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Recording Academy Chief Harvey Mason Jr. Talks Diversity, Changes, Diddy’s Speech and What’s Next

Harvey Mason Jr.., Chair of the
Aurora Rose/Shutterstock

When Harvey Mason, jr. took the job as chair of the Recording Academy’s Board of Trustees last June, it’s safe to say he had no idea what was coming.

A veteran songwriter-producer who has worked with Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton and Jennifer Hudson as well as film and television hits like “Dreamgirls,” “Pitch Perfect,” “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” and many more, Mason has also been a Recording Academy board member since 2007. He rose through the ranks and was named chair of the Board of Trustees last June at the same time Deborah Dugan was officially announced as president/CEO; the two of them took the helm of an Academy that had been rocked by scandal in the wake of former chief Neil Portnow’s misspoken 2018 comment that female artists and executives needed to “step up” in order to advance in the music industry.

While all seemed outwardly positive, a dispute between Dugan and the Academy board broke into the open on Jan. 16, ten days before the Grammy Awards, and she was placed on administrative leave, with Mason adding interim president/CEO to his role as board chair. The move set off an ugly public battle between Dugan and the Academy that saw her responding to vaguely defined charges of misconduct with a bombshell legal complaint that included claims of “conflicts of interest and improper self-dealing by Board members and voting irregularities”; that her predecessor, Portnow, allegedly raped a female artist (he later said he was investigated and exonerated); that Joel Katz, a prominent attorney who has been part of the Academy’s inner circle for decades, attempted to kiss her after a private dinner (a claim he has denied); and that the Academy has paid “millions of ‘exorbitant and unnecessary’ fees to outside law firms. Shortly after, the heads of the Academy’s Task Force for Diversity and Inclusion, which had been formed in the wake of “step up,” demanded an investigation. And at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy gala the night before the awards, Diddy gave a withering speech in which he said “black music has never been respected by the Grammys” and added, “You’ve got 365 days to get this sh— together.” But the Academy regained its footing with a successful show on Jan. 26, and partially out of sheer exhaustion, the situation stabilized — until five weeks later, when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in North America, putting thousands of musicians out of work, and everything else paled in comparison.

Within days, the Academy and its charitable wing, MusiCares, formed the COVID-19 Relief Fund, which has become the de facto go-to charity for the music business, marshalling donations from nearly every major music company and distributing more than $14 million to a music community that continues to need aid — and it is still receiving 500 applications per day. As MusiCares currently does not have an executive director, the effort has been led by Mason and chair/Amazon head of music Steve Boom, who spoke with Variety about their work last month.

Thus, it seems like an unusual time for the Academy to be announcing its first Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer — Valeisha Butterfield Jones, a veteran of Google, Def Jam and the Obama Administration — but although all other initiatives pale in comparison to MusiCares’ work on providing pandemic relief, business goes on. Variety caught up with Mason for half an hour on Wednesday afternoon to discuss diversity, Butterfield Jones’ new role and what she will bring to it, MusiCares’ ongoing relief efforts and much more.

Not to downplay the importance of the role, but it seems a little unusual for the Academy to announce its diversity officer in the middle of a pandemic. Is it because the Task Force had set a 90-day deadline for it back in January?
Well, we’ve been working on this since December, so I think we wanted to announce it as soon as we made the hire — I’ve been working pretty intently to make sure we got the right person, and we’re excited. But yes, there is a timeline and a deadline, and although I’m sure everybody understands what the [coronavirus] crisis has done to most timelines, I thought it was important that we stuck to ours, and that I shared the good news around the Academy.

What makes her the best candidate for the job?
The first thing was her energy and her attitude of getting things done and being very proactive — when I sat with her I knew she understood what needed to be done. She saw my vision for change and I really felt like she understood and got us. And I could tell, with the homework and the research she had done in preparation for the interview, that she saw things she could jump into right away. I think she and I have a lot in common with things we feel should be looked at.

Can you say what some of those things are?
I ran this [Board] trying to make sure the Academy is relevant and inclusive and represents our music community accurately, and as chair I wanted to make sure we were looking under the hood at anything people thought should be looked at: What are our membership, our committees, our leadership made up of? Are we reflective, are we inclusive, are we representative, are we diverse, are we including all the right constituents? And a lot of those things we aligned on, and I think shared an excitement around making sure we were trying to improve and be the best we can be. And I like the [versatility of her background], the mixture of the work she had done at Google and some of the programs she had initiated there, some of her activities at the Obama Administration, the public speaking she does — I just felt it was a really wide variety of experience she could bring.

Considering the sensitivity of her role, did her past work with Russell Simmons, who has been accused of rape by several women, come up during the interview process?
We saw that. It did not come up in the interview — it’s not something we gave a lot of consideration to, based on the breadth and depth of her other experiences and where she came from.

Hiring for this role is one of the Task Force’s main recommendations — how are you doing with the others?
I’m really proud and excited about where we’re heading on all those fronts. We’ve fulfilled 17 of the 18 [Task Force recommendations, ranked-choice voting is still under discussion], which we are adding to our governance and bylaws. We’re making things very available for people to see how we’re changing and how those things will be measured, and we’re also meeting with the Task Force — I’ve been in touch with [Task Force chief Tina Tchen] throughout the crisis and we’ve also got follow-up meetings coming in the next couple of weeks to report on our progress. I think there’s going to be things that will show the transformation at the Academy.

“Step up” was more than two years ago, and during Grammy Week members of the Task Force said they’d felt “disheartened,” that they’d been “used as a pawn,” that the Academy processes lacked transparency, and their report in December was very critical. Why has it taken so long to make change?
I think some progress was made, more is needed, and I think the Task Force did an amazing job of bringing things to light. I can only say that in the time that I’ve been here, everyone at the Academy — the staff, board, membership — is taking what the Task Force has said very seriously and we are all continuing to work hard on making sure those things happen. As far as the last two years before [Mason became interim CEO in] January, I think we did make some progress — I think we need to make more, and I think now is the time to do that. We’ll have some things we’ll be excited to share in the next four weeks that will exemplify the progress we’re making.

What are some changes you think are necessary?
I think there’s a lot, based around the Task Force recommendations, and we’ve committed to doing those things plus more in the time that I’ve been here. But, agreeing to do certain things was a great first step; now, codifying some of those things and making sure that as the leadership changes — whether I’m the chairman and CEO or just a regular voting member — whoever comes in next, these things are going to be in writing: There will be guidelines and practices as a result of what the Task Force initiated. And some of that is probably what needed to happen [before], but we’re hoping will happen now.

We’ve heard that Joel Katz, the longtime attorney and officer of the Recording Academy who was accused of sexual harassment by Deborah Dugan and placed on an unspecified hiatus, has been “exonerated” and returned to the Academy.
At this point, until I have a little more [information], I’m not going to comment on that one.

At the Clive Davis party the night before the Grammys, Diddy basically placed the Academy on notice for diversity, among other things. Do you feel you and the Academy are rising to his challenge?
Absolutely. I feel we still have a ways to go, I don’t feel like we’ve answered the call completely, but I do take what he said very seriously. Man, I handed him the award onstage that night, shook his hand, went back to my table — and then I just watched and listened. We’ve worked on a lot of projects together, I completely respect him as someone who has vision and wisdom, and a lot of what he said rang true for me. I hope to collaborate and coordinate with Diddy on some of the things he said specifically in his speech.

I know we’re better than we were — there’s definitely room for improvement and growth, and I look for people like Diddy and others to show us how to improve.

How do you find time to work on music with everything that’s been going on?
Actually, it’s been a little bit slower than before, but I’m very fortunate that there’s a few projects I was working on that are still ongoing. My studio’s been closed for almost seven weeks now, so I go in late at night and it’s just me in there creating — I’m doing a lot of online things, sending files to my engineer and to performers.

I’m still working on the Aretha biopic [“Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson] that I’m producing the music for, I’m working on the NBC show “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” and music for a new kids’ show on Apple TV+. A couple of artists on my label [Hundredup] have music coming out in the next two or three months, and I’m also doing some records for new artists on a couple of different labels, and developing a couple of other things that are a little farther out.

Are you still the “interim” president and CEO? Is the Academy still looking for a permanent replacement, or are you going to stay on?
The Academy is absolutely still in the process of finding a permanent CEO. I’m here now and completely honored and thankful to be doing the job, and I will remain here until such time as we find the right person at the right time.

Finally and most importantly, how are things going with MusiCares’ coronavirus relief efforts?
There’s still a lot of work to be done, and I don’t see it stopping any time soon. We’re still getting 500 applications a day [for aid from music people] and we’re doing a lot of fundraising. The need is great and it’s not slowing down: We’ve raised almost $14 million and it goes right back out the door, so the next phase will be to do another fundraising round — we went to the streamers, labels, PROs, companies and artists have been very generous and we’re so thankful for that, but there is another level and layer of fundraising that we’re approaching now and it’s going to be very important for us to continue giving aid to people that need it.

We are also working very hard in Washington DC, making sure musicians and music people are being spoken for when it comes to relief, stimulus and aid packages and trying to make sure we amplify the voices of our members and that we’re represented and are as loud as we can be. So hopefully we’ll have something to share around that soon.

I’m optimistic, but I know it’s hard — everybody needs help and the music business is just one industry. With a lot of other industries, when the economy switches back on, people can go back to work — but the music business is one of the last things that will come back. I spent a little time with [Los Angeles] Mayor Garcetti, I was very grateful for that, and he laid out how he sees the city and the state rolling things out — and as you can imagine, music venues, concerts, tours are will be one of the last things they bring back. This is something we’re going to be working on for a long time to come.

Since it was founded in 1989, MusiCares has distributed more than $70 million to musicians and music people in need.

If you wish to support its efforts, visit: https://www.grammy.com/MusiCares/CoronavirusReliefFund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit: musicares.org.