There is a lot of disagreement—some of it nasty—about the Hawaiian Grammy, which died a sad and relatively quiet death last week after an ill-fated seven-year run. But almost everyone agrees on one thing: the award was a squandered opportunity.
On the protracted scale of island time, the Best Hawaiian Music Album Award ended before it began. But it came and went in a crescendo of controversy, revealing some ugly truths about the music industry—both on the Mainland and here at home. It was a chance to honor legends in a mostly misunderstood genre and elevate Hawaiian music to international notoriety.
Instead, an inherently flawed system—and the artists who knew how to manipulate it—combined with local voter apathy to kill the category and strike a resoundingly sour chord. All we’re left with is postmortem lamentations for a Grammy that never really was.
So what happened? How did something with so much potential go so terribly wrong? And who deserves the blame?
Our coveted, colonized archipelago’s inharmonious history is no secret—at least, not here in Hawaii. And not unlike the igneous isles themselves, our host culture has been razed by regenerative fire. From the ashes of a fragmented people, in the 1970s the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance was born.
In the decades following this resurgence of Hawaiian language and art—helmed by heroes like George Na‘ope, Gabby Pahinui, the Beamer ‘ohana and Ka‘apana brother, among others—Hawaiian identity has been on a path of radical redefinition. And Hawaiian music has been the heartbeat.
With this rebirth came a desire for national and international recognition, and so the lobbying for the Hawaiian Grammy began. “When you get to the Grammys, it’s a whole new level,” says Dennis Kamakahi, who contributed to three Grammy-winning slack-key compilation albums between 2007 and 2009.
After years of petitioning, in 2004 Hawaiian music was exhumed from the Grammys’ World Music Field and became a stand-alone category.
Finally, it seemed, this long overlooked genre—and its eligible legends—would be given their due. And, generally, the ballots were filled with the right names: Ledward Ka‘apana, Keali‘i Reichel, Kapono Beamer and the Brothers Cazimero.
But in the seven years since the category’s inception, the local industry has progressively been wrenched apart over who has and hasn’t won—and why. Just as the infighting reached its pitch, the fat lady sang.
Last week, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the presenter of the Grammys, announced a massive restructuring—the largest in the organization’s history. Most notably, the academy whittled its 109 categories to just 78. The Best Hawaiian Music Album award was among those on the chopping block. (Technically it will be absorbed into the Best Regional Roots Music Album category, and compete alongside Native American and Cajun/Zydeco music.)
The decision “was almost exclusively about the [low] number of submissions when it came to the Hawaiian music category,” says Bill Freimuth, NARAS’s vice president of awards.
Kamakahi sees it as a slap in the face. “It’s telling us Hawaiian musicians that if you don’t have a market as big as pop, rock and the rest of it, then they’re not going to bother with you. It’s like saying, ‘OK, all you ethnic music, you guys fight it out.’ But it’s all different. There’s no real similarity, so how are you going to gauge it?”
Others are more resigned. “With the industry [at large] having changed so radically, it doesn’t surprise me,” says five-time nominee Amy Hanaiali’i of the overhaul.
Multiple award-winner George Kahumoku Jr. and Hanaiali’i’s brother, Eric Gilliom, concur that the end of the Hawaiian Grammy was easy to forsee.
“I’ve had conversations with quite a few members of the Hawaiian music community over the last few years expressing their concerns, [which] were fairly wide-ranging,” says Freimuth. “There were concerns that not enough members of their community had joined the recording academy who were eligible to do so, despite efforts in that area not only by the recording academy itself but by members of the Hawaiian music community.”
To qualify as a voting member, an artist must have “received technical or creative credit in any one qualifying category” on at least six tracks for traditional commercial distribution or 12 tracks for digital distribution in the United States, plus pay a membership fee that ranges from $100 for one year of to $420 for five years.
Hanaiali’i, Gilliom, Kahumoku and Kamakahi all say that the fees alone have been a deterrent. Kahumoku suggests this could easily be remedied with a benefit concert for and by musicians who often are continually playing for other causes. The money raised, he envisions, would go toward paying for automatic NARAS membership, coupled with entry into the Hawaii Academy of Recording Artists (HARA, presenter of the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards), in which several thousand local artists are already active.
NARAS’s restructuring has also resulted in changes to voting rules. All members can still vote in the general field (i.e. Record of The Year, Album of The Year, Song of The Year and Best New Artist), but whereas members were previously restricted to final-ballot voting in just eight fields (regardless of the number of categories within), members now can vote in up to 20 categories from any field.
When asked if he’s still a voting member, Gilliom says, “I bailed on it this year. I knew where it was going.” But he adds that from the beginning, “I’ve been very vocal about this, out on the front lines. It’s not because my sister was nominated and didn’t win—it had nothing to do with that. I’ve been a voting member for seven years; I had a vested interest in seeing the category flourish as a whole, but there were so many loopholes in the process.”
‘HO’ BRAH, NO ACT
The loophole ringleader is Daniel Ho, and the Bonnie to his Clyde is actress/singer Tia Carrere. Between the two of them, they hold six of the seven Best Hawaiian Music Album awards.
Both Carrere and Ho are Hawaii-born, but they’ve spent their careers in Los Angeles. Kamakahi says Carrere and Ho’s wins are “the result of name recognition.” And many say their music itself isn’t even credibly Hawaiian.
“We got highjacked,” says Gilliom plainly. “The Hawaiian music category got highjacked. Daniel Ho had no business doing what he did. For [him], it was like taking candy from a baby.”
Gilliom says Ho “figured out the system” and maintained “a calculated, manipulative hold on the process.” He adds that the first couple wins were one thing, but that when Ho continued to claim the prize every year over other, more locally respected performers, that’s when people’s hackles were raised. “Daniel could have done the right thing and stepped out of the category for a year,” says Gilliom. “If you think you’re winning on your merits, step out for a year and see what happens.”
“And by the way,” Gilliom adds, “[Daniel’s] not related to Don Ho. I can’t imagine how many voters might have voted on that assumption.”
“The bottom line,” Gilliom says, “is that, for the most part, the people who are physically holding the Grammys for the Hawaiian category don’t represent Hawaiian music.”
“The guidelines for the category were fairly specific about being music of a traditional nature,” says Freimuth. “We did have a requirement that if it did happen to be a vocal music album that the lyrics on least 51 percent of the tracks needed to be in Hawaiian language.”
While the 51 percent-or-more stipulation may seem good on paper, Gilliom contends it was “ill-conceived.”
“So what happened? Out comes this instrumental slack-key compilation that won the first year and right away people got hip to the idea of, ‘OK, let’s just do instrumental slack-key records.’ So those got cranked out by the dozens,” says Gilliom.
At the same time, Hanaiali’i candidly admits adopting a similar strategy last year, titling her album Amy Hanaiali’i and Slack Key Masters of Hawaii.
Kamakahi disagrees with that strategy. “If it’s part of the game, let’s not play the game.”
Multiple attempts to contact Ho were unsuccessful, but Kahumoku—who co-produced three winning albums with Ho—defends him. “Daniel is a genius,” he says. “He can play any kine instrument and compose whole symphonies—not just anybody can do that. The people who say that stuff [about him] are assholes. It’s all pure jealousy.”
(Carrere also didn’t respond to our requests for comment, but in a blog post titled “Why am I the poster child for discontinued categories?” she wrote, “Hey, at least they chose a nice picture of me holding my Grammy.”)
Kahumoku says Carrere and Ho “cannot help if the Mainland is where they found good jobs for themselves.” Though Ho is his junior, Kahumoku says he’s learned a lot from him. Kahumoku admits that Ho knows a lot about marketing in the music industry, but thinks that’s to his credit.
Sadly, Grammy-initiated infighting isn’t limited to Hawaii-based artists versus Mainland musicians. Kahumoku says the controversy has formed a rift between him and longtime friend and collaborator Cyril Pahinui.
In the end, for local artists the concern is that true Hawaiian music isn’t being represented. “My main beef is not with [NARAS],” says Kamakahi (a sentiment Gilliom echoes). “A lot of people are going to think this is what Hawaiian music is… and I can tell you that [Carerre’s album] is not Hawaiian music. It’s an insult. Is Hollywood going to dictate what Hawaiian music is? What we gotta do? Be in a movie? Live and write our songs from Hollywood?”
“As with anything, it’s all political,” Kamakahi adds. “But is this music or politics?”
Even Ho’s supporters admit he gamed the system for his own gain. And the fact that he was so successful speaks to perhaps the biggest reason behind the Hawaiian Grammy’s demise: the lack of local participation.
“There’s all this situation surrounding Daniel Ho, but I don’t think that was the bottom line,” says Hanaiali’i. She, like others, says there was a huge disparity between votes that came from the Mainland and votes from Hawaii. But it’s a metric that’s impossible to assess. Even the number of votes cast in any category is virtually unknown.
Even Grammy officials don’t know, says Friemuth, adding that the votes are tallied by an independent accounting firm called Deloitte. Friemouth adds that “Deloitte would give us a heads up if there [are] numbers in any particular category so low as to cause alarm,” but that never happened with the Hawaiian category.
Still, it’s anecdotal knowledge that local participation was severely lacking. That’s especially unfortunate because—with approximately 11,000 total voting members, most of whom likely didn’t cast votes in the Hawaiian category—a couple hundred votes would likely have been enough to sway the results.
“NARAS opened the door, and very few people from Hawaii signed up,” says Gilliom. “I can’t tell you how many guys, local musicians on Maui, when I’ve said, ‘Why aren’t you a voter?’ And they say, ‘Me?’ ‘Yeah you, dude!’ It’s so far removed from their imagination—it’s the Grammys. It’s the Mainland. I don’t think Hawaii ever took ownership of it.”
With the Hawaiian Grammy gone attention is again focused on local honors like the Na Hoku Hanohano and Hawaiian Music Awards.
“The Grammys do not define Hawaiian music, the Hokus define Hawaiian music,” says Hanaiali’i. Gilliom, Kamakahi and Kahumoku all agree.
But, of course, local awards will never carry the cache of a Grammy. They may get it right, but they won’t bring the recognition (and, let’s face it, record sales) of a national accolade.
The Hawaiian Grammy could have been a jewel in the crown of the Hawaiian Renaissance. Instead, the opportunity was frittered away, and the world was left with an image of our local industry—fair or not—as a petty, disconnected bedlam filled with folk either too stupid or too apathetic to participate.
We had a chance to shine on the world stage, and we choked. Some shame, eh?