The Grammys First Black CEO Faces the Music

After a spate of controversial nominations, diversity struggles, and a boycott lead by the Weeknd, Harvey Mason Jr., the newly installed chief of the Recording Academy, vows that big changes are ahead

Harvey Mason Jr.’s life is jazz: free-form, inventive, cool. He wrote his first recorded song, for Grover Washington Jr., at the age of eight and grew up hanging in Los Angeles’ recording studios with his drummer father. As a producer, he’s worked with Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, and Elton John. Now, Mason, 53, is charged with rebooting the Grammy Awards, which have been beset this year by the controversial nominations of Louis CK and Marilyn Manson, which Mason defended. Both those nods coming just a year after the Weeknd’s 2021 boycott of the Grammys, following previous high profile rebukes of the awards from Drake, Kanye West and Frank Ocean. The 64th Grammys, on April 3, will serve as a preview of Mason’s long-term plans to remake the ceremony into a more diverse endeavor.

What influenced you to accept the role as the academy’s CEO?

My motivation for doing it is the creative community and the people that we represent. Those are my peers. A lot of organizations might have somebody in the CEO role who came from the legal department or some other offshoot of what the business does. So when I put on my CEO hat, I’m looking at things through the lens of our community and how I can best represent music people.

You’re the academy’s first Black CEO. Has that affected your agenda for the organization?

I think it’s imperative to be inclusive and to get the perspectives of all people. I was fortunate enough to get Valeisha Butterfield Jones to come work with us as our first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, and she has made such a difference. So I’m hopeful. I’m also acknowledging that there’s still a long way to go, both inside our organization and within the industry at large.

What’s changed since you took over?

The leadership structure of the academy looks very different now. We really wanted to be able to move with a new sense of urgency and speed. A lot of times in the past, the academy has been very reactive. We’ve taken years to get some things to change that might have been in the best interests of the academy or the industry. And I’m proud of the new organization and the entire staff at the academy because we are moving with a bias for action.

What’s the one thing that people don’t know about the academy?

A lot of people don’t understand that we do all the work we do to put on a Grammy show, right? We get paid by Viacom and CBS, and all the money that we make goes directly back into music, community advocacy, education, the [Grammy] museum, or MusiCares, our safety net for musicians.

The pandemic is a reminder that hard times often inspire great music.

I know the power that music has, especially in times of crisis, to bring people together and raise awareness. With MusiCares, we gave away almost $30 million in 2021 to music people who needed help.

Who in the industry most influenced your career?

Quincy Jones was a big influence for me. I always admired how he had a long career and gets such respect, and was able to work across genre lines. That’s something I aspired to do. And, of course, my father, Harvey Mason Sr.

What was it like working with legends like Aretha Franklin and Elton John?

Growing up listening to so many amazing artists, and then getting the chance to walk into a studio and see them on a microphone, all these people that I just idolized—I used to have a lot of hair, and it all got blown off by those experiences.

What’s on deck for the academy in 2022?

I hope that by the 65th [Grammys] you’ll see improvements to the mechanisms that we use to select our nominees, and continued outreach to the artist community. I also think we’ll see an opportunity for the academy to enter into partnerships to do more good with music and more good for music people. That’s our goal.

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