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Hip-Hop, Gender And The Problem With Big Names: We Unpack The Boston Music Award Nominees

(Courtesy Ben Stas/Redefined)
(Courtesy Ben Stas/Redefined)
This article is more than 4 years old.

The Boston Music Awards are 31 years old. A lot has changed since they debuted in 1987, when Aimee Mann’s melancholy new wave outfit ‘Til Tuesday took home Act of the Year. Bobby Brown was crowned king in 1989, John Mayer in 2003. The ska category came and went, alternative rock happened, the Dropkick Murphys happened and kept happening and the Dresden Dolls exploded and dissipated, leaving only Amanda Palmer and her ornately penned eyebrows in their wake. Aerosmith was dubbed Boston’s best rock band for eight consecutive years starting in 1987 and never completely went away, an enduring reminder of Boston’s idea about itself — as a city with grit, and white guys with guitars, and Rock with a capital “R.”

At some point the BMAs began to face criticism for being insular and out of touch, nominating the same tired old acts year after year. In 2015, under new leadership, the awards dramatically increased the size of the nominating committee, with the aim of shaking things up. Its organizers continue to tinker with the format of the awards — this year, for instance, they merged Male and Female Vocalist of the Year into one gender-neutral category. The public can vote online through Nov. 4, with public votes weighted equally to committee votes, and the winners will be announced at a ceremony on Dec. 12 at the House of Blues in Boston.

Fans of Boston music always have a lot of feelings about the nominations, and we at The ARTery do, too. Arts fellow Arielle Gray and I sat down to discuss our reactions to this year’s crop of Boston Music Awards nominees (which include both of us, as well as The ARTery, in the music journalism field). Read an edited version of that conversation, and listen to some of our favorite nominees, below.

— Amelia Mason, reporter and critic

Amelia Mason: The nominations for this year’s Boston Music Awards were announced a few weeks ago. We’ve had some time to digest them — but I’m curious, what was your initial reaction to this crop of nominees?

Arielle Gray: I think my initial reaction was, “Wow there are a lot of categories and there are a lot of people nominated” — which is a good thing.

Mason: There definitely are more nominees per category than in the past. The precise numbers have varied over the years, but this is the first time there have been 10 nominees in each field.

The first thing I noticed was that the majority of nominees in the Artist of the Year category were hip-hop artists. That’s never happened before. But in recent years, the number has been growing.

Gray: Exactly, there are six hip-hop artists on that list, so that’s more than half. It's gone up over the years, which I think is dope, and I think it’s a testament to the far-reaching influences of hip-hop and how it's really grown as a genre in the past couple of years to become this global phenomenon.

Mason: I agree. It definitely reflects the fact that hip-hop/R&B overtook rock as the most consumed music genre last year in America.

Gray: The one thing I didn’t understand was Joyner Lucas being on the list. He is from Worcester, so he does rep Boston and New England to a certain extent. And he’s the first artist from around here to blow up in the way he has in a while. He’s signed to a major label and he has a huge fanbase.

When it comes to his music video “I’m Not Racist,” I can see why people may think that the video is important enough to be nominated for Music Video of the Year. The video is set up as a conversation between a white and Black man, debating racism in America. However, what ends up happening is that the Black man, in his attempt to refute the white man’s opinions on race, ends up reinforcing negative, harmful and straight-up false narratives about Black people. Because of this, the video was problematic for a lot of folks.

Mason: But as you said, Joyner Lucas is very popular, he's from Worcester and that song was really big. Do you think he could take home a BMA?

Gray: On top of Video of the Year, Lucas was also nominated for Hip-Hop Artist of the Year, Artist of the Year and Song of the Year. So that's four nominations and four different categories, which gives him a pretty good chance of winning one of those.

To me, Joyner Lucas is not a true representation of Boston hip-hop right now. I don't feel like he has an overt connection to the city. In addition to that, he hasn’t really done any shows here recently, nor is he based here anymore. I think his last show here was in June. And we can’t forget the controversy that ensued when Lucas asserted that Boston doesn’t have a supportive music scene, which is true in many cases, but it felt like a slap in the face to Boston hip-hop, so it’s strange to see the city honoring him this way. For him to be nominated in so many different categories and to get additional recognition and spotlight, when he already has it, seems redundant to me. I think the point should really be to uplift artists who are still in the city, who are trying to transform it into something sustainable for music culture. I think the BMAs mean a lot more to them than it does to Joyner Lucas.

"I think the point should really be to uplift artists who are still in the city, who are trying to transform it into something sustainable for music culture."

Arielle Gray

Mason: The BMAs, as far as I can tell, have always struggled with this problem: Are we interested in celebrating regional excellence or national success? Do the BMAs exist to spotlight emerging artists, or to tout the talent the city has already produced? When the awards started out, they seemed to lean more toward the latter. In 1989, for instance, the BMAs bestowed four awards on the Boston-born Bobby Brown, of New Edition fame, who was already a massive star.

Even then, the organizers of the awards seemed to anticipate that they might have a problem with celebrities overshadowing locals — my guess is that’s why they separated major and indie labels in some of categories that year.

Of course, you could argue that Boston was simply a bigger producer of national talent at that point. Tracy Chapman took home three BMAs and three Grammys for 1988’s “Tracy Chapman,” not long after she graduated from Tufts. As a breakout star with strong local ties her inclusion in the 1989 BMAs seems fitting. But I’m not sure Boston is producing artists with that level of success anymore, partly because the music industry has changed a lot since then. The fact that Aerosmith lost Rock Artist of the Year to Deer Tick in 2013 makes me wonder if people are viewing the BMAs differently these days. Maybe they recognize that Boston’s significance on the national stage has shifted, and see more value in lifting up smaller acts. Or maybe they just don’t think it’s worth giving a Boston Music Award to someone more closely associated with Hollywood than Boston.

Gray: At the same time, including “bigger” or more famous artists may be a tactic to help legitimize the platform and add this cultural clout to the BMAs. Seeing these big names in the categories gets people excited and I think it also fires up the other artists who’ve been nominated in those same categories. But I think it’s a slippery slope. It’s a weird line that the BMAs are walking, of using big names for legitimacy and at the same time trying to support local artists.

Mason: One thing that has changed tangibly in recent years is the nominating committee. In 2015, the BMAs came under new ownership and began accepting new voters, nearly doubling the size of the committee, which now has roughly 400 members. (Applications are closed, but the process for joining will open back up in 2019.) The idea was to make the BMAs more accurately reflect the Boston music scene. I’m curious — when you look at the nominations this year, do you feel they are representative of what’s happening in Boston music now?

Gray: I do feel like it is representative of what's happening in Boston music. There are definitely a lot of names that were nominated that I expected to see, just because I know that there are so many people who follow them and their music. I do think that it reflects on the nature of the committee and opening it up to more people, giving more people a chance to express their opinions on the local music scene. Maybe it's too early to really make that connection, but to me that's what the list of nominations this year looks like.

Mason: I do think it’s a little harder to impact the fields that have a more niche appeal, like international and jazz. Since fans and committee members alike can vote in all categories, the more obscure ones are more susceptible to the problem of favoring big names over local talent.

Gray: The other thing I wanted to talk about was the removal of the Male/Female Vocalist category — I think it’s very promising, especially for queer, trans or non-binary folks who may feel like binary categories are limiting or harmful. So now, instead of it being structured as “male” or “female,” there’s just one category with nominees from all gender expressions. I just hope to continue to see more of that in other spaces.

Mason: When they first announced the change I worried that the strategy could backfire, that men might be overly represented among the nominees. To draw a comparison with theater and film, actor and actress awards remain separate because there are so many fewer roles for women than for men. But I don't think I needed to worry. The Vocalist of the Year category has a better gender balance than, say, Artist of the Year.

I’m pleased to see women and nonbinary hip-hop artists represented so well among the nominees. It seems to me that women and trans rappers are more visible here in Boston these days. What do you think?

"I think it’s that way because queer and trans folk had to really make a space for themselves and force the industry to begin including them in these conversations about music."

Arielle Gray

Gray: I don't know how I feel about that. Do I think representation for LGBTQIA artists is more apparent this year? Most definitely. But I think it’s that way because queer and trans folk had to really make a space for themselves and force the industry to begin including them in these conversations about music. The nominations are a reflection of this creation of space, in hip-hop specifically, in the Boston area.

Mason: That’s a good point. Going back to something we touched on earlier: I’m of two minds when it comes to the categories expanding to include 10 nominations each. I think there’s more danger that votes will get split between artists with shared fan bases.

But then I go back to the question that has always haunted the BMAs: What’s the real purpose of the awards? If they exist to celebrate local and emerging talent, then I think more nominees serves the community better. With more names on the ballot, the better the Boston music scene is represented, and the more artists benefit.

Gray: Seeing all of the excitement that these artists have displayed over their nominations alone is a testament to how important things like this really are. In a way, I feel like the nominations are more important than who actually wins the category. At this point all of the artists nominated feel like, "Hey I'm being seen, I'm being recognized for all of this work that I'm doing." So in that regard, I don't think winning is necessarily the big deal here. The nominations themselves, and ensuing joy that I've seen, has been the big deal.

Ahead of the award ceremony, we prepared playlists of our favorites from among this year's nominees.

Amelia Mason's picks (on Spotify):

Arielle Gray's favorites (on SoundCloud):


Amelia Mason Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.


Arielle Gray Reporter
Arielle Gray is a reporter for WBUR.



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