 23 July 2014
Martin Raymond on Facebook, noted the awkward fact that  VP Records’ Soca Gold 2014 compilation debuted at #1 on industry leader Billboard’s Reggae Album Charts! I have noted elsewhere that Fay-Ann Lyons’ recent Carnival song “Catch Me” will be featured on VP Records’ Reggae Gold 2014 (dropping August 12). This flux in designation puts credence to the idea that the broader designation of Caribbean Album may be more apt for the American market. Soca artists shouldn’t be afraid of competition from dancehall and reggaeton and other Caribbean genres outside of the generic “Tropical Latin.” Caribbean immigration dynamics over a century and the resulting super-assimilation in temperate climes may make that broad designation, unfortunately, an easier pill to swallow to US industry types who make decisions on Grammy Awards.

© 2014, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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