When last year's Brit awards failed to nominate a single black artist in any major category, there was a chorus of outrage. Laura Mvula threatened a boycott, the hashtag #BritsSoWhite went viral and Stormzy took aim in his track One Take Freestyle, calling them "embarrassing".
The failure to notice and reward talent in minority artists was the latest in a wave of film and music awards to cause outrage by ignoring non-white entrants. But this could all be about to change, with the organisers of the Brits announcing the biggest ever shakeup of the 1,000 members who make up their voting academy.
In an effort to make the academy both more gender balanced and more diverse, more than 700 new members will be invited and the 70 per cent male and 30 per cent female makeup of previous years will shift to become 52 per cent male and 48 per cent female.
They will also be 17 per cent from black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds, making it the most diverse voting academy in Brits history.
Ged Doherty, the chairman of the British Phonographic Industry, which oversees the Brits, said that since he had taken on the role two years ago he had wanted to "shake up" the academy but admitted that criticism by figures such as Stormzy last year had speeded up the process.
The musician, who had been named best grime artist at the 2014 and 2015 Mobos and was on the BBC’s Sound of 2015 list, was ignored by the Brit nominations and tweeted his frustration.
He said later: “It was such a great year for grime and underground music. I thought maybe this year it might get celebrated. You know when you’ve got that little bit of hope and that little bit of faith and then they didn’t. It’s just a matter of breaking the doors down and carrying on.”
Doherty admitted that Stormzy’s comments had been “a catalyst to get a move on with it faster”.
“I knew it was something we needed to address,” he said. “Our survey of the academy showed it was older than we wanted and was leaning 70-30 in favour of men.
“So when I met Stormzy I thanked him for speaking out, because if I’m being honest we weren’t being as quick as I would have liked and this gave us all a kick to get on with it.”
In an open letter to the Guardian last year, Doherty admitted there had been “an elephant in the room” at the Brit awards and said he “suspected” the current members of the voting academy were “largely white and with a bias towards older men”.
To oversee the shakeup, Doherty appointed a 25-person panel of black and Asian figures from across urban and grime music, as well as DJs and producers – co-chaired by Paulette Long OBE and Kwame Kwate – who met on a monthly basis to discuss the academy's voting structures, makeup and even award categories.
The Brits voting academy is broken down into different sections of the industry, from musicians and producers to labels and publishers, and each year the head of each category recommends new members. This year, the BPI stipulated that the lists had to be 50-50 male and female and a minimum 15 per cent black, Asian, and minority ethnic.
Doherty said that this had been successful in some categories but had also been met with resistance in some quarters. In areas such as music producers, which are still very male dominated, it had proved particularly difficult to find enough women to put forward.
“There are a lot of people used to doing things in a certain way and we’ve had to rattle a few cages to make sure that people came back with that mix of people,” he said. “It was difficult in some areas – producers for example tend to be male, so I think that was the category that struggled the most, but we kept going back to people.”
Doherty said he had also made personal phone calls to his peers within the industry – “how can I put this diplomatically, old white men” – who had been among the voting academy for years, asking if they could step aside to make way for a new generation of members.
He added: “A lot of my peers, when they heard about what we were doing, emailed me to say they wanted to be taken off to make way for someone new.”
Doherty said he had “no idea” whether the shakeup of the academy would have a noticeable impact on the artists nominated. He also stressed that the Brits were still a celebration of commercially successful music, and that while genres such as grime had been well known within the music industry for over a decade, it had only achieved mainstream chart success over the past year. In order for music to be nominated for a Brit award, it still must have charted in the top 40 that year.
The decision by the Brits to be proactive about diversity is also reflective of a wider push for change across the music industry. UK Music, the umbrella organisation under which BPI operates, has just issued its first diversity survey across all areas of the industry.
The move won applause from Kanya King, founder of the Mobo awards, who said: “I am delighted, congratulate and thank the BPI for responding to feedback and improving diversity on their Brit awards voting panel. This is a really positive move forward.
“I founded Mobo 21 years ago in order to raise awareness of the imbalance within the music industry, so applaud any move to create broader platforms and level the playing field so that more talent can shine through.”
It is also sure to appease musicians such as Mvula, who last year spoke about how she did not want to attend the ceremony because she was not sure what it would achieve.
Mvula said: “I guess the problem for me is knowing that there are young black kids growing up feeling that they’re not acknowledged in society, in media and in mainstream music.” – (Guardian Service)