Birth of the Reggae Grammy

Observer senior writer

Sunday, January 28, 2018

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The 60th Grammy Awards takes place today at Madison Square Garden in New York City. There are five nominees for Best Reggae Album. They are: Chronology (Chronixx); Stony Hill (Damian Marley); Avrakedabra (Morgan Heritage); Lost In Paradise (Common Kings) and Wash House Ting (J Boog).

Today the Jamaica Observer continues its series, reflecting on the Best Reggae Album category.

WHEN Grammy Awards organisers NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) decided to add a reggae category to the annual show, one of the first individuals they contacted to fine-tune the process was Roger Steffens.

It was 1984 and the New York-born actor and radio host was establishing himself as an authority on The Wailers and roots-reggae. In an interview with the Jamaica Observer, he recalled his initial discussion with the NARAS bosses.

“Two of the leaders of NARAS called me and said that they were interested in starting a reggae category. They said that members of the board had met recently in Montego Bay and that most of them also listened to the Reggae Beat programme that my partner Hank Holmes had begun in 1979 on LA's KCRW (radio station),” Steffens explained. “They were impressed by the broad range of styles in Jamaican music and its penetration into the American market.”

According to Steffens, they laid out the criteria for what would be called the Best Reggae Recording category.

An album had to have a majority of its time in the reggae genre and be available commercially in the United States.

The qualification period for nomination was October 1 to September 30 of the current year.

Steffens was asked to use his contacts and get as many people with knowledge of reggae on-board.

“I was tasked with organising a committee of writers, disc jockeys, producers, label chiefs, and musicians, most of whom were members of NARAS. We listened to all the albums that were submitted, decided which met the criteria and their names were sent out to NARAS' membership,” Steffens recalled. “On this first round, anyone could vote in any category they wished. When those votes were tallied, the top five in each category were selected as the nominees for a Grammy, and a new ballot was sent out,” he added. “The specialty categories, into which reggae fell, usually had a limit of around eight or nine in which you were permitted to vote, the presumption being that you would only vote in a category in which you had a good knowledge.”

Jimmy Cliff's Reggae Nights, Steppin' Out by Steel Pulse, Anthem by Black Uhuru, Captured Live by Peter Tosh, and Yellowman's King Yellowman were the first nominees for Best Reggae Recording. Anthem, with hits like Party Next Door and Bull In The Pen, was the winner.

In 27 years as chairman of the Grammy reggae committee, Steffens insists he has never voted “in order to keep my neutrality”.

He said that did not prevent him from being constantly attacked by artistes who felt slighted.

“I was often falsely accused of awarding the Grammy personally. Burning Spear didn't speak to me for years, claiming that I was personally withholding the award from him, despite his nine unsuccessful nominations.”




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