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.
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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.
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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."
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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.
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