Graphic: The Recording Academy
2023 GRAMMYs: How The New Best Song For Social Change Special Merit Award Inspires Positive Global Impact & Celebrates Message-Driven Music and How To Qualify
In an in-depth roundtable discussion featuring some of the highest-ranking Recording Academy leaders, learn why the new Best Song For Social Change Special Merit Award is a momentous development for the music industry at large.
The GRAMMYs' newly announced award for Best Song For Social Change differs significantly from the other GRAMMY Award categories announced earlier this year and debuting at the upcoming 2023 GRAMMYs, officially known as the 65th GRAMMY Awards.
Rather than a traditional GRAMMY Award, the Best Song For Social Change award is a Special Merit Award. This means the award will be determined by a Blue Ribbon Committee and ratified by the Recording Academy Board of Trustees.
Proposed by our Recording Academy members, the new Best Song For Social Change Special Merit Award now represents one of the highest honors a socially conscious song can receive. It also recognizes the songwriters creating message-driven music that responds to and addresses the social issues of our time head-on while inspiring positive global impact.
The 2023 GRAMMY nominations are officially here. See the complete list of nominees across all 91 GRAMMY categories.
To qualify or qualifications for the Best Song For Social Change Special Merit Award, which recognizes a song that has had profound social influence and impact, a submitted song should contain lyrical content that: addresses a timely social issue; explores a subject impacting a community of people in need; and promotes awareness, raises consciousness, and builds empathy.
Songwriters can submit songs that meet the eligibility criteria and qualifications here now through Friday, Oct. 14.
Indeed, the honoree of this inaugural Special Merit Award will both reflect the tumultuous times in which we currently live and celebrate the potential for a brighter, fairer and more equitable tomorrow.
In an in-depth round-table discussion with Recording Academy executives and leaders — including Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. — as well as music luminaries, GRAMMY.com celebrates the new Best Song For Social Change Special Merit Award and explores all the reasons why its arrival is right on time. Learn how the award came to be and why the Recording Academy's work to honor socially conscious songs is only beginning.
Quotes from these interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Read More: Where, What Channel & How To Watch The Full 2023 GRAMMYs
What was the impetus to launch the Best Song For Social Change Special Merit Award?
Harvey Mason jr. (CEO, the Recording Academy): As with all of our awards categories, most of our changes come from actual people who submit proposals; we felt like the proposal for this award made a lot of sense. The people in the Awards and Nominations [A&N] committee agreed with it and felt like it was an important change.
We felt it was a great opportunity to highlight music and songs that are trying to bring about change, awareness and social consciousness. I think it really shows what the Academy does, which is to shine a light on music, music people, and excellence in music. This particular award shines a light on something that's been really important throughout music history: music that's created to drive change, awareness or recognition.
Susan Stewart (Managing Director, the Recording Academy's Songwriters & Composers Wing): Songs matter. They always have. Songs help us make sense of our lives and the world, and provide an outlet for our emotions. The true social change songs — the ones that resonate so deeply as to galvanize a movement or intentional change in society — are very difficult to write. These types of songs require capturing the truth of the masses. The elected leaders that brought this proposal forward wanted to celebrate these exceptional songwriters and to encourage more of these incredible songs.
Wayna (Quiet Power Productions, GRAMMY nominee): Our Washington, D.C. Chapter tapped Maimouna Yousseff and me to lead a newly formed Social Impact Committee. Our first program was a songwriting workshop over Zoom, where we paired music veterans with GRAMMY U students and wrote original songs about social issues.
I think there comes a time in every creator's career when you have to reconnect with your "why" — whether you are trying to weather a global pandemic or the usual ups and downs of this industry. For all of us on that zoom, songs about social change were a huge part of our "why." So, we wanted to create a platform where that craft could be celebrated and preserved.
Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy | Photo Emma McIntyre by Getty Images©
Maimouna Youssef a.k.a. Mumu Fresh (Former Governor, the Recording Academy's Washington, D.C. Chapter): The impetus behind launching the Best Song for Social Change Special Merit Award was to honor courageous artists who utilize their artistic genius to tell the stories of marginalized voices; bring awareness to systemic injustice and social, economic, political, and gender disparities; and to inspire radical empathy among their listeners. These artists often put their careers and even lives on the line for the greater good, and we salute them for their efforts. We also wrote the proposal for this award with young, aspiring artists in mind who often desire to speak truth to power, but fear the economic backlash that may come along with doing so. We want all artists to feel safe and celebrated, especially when their art aims to add value to humanity.
I have been doing social justice work my entire life, both through my music and philanthropic efforts. In my work activating young artists, I am often saddened by the reluctance they express in speaking their truth through their music due to their fear of poverty, financial backlash, or the lack of support they may face if they speak to social issues. My hope is that the very existence of this award gives every artist the inspiration, courage, support, and safe space they need to be true to themselves and their right to have a voice for positive social change. Artists who have had the courage and creative talent to write great songs that pushed our culture forward in a positive direction are heroes and deserve to be celebrated.
Music is a reflection of our present-day hardships and gives a voice to those who often go unheard. It is a unifier and builds community, belonging, hope, and justice. Music is the perfect ally to social change as it engages and encourages people to take action — and without action, there would be no change.
— Ryan Butler (Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, the Recording Academy)
The Best Song for Social Change Special Merit Award will be determined by a Blue Ribbon committee ratified by the Recording Academy Board of Trustees. Can you explain this a little bit for the layperson?
Ruby Marchand (Chief Awards & Industry Officer, the Recording Academy): The Special Merit Award has been around for a long time and has always been curated by what we call a Blue Ribbon Committee. The committee is populated by qualified voting members who work closely with the Recording Academy's 12 Chapters, and are suggested by the 12 Chapters to come together and make these unique, celebrated choices each year for the Lifetime Achievement Award or Trustees Award.
The committee itself goes through a very thoughtful process where there is a lot of listening, research and engagement. The committee is so diverse that people are able to contribute a unique context from a unique point of view and build a consensus that can be very powerful. The process is thoughtfully put together; it is never rushed. The legacy of what a Special Merit Award, like a Lifetime Achievement Award or a Trustees Award, signifies is unique. The Special Merit Award is separate and distinct from a GRAMMY Award. It's never to be confused with a GRAMMY category. It's a whole other process of acknowledging remarkable creators and leaders who've accomplished a lot.
In the case of Best Song For Social Change, this is the first time that a Special Merit Award is being created for a new honor that celebrates the songwriter or songwriters responsible for a song that can essentially change the world. That's really what we're talking about here. When we talk about social change, we're talking about a song that has the presence, the influence, the power to unify people — to provide that higher level of engagement and awareness.
Read More: Why The New Songwriter Of The Year GRAMMY Category Matters For The Music Industry And Creator Community
Maimouna Youssef a.k.a. Mumu Fresh | Photo: Visyoual Media Photography
The newly announced Best Song For Social Change Special Merit Award comes during a time when significant social change is happening across the country and around the world. How is this award reflective of our times, when these themes are front and center?
PJ Morton (Recording Academy Trustee, four-time GRAMMY winner): Art has always reflected life. And I believe it's the artist's job to document the things that we go through and give voice to the voiceless.
Wayna: For many of us, these themes are always front and center, and songs about social change are how we've sustained ourselves when these issues aren't in the public eye. That's why supporting this proposal was a no-brainer for so many Recording Academy leaders and members. It's core to who we are and the stories we need to tell. What I hope is that these songs will be the soundtrack to all of us growing awareness and that they might bridge the gaps of understanding and empathy. If anything can, it's a great song.
Mason jr.: I think it's perfectly timed, and it's actually very apropos to what's happening in our society today. Throughout history, we've always seen music play an important role in bringing awareness to a problem or an issue or something that needs to be addressed. I think right now, especially in the last few years, we've seen a heightened awareness around social change and some of the inequities that are taking place, and you're hearing a lot of that through music.
I think it's a great time to be honoring this [award], and it's a great time to be encouraging more people to use music as a tool. It's a great time for music people to be able to have their voices heard. This is the power of music. This is why music is so important. This is why the Recording Academy is so important because we can make a difference with the things we say and the things that we create.
Youssef: This [award] directly reflects the current times and also salutes all times in history prior. There has never been a time when music didn't reflect or even influence the current state of its community.
Many times, social justice trends become popular for a moment and then people lose interest or momentum and go back to their regular distractions. We, the writers of this proposal, believe that songs that inspire and even demand that humans be the best versions of themselves are not just a passing trend, but should be the norm if we hope to see lasting change in our communities.
Music is not just a soundtrack, but a driving force that can stir our emotions and lift us up to glory or send us crashing down holding our tears in our hands. Now that's power! Music is a soul salve for the wounded, the discouraged and the disenfranchised. So yes, it is time that this powerful style of songwriting for social change, which is both a unique skill set and a courageous undertaking, be recognized, elevated, and celebrated in its own award for its historic feats.
Rico Love (Two-time GRAMMY nominee and Vice Chair of the Recording Academy Board of Trustees): I think it's important for the Recording Academy to be at the forefront of these things because we see it every day. And I think it's important for us to establish the fact that we are concerned, we want to be active, and we want to celebrate the people who shine a light on what's going on in our culture and in our world.
Wayna (Quiet Power Productions, GRAMMY nominee) | Photo: Mekbib Tadesse
Why is it important for the Recording Academy to dedicate an entire Special Merit Award to songs reflective of social movements, social justice and equity?
Morton: I think as a leader in music, the Recording Academy sets the tone. I believe it's important for an institution as big as the Academy to show that this type of music is not only necessary, but is seen and appreciated. It's at the core of our mission and what we do.
Wayna: Music is an incredibly effective communicator. It cuts past all of our preconceived ideas and goes straight to the heart, and that's the inspiration behind any kind of change. As music creators, this is our superpower. More than whatever power we have individually, we have the potential, through music, to persuade others to use their power as well. That's how real change happens: not when one person does something big, but when a lot of people do something small.
JC Losada "MrSonic" (GRAMMY & Latin GRAMMY winner, New York Chapter Governor): Some of the biggest and most iconic songs in pop music history have either been the cause for social change or have been caused by social change. As our Recording Academy members and community ramp up efforts to amplify the message of inclusiveness, diversity and social awareness, this award couldn't come at a better time. From now on, releases of new music that have a message of social awareness will have an opportunity to be recognized by the Academy in their own award, regardless of the genre or music style.
Rico Love: We're just doing our part to make sure that we acknowledge those creatives who are passionate about this because so many are.
Common (Three-time GRAMMY-winning artist): It's important that the Trustees decided to come up with an award for music that is based around social justice and equality because it motivates the artists to actually do things that do have substance. Let's face it, as artists, we love to achieve. A GRAMMY is the highest achievement in music. To receive an award for something that has substance and to be motivated to create music that is from the heart, but also still gets recognized by the highest Academy in music, you win in so many ways.
It's a great time to be encouraging more people to use music as a tool. It's a great time for music people to be able to have their voices heard. This is the power of music. This is why music is so important. That's why the Recording Academy is so important, because we can make a difference with the things we say and the things that we create.
— Harvey Mason jr. (CEO, the Recording Academy)
Music has soundtracked the fights for freedom, equity and social change throughout the decades. How does music directly influence and impact social change?
Morton: Music has always been a unifier; it's the universal language. Sometimes a song can put collective thoughts into a three-minute song. Then there's something everybody can sing together in unity. That's the power of music.
Ryan Butler (Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, the Recording Academy): Music and social change go hand in hand, and music has directly influenced and impacted social change. Music can be a form of protest, a way to grieve, and has a universal healing capacity. Music influences and gives power to the people and is an expression of feelings, whether that's love, hate, anger, pleasure, sadness, or happiness. Music is a reflection of our present-day hardships and gives a voice to those who often go unheard. It is a unifier and builds community, belonging, hope, and justice. Music is the perfect ally to social change as it engages and encourages people to take action, — and without action, there would be no change.
Rico Love: Some of the biggest artists in the world have devoted their life to philanthropy. Historically, there have been songs that have supported such causes. Think about Bob Dylan. Think about John Lennon. Think about all of these creators who have devoted their lives to change.
Throughout the years, there have been many songs that have started a conversation and forced people to see themselves. I wouldn't have known about hungry, starving children in other third-world countries had it not been for Michael Jackson's "Heal the World" when I was a kid or "We Are the World" when I was growing up. Hearing those songs, understanding that these things exist. It's important for us to shine a light on people who don't know. Music does that and has historically done that.
Common: Music has directly impacted social change. Throughout the years, just being in Decades, getting to be a part of Selma really taught me how much music had been a part of the civil rights movement. Those songs they sang while they marched were not only fuel for them, but it was speaking to the people and getting the messages across to people who may not have been aware. They started hearing what the civil rights leaders and the community who were participating were singing about and understood it from another perspective. It also just gave them motivation as they dealt with all these ills that America was delivering to Black people during those times.
And we've seen it, obviously in hip-hop culture, become part of the social change as far as speaking up to police brutality and issues that we deal with within the inner city. Music has a direct impact on social change. So it's important that the artists feel that value and duty. And as Nina Simone says, [it's] "the duty of the artist to reflect the times."
Read More: Behind The GRAMMY: Why The New Best Spoken Word Poetry Album GRAMMY Category Is A Global Victory For Lovers Of Language
What does the addition of the new Best Song For Social Change Special Merit Award say about the Recording Academy's recognition and support of the creativity and importance of social change and social justice in music?
Youssef: I think this new addition says that the Recording Academy is committed to the needs and concerns of its membership body. This award says that the Recording Academy is serious about equity and inclusion and understands the need for marginalized voices to have a platform to be heard through their music. The Academy continues to be a leader in championing the music community at large.
Ryan Butler, Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for the Recording Academy | Photo: Aaron Doggett for Visyoual Media
How would you like to see the Recording Academy continue to champion social change through song and music in the years to come?
Youssef: I would love to see the Recording Academy continue to make and hold space for this type of music. It's important to preserve this legacy of songs for social change. We want to raise awareness that this award exists and let artists know how to submit their work for consideration.
We found that many artists have never written songs about social issues for a number of reasons, [like] the lack of support or fear of backlash. It's very difficult to balance the information of a complex concept with all the other creative nuances and stylistic decisions a writer has to make in order to actually have the song be great. Songs for social change are a unique art form that should be championed and supported for years to come both as a social movement and an artistic discipline. We would love to see more support for these types of programs in our [Chapters].
Butler: The Recording Academy will continue to champion social change through song and music. In the past two years, our DEI [Diversity, Equity & Inclusion] team has made major strides in the music community. We partnered with Color Of Change to identify key opportunities to drive and influence social change in the music industry and dedicated to building power for Black music creators and professionals. This work spanned several strategies: a membership campaign focusing on the Black music community to drive new voting members to the Academy; an industry-wide diversity and inclusion summit; partnership in advocacy and legislative efforts; as well as the first-ever inclusion rider implemented at this past 64th GRAMMY Awards show to ensure equity at every level, on and off the stage.
We also launched the Black Music Collective, an advisory group of music leaders, to identify emerging opportunities and ways to drive Black representation in the music industry. The DEI team announced a partnership with GLAAD in 2022 to further promote and advance LGBTQ+ inclusion and representation. We have also partnered with industry leaders including Amazon Music for the HBCU Love Tour and scholarship fund, #TheShowMustBePaused, and monthly sessions with Universal, Warner, and Sony Music groups. The work is ongoing and will continue, but social change through music is vital to a just, evolving world.
Wayna: Becoming a truly global organization is key to all these issues. I think the more the Recording Academy is able to empower creators from around the world — expand their access and remove the barriers preventing them from participating at the highest levels of this industry — the more those creators will advocate for their communities and serve as a template for their success.
Rico Love: I'm the Chair of the Black Music Collective. And as Chair, I've created many initiatives that are not just going to be about awards. It's not just going to be about putting on a nice suit and accepting something. No, it's about going out into the community and making a change. I think it's more than just an award, it's our job, it's our duty.
We are a non-profit organization. We are for the people. We're not here to just celebrate music creatives on one day. We are here, passionate about helping people and music creatives who need us … It's important for us to get out there and do the work as it comes to social injustice as well.
New Categories For The 2023 GRAMMYs Announced: Songwriter Of The Year, Best Video Game Soundtrack, Best Song For Social Change & More Changes
The 2023 GRAMMYs, officially known as the 65th GRAMMY Awards, returns to Los Angeles' Crypto.com Arena on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, and will broadcast live on the CBS Television Network and stream live and on-demand on Paramount+ at 8-11:30 p.m. ET/5-8:30 p.m. PT.
The eligibility period for the 65th GRAMMY Awards is Friday, Oct. 1, 2021 – Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. All eligible awards entries must be released within this timeframe.
The Recording Academy and GRAMMY.com do not endorse any particular artist, submission or nominee over another. The results of the GRAMMY Awards, including winners and nominees, are solely dependent on the Recording Academy’s Voting Membership.
Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Meet Tobias Jesso Jr., The First-Ever GRAMMY Winner For Songwriter Of The Year
"I felt the weight of what it meant," the man behind the curtain of massive songs by Adele, Harry Styles, Marcus Mumford and more says about his win in the brand-new GRAMMY category.
Tobias Jesso Jr. wanted to know how to write a hit song, so he read How to Write a Hit Song. Not that he needed to figure out how to break into the mainstream: he had already written a tune with Sia and Adele that cracked the Billboard Hot 100. But in an effort to take his young career seriously — that of writing behind the curtain for the stars — he cracked open the book at a café.
Just then, a voice: "What the hell are you doing?" He glanced up. It was Sia.
"She was like, 'Why are you reading that?' and I was like, 'I honestly don't know,'" Jesso remembers with a laugh. "I think I just put the book away from that point on and was like, OK, I don't need the books. And I just felt like there's been a different one of those lessons at every step of the way where I'm just like, Man, I think this is what I got to do, and then I just figure it out."
Since that exchange, Jesso has written with a litany of contemporary stars: John Legend, Shawn Mendes, Pink, Haim, Harry Styles — the list goes on. (As per the latter, he co-wrote "Boyfriends" on Harry's House, which was crowned Album Of The Year at the 2023 GRAMMYs.)
And at said ceremony, he received a historic honor — the first-ever golden gramophone for Songwriter Of The Year. As Evan Bogart, Chair of the Songwriters & Composers Wing, recently toldput it to GRAMMY.com: "We're looking for which songwriters have demonstrated, first and foremost, that they're considered a songwriter first by the music community. We want to recognize the professional, hardworking songwriters who do this for a living."
Read More: Why The New Songwriter Of The Year GRAMMY Category Matters For The Music Industry And Creator Community
Clearly, Jesso fits the mold, and possesses technical chops worthy of How to Write a Hit Song. But his realization — that he can literally throw out the rulebook — speaks volumes as to his flexible, collaborator-first and fun-first process.
"I get into a room and I really want to enjoy the people, and the songs will come if we're all just being honest," he tells GRAMMY.com. "If you take a few days or weeks to get to know somebody, all of a sudden, your songs are deeper."
And while working his interpersonal and collaborative magic, he keeps his ears and imagination open — a momentary trifle can become the heart of a song. It happened with Cautious Clay's "Whoa," which came from messing with some, well, whoas.
"It was a little silly at first," says Jesso,the songwriter whose first output was "inappropriate" high-school joke songs. "But now it wasn't silly anymore."
GRAMMY.com sat down with Jesso about his creative beginnings, the experience of working alongside pop titans, and how his inaugural GRAMMY win for Songwriter Of The Year happened during the happiest, most creatively fruitful period of his burgeoning career.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did it feel to take home the golden gramophone — the first ever in this category?
It felt tremendous. It felt amazing. It's such an honor to have received it, and I felt the weight of what it meant. I get really stage frightened, and so I kept telling myself there's no way I was going to win, just so I wouldn't be nervous or anything like that.
But weirdly, when I did win, I was very not nervous. I don't know how to put it, but it was the opposite of what I thought I would feel. I don't know if I've never been awarded something so prestigious. My elementary school did a piece on me after I won the GRAMMY, and it was sort of largely a "We didn't see any talent at all" kind of thing.
So, I'd say "tremendous" would be probably the one word I would feel most aptly describes it. I'm just really, really proud of the category and its creation, and super lucky to have been a part of it at all. Especially in the year that it comes out. I was baffled that I was nominated.
I had already felt like that rush of whoa, this amazing thing happened when I was nominated. And then winning was the next level of completely beyond what I could have ever expected.
How does the win help chart the next stage of your career?
As a songwriter, your job is to serve the artist. Your job is to serve the artist — the person who the song's for. And I think because of that, most songwriters have a very serve mentality, which generally doesn't work out well on the business side of things for you.
I think if you took all the producers in the world and took all the songwriters in the world and tried to look at which ones are more business savvy, I'd say nine times out of 10, it's probably the producers.
I think a lot of people — artists or songwriters among them — have imposter syndrome, feeling like they don't really know whether they belong there or they're just lucky or they have what it takes for the next one, even. If they know they had a good run or whatever, they're always going back to the well and praying that there's something in there.
And I think this GRAMMY is almost like having a symbol of a really good run — a really good, fertile time of creativity or something. TI think the way I see it is sort of a symbol of this period of time where I had a lot of ideas, and worked really hard, and managed to somehow win this thing, which is, for me, is huge. It means a lot.
For the songwriting community to have the award to look forward to, to have this symbol of Hey, you can be creative as a songwriter and just be a songwriter who doesn't sing and doesn't produce, and [the fact] you can get this prestigious symbol of your gifts that the world will now recognize — I think that's a wonderful thing for songwriters to have.
Take me back to the beginning of your career writing songs, either for yourself or others. The first time you really embraced this magical act of creation.
I was such a lazy songwriter for so many years because I always loved writing songs, writing songs with my friends in high school and stuff like that. But I never really wanted to play an instrument, and I never really wanted to sing them myself.
I think probably back in high school, in 1998 or '99, it was because they were joke songs. So I probably didn't want to sing them because they were inappropriate or something. I always wanted to. The beginning for me was definitely a sort of moment of hearing Tracy Chapman when I was like, Oh, this is what I'm going to do. Not be Tracy Chapman, but write songs.
From there I was really lazy and I just tried to do as little as possible, but I had this sort of confidence that I was somehow good at it. So, I would sometimes have my friends who played guitar or my friends who played piano, or whoever was around, do the music part for me, and I could just kind of pipe in and direct where I felt like my skillset was.
I started writing on piano for the first time when I was 27. That was a big moment for me where I was. I feel like I finally figured it out. It took me a long time: I still don't know how to play the piano, but I know I'm going to figure this out now.
I made a lot of mistakes along the way with bands and with albums or whatever. Things that just didn't exactly go the way [I planned them]; my gut was eventually telling me it just wasn't right. And then, when I started playing piano, it just finally all felt right, and I didn't think too much about it. I just sort of started doing it.
During that time, I unfortunately had to sing to get my album out, which was sort of a means to an end. But as soon as I was able to, I ducked away from that and started writing. Then I just had a new job. I was like I got promoted or something.
As you honed your ability and developed your craft, how did you follow that chain of connections to be able to write for who you've written for?
It's funny because Adele was the first person I worked with — [but] not in a professional way where managers and stuff like that are involved, and it's not just a friend of mine from high school or something. She was sort of my blueprint for how those things went.
I couldn't have gotten any luckier than with Adele, because her blueprint for how to do a writing session is the most pure in the game. There's nothing to hide behind. There's no producer in the room. She came to my friend's grandparents' where there are no mics; there's no studio equipment at all. There's a piano. And she just goes, "Great, let's write a song."
I don't know that that even exists much anymore. There's not even a microphone to capture what's going on, let alone one of the biggest players in the entire world doing it — just showing up, being like, "Let's write a song." And there's nothing to record her. I thought that was really cool. I'm like, "That's how I write songs. I just sit in front of a piano and just do what I think I like." And she was like, "And me too."
So, that's how we got along real great off the bat. And then from there, I would say it was just the most epic amount of failures and trial and error to figure out what the hell I was doing in every different session. I mean, I was treading water at times, and I felt like I was smoking crack sometimes, because I was so creative in a certain scenario I didn't expect to be creative in or something like that.
I think it's just this kind of learning process. There are a lot of people who are typically geared towards one style of writing. You're the country guy or you're the pop guy, or you're the ballad guy. And I could see that I was getting typecast. I was starting to get typecast, especially early on in my career because ballads, that's just the tempo that's naturally within me. It's sort of my soul tempo to just slow things down. I can write much easier in that tempo. I'll always sort of naturally progress there.
But I wanted to push the limits of that, and I wanted to figure out a way to get out of that typecast. And so I tried as quickly as I could to pick people who would be like, "Please don't play a ballad."
And when I started doing that, it was, again, trial and error. I think Niall [Horan of One Direction] was the first person I worked with who was in the pop world, and he was very much an acoustic singer. So I think that I was going into that session thinking I wanted to do upbeat pop. So I don't know — you get in the door and then you just try to acclimate yourself to the environment and help out as much as you can.
I think that's the best way to put it, because you never know what you're going to be doing. You never know what the artist is going to want from you or not want from you. A lot of the job is just figuring all that stuff out and then trying to just have fun while you're doing it. I think it's just that good energy, good attitude, and good people tend to sort of gravitate together.
How would you characterize the state of your artistic journey at this point?
I would say it feels the richest, in the sense that I'm the happiest I've been working.
I've found my rhythm — my perfect work-life balance kind of thing — so I can spend time with my son. And I think because of all of the time I've spent writing songs and how many songs come out, which is not a lot compared to how much you spend writing, you kind of learn that the relationships you make in the room are really the things that you really take out of it. It can be a lot more than, "I'm just a songwriter here to serve this artist" or whatever.
Lately, probably because of all the time I've spent doing it, I get into a room and I really want to enjoy the people. And the songs will come if we're all just being honest. We all know why we're here. We don't need that pressure in the room, and we don't need the A&R sitting in the room. We can get a song, but let's just be honest and really enjoy each other's company for a while.
And I think once that starts happening, it's way, way more fruitful in the long run. Because if you take a few days or weeks to get to know somebody, all of a sudden, your songs are deeper.
As a songwriter, your job is to point out metaphors or parallels — and things that could spark some interest in an artist's mind. And the better you get to know somebody, the more amazing the writing process can be.
That's been happening a lot in my recent sessions with Dua [Lipa] and Harry, another just amazing person. He is a great guy, but we haven't done that much writing together, but we know each other mostly through Kid Harpoon — Tom [Hull], who's the best.
I'm getting to know the people, and that's the most important part for me — I'm working with the people I want to work with. That's my journey now. I'll always work with new people, but I don't need to work with people I don't really vibe with or listen to. That's not really my interest anymore, especially if I'm in it for the right reasons. I'd say it's just more intentional, and I'm being more honest.
When you walk into a room to write with somebody, what are the first steps, or operating principles?
My operating principle is: Do I want to get to know this person, and do they want to get to know me at all, or do they just want to write a song and not want to open up?
If it's somebody who seems very open to talk, that's usually a good sign. And if not, then you just do what they want. You start writing a song and that's fine too. Sometimes there's great, catchy stuff. It's not always the deepest stuff.
Maybe they're the ones writing the lyrics, so maybe it is. But my operating principle is kind of, if I'm having a good time and everyone's having a good time, we're doing something good. We're not writing a bad song. We're just not. If we were writing a bad song in this room of professionals, we wouldn't be having a good time.
And when you're having a good time, good ideas do come. Even if they are silly at first and they're more openly accepted, and everything in the room is flowing better when those channels of enjoyment are sort of open, and everyone's laughing and having fun and dancing and being silly, that's how you get creative.
I don't know of many songwriters who are just dead serious. I've maybe met a couple. So I think my operating principle is to have a good time. That's going to be the funnest day, no matter what. It's probably going to be a better song for it if you're having fun and you like the people and they like you, and everything's going well.
Why is it crucial that the Recording Academy honor not only public-facing creators, but those behind the curtain?
I won't speak for myself as much as just the amazing people who I've worked with. You can't understand what kind of work has to go into a song. It's so funny, because it's a three-minute thing that sounds like most people can do it in an hour or something, but some of these things take months of work to get right.
I think it's really important to acknowledge everyone involved in each of the processes, because to give credit to just producers and artists, and then it's like, "Yeah, but the storytellers aren't even in the room," is like the congratulating a director and an actor, and then being like, the writer is s—. It's like, what? The movie wouldn't exist without them!
That just wouldn't happen. So, it feels like the right thing. I'm a bit overwhelmed and still a bit in disbelief, but it's snowing in LA, so miracles do happen.
What would you tell a young songwriter who wants to roll up their sleeves and do this?
I would say just be a good person and keep learning. Everyone's not perfect at the start. But if I had to give one piece of advice that was super, super important to me, is the good guys are winning in the end sometimes.
Like I said, the friendships and the artists, you don't want to come in being a d—. And I don't mean that strictly for men. I just mean whoever's coming in, you want to be a nice person. I think there's a lot of good people, and there's a lot of bad people too. You find your crew — energy finds energy.
Meet Stephanie Economou, The First-Ever GRAMMY Winner For Best Score Soundtrack For Video Games And Other Interactive Media
Photo courtesy of the artist
Bobby McFerrin Honored With Recording Academy Special Merit Award
After racking up 10 GRAMMY Awards and worldwide acclaim, McFerrin said this when the National Endowment for the Arts inducted him into its 2020 Jazz Masters class: “My pursuit of music has always been about freedom and joy.”
Whenever Bobby McFerrin sings, freedom reigns. It twists and shouts; caresses and soothes; howls and coruscates.
After racking up 10 GRAMMY Awards and worldwide acclaim, McFerrin said this when the National Endowment for the Arts inducted him into its 2020 Jazz Masters class: “My pursuit of music has always been about freedom and joy.”
The son of two incredible singers, Sara Cooper (a former vocal professor at Fullerton College) and Robert McFerrin (an operatic baritone who was the first Black American man to sing at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera), McFerrin seemed destined to become a star. He sang in church choirs while growing up in Los Angeles. He studied music at California State University at Sacramento and Cerritos College in Norwalk, California. Afterward, he played piano and organ with the Ice Follies and in pop bands. And in 1980, he toured with the iconic jazz singer, Jon Hendricks.
McFerrin was 31 years old when he released his debut LP in 1982. But his artistry sounded fresh and fully developed. He contorted his four-octave voice in an array of colors, textures and improvisational shapes, liberating the role of a jazz singer.
McFerrin’s reputation as an ingenious and fearless virtuoso grew. His 1984 sophomore LP, The Voice, marked the first time a jazz singer recorded an entire album without any accompaniment or overdubbing. In addition to showcasing marvelous interpretations of songs by James Brown and Billy Strayhorn, it also revealed McFerrin to be an engaging composer through such infectious songs as “The Jump,” and “I’m My Own Walkman.”
A year later, his guest appearance on “Another Night In Tunisia” from the Manhattan Transfer’s LP, Vocalese, earned McFerrin his first two GRAMMY Awards. The following year, he won a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male for his stunning rendition of “Round Midnight,” featuring pianist Herbie Hancock from the movie soundtrack, Round Midnight. His collaboration with Hancock also garnered McFerrin another GRAMMY win in 1987 for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male for “What Is This Thing Called Love?” from the LP, The Other Side Of Round Midnight.
For all of McFerrin’s exhilarating virtuosity, he imbues it with vast emotional range, especially humor. He can infuse his improvisations with the madcap kinetic energy of a Tom and Jerry cartoon chase scene, then pull the amorous heartstrings with a tender ballad.
Of course, the lyrics that McFerrin became most famous for are from his sanguine 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” which catapulted him into superstardom. The song won three
GRAMMY Awards — Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male.
That enormous success didn’t impede McFerrin’s flair for adventure. He brought a quixotic spark to his records and projects that broke the conventions of jazz singing. He collaborated with classical music heavyweights such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist W.A. Mathieu and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; he has created elaborate vocal choirs such as 2010’s VOCAbuLarieS with composer Roger Treece; and delved deep into the Negro spiritual canon on his enthralling 2013 album, spirityoual.
Nearly 40 years after winning his first GRAMMY, McFerrin’s continued boundless musicality is a true embodiment of artistic freedom.
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Photo courtesy of the artist
Meet Stephanie Economou, The First-Ever GRAMMY Winner For Best Score Soundtrack For Video Games And Other Interactive Media
In a victory for the video game music community, Stephanie Economou took home the first-ever GRAMMY in that brand-new category for her soundtrack to 'Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök.'
Stephanie Economou was so certain she wouldn't win a GRAMMY, that she sat near the back of the auditorium.
The video game soundtrack composer was nominated for the inaugural Best Score Soundtrack For Video Games And Other Interactive Media award for her score to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök" — a lavish expansion of the latest entry in Ubisoft's series of historically inspired action role-playing games.
"I was up against titans in the video game composing industry, so I was just happy to be nominated and happy to be there," Economou tells GRAMMY.com. But despite the heavy competition — Austin Wintory for "Aliens: Fireteam Elite," Bear McCreary for "Call of Duty Vanguard," other industry juggernauts — the golden gramophone was hers.
From rows and rows deep, Economou dashed to the stage feeling more than a little conflicted. "I was experiencing a lot of impostor syndrome," she says. "I'm still pretty new to this, and I was like, Did I earn this? Do I deserve this?"
It was Wintory, who Economou characterizes as "very, very, very well-known," who set her self-doubting mind at ease: "It's absurd to even question why you're here," he told her, from her recollection. "The music is great, and what you represent is something important."
The soundtrack to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök" isn't just high-quality; it's immersive, evocative and boundary-pushing. Taking cues from neofolk, Nordic folk and black metal, Economou employed a diverse palette of instruments — synthesizers, lap harp, viola da gamba, et al — to make the open-world RPG evermore captivating and transportive.
Economou opened up to GRAMMY.com about her creative journey through the worlds of film and TV, the manifold inspirations behind the "Dawn of Ragnarök" score, and her hope that this new GRAMMY Award will grant the video game music community the esteem it deserves.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I imagine there's a degree of aristocracy in the video game scoring community, as there is in many subcultures. If so, was there a feeling upon receiving this GRAMMY that it's giving way a tad?
Yeah, I think there was. Truly, whoever won this category, it was going to be a huge celebration, because it's such a win to even have the validation from the Recording Academy to have video games as their own thing. So, regardless of who won, it was always going to be somebody who I think has earned a level of respect in the industry.
But I do think there is something to be said potentially for the fact that: yes, I am younger, and I am slightly newer to games. Maybe that balance is shifting where people are connecting with creators who are coming at this with a different lens and have something slightly different to say.
I just think that as a composer, I represent something different from what much of this industry can be — which is not better or worse, it’s just another perspective. And sometimes people can be attracted to what that diversity can bring.
Tell me about your early inspirations and what drew you to this medium.
I grew up playing violin and piano, and I pursued in college specifically concert music. So, I didn't score my first short film until I was in college at New England Conservatory, which is a music-only school.
There was just something there that clicked with me. I loved the collaborative process, working with a filmmaker who was really challenging me to try things out of my comfort zone. I grew up loving a lot of music. I grew up loving orchestral music because it's what I was playing in school. Most of all, I grew up loving classic rock, and just the rock genre — punk, metal, things like that. So, I have a lot of different, very, very eclectic influences, which I think is what made it so exciting to write music that felt genuine to me.
But I thought that film music and scoring for media in particular offered this really rare opportunity to potentially harness all of those influences that I loved from growing up — just putting them in a blender and seeing what comes out.
Depending on the project you’re working on, too — you could be working on a period drama where you have to study baroque music, or you could be working on an Assassin’s Creed game and someone says they want to do a black metal score. That’s pretty much exactly what happened. So, I love the challenge that’s built into this work.
Stephanie Economou. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Tell me how your career ramped up to "Assassin's Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarök." What games did you work on prior to this title?
I mainly just worked in film and TV. Video games are still a pretty new thing for me.
But when I moved out to LA to start working in the industry, I got pretty lucky and ended up working for a composer named Harry Gregson-Williams, who is very well-known and respected. He composed for Shrek and Chicken Run and The Equalizer and Mulan, and had a bunch of huge, really different films.
So, I cut my teeth with him for six years and was writing on his scores and just being a part of his team, and that's pretty much where I learned everything. I got my credits writing additional music on his projects.
And when I went out on my own, I was looking to get offered a Netflix TV series called "Jupiter's Legacy," which I think was a big catalyst for making an imprint with Netflix in particular, and with other people who really enjoyed that show.
From there, I've been doing lots of different work — documentary work, feature films, animations, a lot of different stuff. I instantly forget every single project I've ever done when anybody asks me this question, but there are lots of things that were propelled forward.
And then, Ubisoft called and said they were looking for a composer they hadn't worked with before — someone who didn't necessarily have game experience — and they asked someone to demo for this DLC [downloadable content] for "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" called "The Siege of Paris." That was my first intro to video game music.
So, I demoed for that, I got that job, and then the following expansion was "Dawn of Ragnarök," so they asked me if I could do that one.
What are some of the specific procedures involved in scoring a video game? What mental space do you need to occupy to write music for games as opposed to the other mediums you've worked in?
In film and TV, those stories are fixed. So, even though they might be editing throughout the time you're writing the music, they're still linear. Video games are nonlinear and interactive with the player, so the music is very alive. It's almost communicating with the player as they're going through the story.
When you're composing the music for something like that, you're kind of designing it as well. So, you need to have an awareness of: OK, even though this track is three minutes long, the player could be in this space for an hour.
Or they could happen upon a danger or tension area, and you need to design layers on top of a base layer that could be triggered at any moment, that can give them that rush or feeling of uneasiness. And then you could have a fight break out, and it's all sort of modular building blocks.
But the biggest challenge that comes with something like that where there are so many moving parts musically, is that you still need to make sure that it's not just the same thing looping over and over again.
The music needs to have shape and a theme, and it can have harmony and modulate, and each of the layers can play with the rudiments of tempo. You can play with double time and half time and triplets and subdivisions that can play into that intensity, but in a very carefully designed way.
So, there are a lot of levels of awareness that need to go into composing something that is interactive and nonlinear, which I think is a really fun challenge. But coming into games and being newer to it, there was a steeper learning curve.
I think that's the challenge with it — making a piece feel really musical and gripping, but being able to do all of those very specific technical things at the same time.
How would you characterize your personal stamp on whatever score you create?
I'm truly bad at recognizing what I think my signature is, because I think it's ever-evolving. But I do think that I try to bring an edge, or something a little bit risk-taking, into all of the music that I make.
I really don't like the idea of writing the same cue more than once, even though sometimes that's what we have to do for the job. I really like the idea that not one of my scores sounds like another one. That's not specific, but process-wise, I get excited by projects that can allow me to do something I haven't done before.
I feel like the space of video games is especially encouraging for taking those kinds of risks, and working with Ubisoft, that's definitely what they were doing. At every turn, they were like, Push it further, get more experimental, get less expected. And I love that. I love playing with the expectation of the listener and redefining what people consider to be game music.
Tell me more about how you incorporated the building blocks of black metal in the "Assassin's Creed Valhalla" score — grainy production, tremolo picking, a symphonic sweep.
The black-metal thing came as a suggestion from one of the game developers very, very early in the process. I love metal music, but I had never studied the black-metal subgenre in particular. So, I looked into that stuff.
My first protocol was finding musicians who were really well-versed in that. I found this band called Wilderun; Wayne Ingram is the lead guitarist. He was one of the biggest collaborators on this project, and he introduced me to Heilung and Wolves in the Throne Room and all these amazing black-metal and neo-folk bands.
"Assassin's Creed Valhalla" also has this Nordic folk influence, which is something I wanted to tie into "Dawn of Ragnarok." There's actually a lot of musical overlap, I would say, between Nordic folk and black-metal. Even if it's coming from a rustic, primitive way, it's very cinematic. You can have these symphonic sorts of influences with distorted guitars and really punchy drums and blast beats and growly vocals and stuff.
So, it all ends up tying together, but getting the right temperature for each of the stylistic influences was a challenge. So, dialing in that black metal and some of those performances from the soloist… it wasn't hard, but it was definitely something that I had to pay very close attention to [in order] to make sure that I was really nailing it.
It was super fun. I never thought I was going to be able to write a black-metal influenced score, but the best part of it was being able to collaborate with these musicians. It was just a really amazing, fruitful experience.
Tell me about your other collaborators on this soundtrack.
Ari Mason is another one of the soloists. She was a vocalist and played viola da gamba on the score too. She put off this really fresh Nordic folk, neofolk energy to the whole score, which was really amazing.
I got a tagelharpa, which was really, really difficult to play, but cool to just gather. I tend to collect instruments based on the project that I'm working on. So, I recorded on that and experimented with a lap harp, which was really fun, and then recorded with a bunch of different string instruments.
And then, we put some synths in there, because, as you probably know too, black metal and neofolk, it's very uniquely ambient and textural as well, So even though there can be these big black-metal moments, there's a lot of heavily curated ambience and textural stuff going on in there too.
That's the most fun stuff for me. That's something that I feel like lives in most of my music, regardless of the style.
Prior to your black-metal immersion, what are some other formative influences that made their way into your work?
So, I grew up listening to System of a Down, and Toxicity is probably still one of my favorite albums of all time. I listen to it [chuckles] a lot. I do feel like there were some times when it was tipping more into System of a Down, and Ubisoft was like, "I think we're departing a little too far from black metal!"
Pink Floyd is probably my favorite band of all time, and Animals is my favorite album. There's things in that music where I can look back at my own music and say, "Oh wow, there's something in there that does remind me a bit of Animals," or a bit of this, a bit of that. I used to listen to Blink-182 and stuff from my childhood that brings me a lot of joy still. And then newer stuff like Patrick Watson and Father John Misty.
I try to just listen to new music whenever I can — which, truth be told, I struggled with for a long time, because working in music and doing music all day, sometimes you just feel really inundated and don't want to listen to anything else.
So, I sort of struggled with that for a while. But now, every morning, I come into the studio and go on YouTube and just listen to different things that I have never heard of before, and I think that's a really inspiring way to start the day.
Stephanie Economou. Photo: Claus Morgenstern
With this GRAMMY in hand, where do you want to creatively venture next?
I would just love to keep working with these amazing creators in the video game space and keep doing more film and TV projects. I always strive to work with storytellers who are saying something different and being innovative, and people who are going to want music that opens a different dimension for the viewer and the audience.
I do feel like games are the most direct way into that world for listeners. I think it's all art, really.
Can you talk about the subculture of video game scorers, positive or negative? What would you do to change it if you could?
I think we've all read about how some of these video game companies can be very toxic working environments, and in particular for women. I have to say that my experience as a woman composer in the video game music space is that I have only been supported by these game companies, and it's been a really lovely, encouraging space to make music. Then, I would say the video game composing community is really great too.
I really appreciate this community of composers. We're all just putting our heads down and doing the work. But ultimately, I think that the amount of diverse voices in video games is a bigger population as compared to film and TV. I think game companies are more apt to hire women composers, and video game composers are super-accepting and a generally diverse group of people.
I'm really lucky to be here, and I've only felt support from my fellow artists in this world. So, I would say all good stuff, but maybe ask me in 10 years and I'll have some more stories.
With the initiation of this GRAMMY category, do you feel like the video game music world might get more of the respect that it deserves?
I'd f—ing hope so, man. It's so crazy that it did take this long to recognize video game music on its own.
There are some people I talk to who aren't really even gamers or don't really understand how exciting the video game medium is. They're like, "Oh, wow, it's really a sign of the times that video game music is being recognized." It's like, we've been here for decades.
I think it's well overdue, especially because gamers really, really listen to this music. I grew up gaming and I still do now, and there's something about hearing those scores that I grew up with from these games; it elicits this very visceral memory. It sets you in a place and time and it's a very deep-seated thing.
I love film soundtracks too, but I don't get that same overwhelming thrill when I listen to the music for a film soundtrack as I do for a game soundtrack. If I hear the theme for "Halo," it's like I'm overcome, and I think there's something to be said for that.
I think people who live in these narratives in video games really want to listen to the music again and re-experience the excitement of that story just by listening to the soundtrack alone. It defines this little slice of time that they enjoyed this game and fought through it. It's just a really special experience.
So, I think it's well-timed that game music is recognized, because it really does offer this emotionally connecting experience for the audience.
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Photo: JC Olivera/WireImage via Getty Images
Samara Joy Won Best New Artist At The 2023 GRAMMYs. What Could It Mean For The Wider Jazz Community?
The jazz-vocal phenom won big at the 2023 GRAMMYs, including a golden gramophone for Best New Artist. This could have a dramatic effect on an essential and primary yet too-often marginalized genre.
When young jazz luminary Samara Joy accepted a golden gramophone for Best New Artist at the 2023 GRAMMYs, the sequence of expressions that flitted across her visage seemed to cover the entire spectrum of feeling.
The 23-year-old vocalist born Samara Joy McLendon had already won a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Vocal Album at the Premiere Ceremony, for her acclaimed second album and Verve debut, Linger Awhile. This win during the CBS telecast was an entirely different beast.
The artist who just a few years ago had been a promising undergrad and audibly nervous on the phone now stood onstage at the Crypto.com arena before global megastars from Taylor Swift to Lizzo to Adele — not to mention 12.55 million people at home.
Speaking to GRAMMY.com in its wake, Joy likened the experience to living "in a parallel universe or a movie."
"I'm still in shock and disbelief because I truly didn't think that I would be in the position to receive such an honor," Joy said of the Best New Artist win, where she forged ahead of fellow nominees like Brazilian star Anitta, genre-blending singer/songwriter Omar Apollo, British indie oddballs Wet Leg, and her fellow rising jazzers DOMi & JD Beck.
"I am, however, grateful for the honor, because it reassures me of the fact that I want to continue pursuing music and growth as a musician," Joy continued. "This signifies the beginning of a musical journey that I'm nervous but excited to embark on."
While Joy's post-show comments focused on her continued development as an artist, the effect of her win quickly became conspicuous. Less than two weeks after the Feb. 5 ceremony, she appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" to perform the recitative standard and Linger Awhile cut "Guess Who I Saw Today."
But it's worth considering what this General Field win means not only for Joy, but the jazz community writ large. Like other genres that appear deeper down the GRAMMY nominees list — from classical to reggae to spoken word — jazz can be treated as a little niche, partitioned off into a corner of the music landscape. Even the most heralded rising talents seldom rocket to celebrity status.
It's only once in a while that jazz completely and utterly perforates the mainstream — like in 2020, when Pixar's Soul was released, featuring consulting work from real-deal musicians from deep in the NYC scene, like Jon Batiste and Terri Lyne Carrington.
Some of these breakthroughs have happened at the GRAMMYs. In 2003, the charismatic and versatile Norah Jones swept the General Field, winning GRAMMYs for Best New Artist, Album Of The Year (for Come Away With Me) and Record Of The Year (for "Don't Know Why"), on top of wins for Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Pop Vocal Performance.
Five years later, Herbie Hancock — one of the most brilliant harmonic thinkers of the 20th century, and 21st — won Album Of The Year for River: The Joni Letters, his tribute to his old collaborator and fellow game-changing genius Joni Mitchell. In that category, the album beat out Kanye West's Graduation and Amy Winehouse's Back to Black.
In 2011, bassist, composer and vocalist Esperanza Spalding won Best New Artist and has been a steady presence at the GRAMMYs ever since, winning right up to the 2022 GRAMMYs (Best Jazz Vocal Album, for SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB) and landing a nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for her work with Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Leo Genovese on that year's Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival.
Additionally, at the 2022 GRAMMYs, Lady Gaga paid tribute to her collaborator, Tony Bennett, with a performance of "Love for Sale" and "Do I Love You" — both from their final duets album, which won Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album at that year's ceremony. (Previously, their album Cheek to Cheek won in the same category, at the 2015 GRAMMYs.)
On top of all that, other crossover artists with jazz connections, from Jacob Collier to Robert Glasper to Thundercat, have made big splashes at Music’s Biggest Night.
Despite operating under the "jazz" umbrella, all these artists are wildly divergent in almost every possible way. Joy is connected to a jazz-vocal tradition that snakes way back in history, back to when her heroes like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae were dropping jaws.
"I'm overjoyed at Samara's success. But not surprised," Lisa Goich-Andreadis, the Director of Awards and Jazz Genre Manager at the Recording Academy, tells GRAMMY.com. "The first time I heard her voice, I couldn't believe that it was coming out of a 22-year-old. It has the richness and depth of the legends that came before her. She channels something out of another era. Her rise is well-deserved."
What makes Joy fresh is that it's her doing this music, channeling it through her vibrant abilities and irresistibly vivacious spirit. There are a lot of singers doing standards, but there's only one Joy.
"She f—ing deserves it, man," pianist Geoffrey Keezer, who took home a GRAMMY for Best Instrumental Composition at the same ceremony, tells GRAMMY.com. "She can sing her butt off, and I don't know her personally, but from everything I see, she seems like a really nice person, and really humble and down-to-earth. I think it's fantastic."
Keezer sees Joy's triumph at the 2023 GRAMMYs as a reminder, loud and clear, that jazz is no antiquated or peripheral artform. Rather, it is a vibrant and alive genre very much in the now.
"The whole umbrella genre is Black American Music, and jazz is the branch of it that has a swing beat," he explains. "So, it's just as current and relevant as anything else. There's all these different branches of the same tree. When the one that swings wins, it's just nice to have that recognized as: Yes, we're still here. This is still part of it, and it's important, and it's where it all came from."
To Goich-Andreadis, Joy's win is significant because it shows that she's being noticed by a wide audience far afield from the jazz community — including that of such esteem as the pre-GRAMMYs MusiCares Persons Of The Year event, which honored Motown titans Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.
"She received a rousing standing ovation by the crowd, with honorees Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson leading the way," Goich-Andreadis remembers of her performance. "It's great to see a representative from this genre touching so many with her talent."
Keezer views Joy's ascent as part of a greater mass of acknowledgement, including that of Spalding, Hancock, and five-time GRAMMY winner Billy Childs — a rising tide that lifts all boats. "I think cumulatively, it opens doors," he says. "It gives the general public, I almost want to say, permission to like this music and think it's cool.
"Audiences are smart, man. People want to hear good musicianship," he continues. "You watch the Olympics to see Simone Biles, or tennis to see Serena Williams, or whatever. You want to see human excellence in real time, in front of your eyes. So, that's what we're seeing with Samara Joy. She's the real deal, and she's doing it right in front of you with no gimmickry and no Auto-Tune."
As to the wider impact of her big wins, Joy can't prognosticate. She only hopes to move the needle.
"I hope that this win means that jazz musicians will be paid a bit more attention and respect for their contributions to music as a whole," Joy says. "It really is a wonderful community that deserves some more shine than it's been given. It's a small step but a step nonetheless."
No matter what happens, perhaps the essence of this victory is simply that the flame is proudly preserved and bore by a worthy ambassador. "Samara is carrying on this very treasured and important musical tradition," Goich-Andreadis says. "Jazz is America's gift to the world."
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