Valeisha Butterfield Jones
Photo: Sam Harris
Meet Recording Academy Co-President Valeisha Butterfield Jones: The Executive Discusses Her DEI Roots, Her Life In Music & Her Mission To Make The Music Industry A Fairer Space For All
Editor's Note: The 2022 GRAMMYs Awards show, officially known as the 64th GRAMMY Awards, has been rescheduled to Sunday, April 3, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The below article was updated on Tuesday, Jan. 18, to reflect the new show date and location.
After the reckoning on race in America in 2020, making sure people of all sorts are represented, respected and heard in the workplace took priority for some 85 percent of global employers. It also elevated those who uphold the values of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) — including Valeisha Butterfield Jones, the newly appointed Co-President of the Recording Academy.
Before accepting the role in 2021, alongside Co-President Panos A. Panay, Butterfield Jones was the Academy's first-ever Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. "Valeisha has been a force in driving systemic change and enhancing equal opportunities for underrepresented groups across entertainment, technology and politics," Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. said in 2020, the year she assumed that role.
And it's just that ability that led Mason jr. to bring her into the triage of Academy leaders, shifting to his role as CEO. How did Butterfield Jones navigate her trajectory to the executive leadership team at the Recording Academy? By never losing sight of her values — or her vision — as she maneuvered through the music industry for a quarter of a decade.
Butterfield Jones has constructed a singular legacy in the DEI space. After getting her start at HBO Sports, she worked as the global head of inclusion for Google, Inc., served as the national youth vote director for the Obama for America campaign, and served as the national executive director and senior vice president of Rush Communications / The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.
She's also the co-founder of Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network (WEEN), a nonprofit, global coalition of people committed to the balanced, positive portrayal of women in the entertainment industry. Naturally, Butterfield Jones' mission also touches on the disability sphere; she was the national director of diversity and inclusion for the Alzheimer's Association.
Butterfield Jones's efforts have since garnered national acclaim: Institutions from Forbes to Fortune to Elle have recognized her.
Want to know more about this dynamic, young leader making the Recording Academy and the music industry at-large a more equitable and inclusive space? Get to know Valeisha Butterfield Jones via her work, wisdom and words.
Tell me about your early life and communion with music that started you down this path as Co-President of the Recording Academy.
My path to this role has been a long and rewarding one, for now — gosh! — almost 25 years.
It began when I was a child. When I was growing up in Wilson, North Carolina, I had a deep, deep passion for music. I was a superfan. I was the kid that listened to the radio all day — whatever new album was coming out, I was the first in line at the record store to buy it. Eventually, it evolved into me wanting to understand a little bit more of the business behind the art that I love so much.
[In the '90s,] Atlanta was a big hub for music as it is today. So, that was one of the key drivers for me to go to Atlanta, enroll in Clark Atlanta University [in 1996], and land my first job in music, working for Wu-Tang Clan. That's where it all began. It's been this beautiful, hard journey for almost 25 years — and I would not change a thing.
“You can lift as you climb, but they can’t be weights.” — Me
— VALEISHA (@valeisha) February 2, 2021
What was it like to take the leap from a DEI role to Co-President of the Recording Academy? What convinced you to accept the role?
It's an exciting leap — and not one that I expected. I was just really excited about the opportunity for DEI to be in such a senior leadership position at the Academy.
I think it really was a win for every DEI practitioner and person working in DEI across the globe. I don't want to overstate it, but I really feel like DEI is a business imperative and more companies and organizations are recognizing it as one. Harvey was such a visionary and leader, in my opinion, for seeing the value of DEI in his office. I just really appreciate the trust that he has in me to take on this new role.
What went through your mind when Harvey asked you and Panos to be Co-Presidents? Were there any reservations on your end?
I'll never forget the call. He called me one evening and said, "Hey, I have this idea. Would you consider taking on this role as Co-President?" It was an immediate "yes." I didn't need to think about it.
I felt and still feel so honored — and quite frankly, blessed — to be able to do this work in a different way. So, zero hesitation, all excitement — really humbled by it. I feel ready.
As Co-President, what are your overall strategies to elevate the Recording Academy and uplift all music professionals?
First, it starts with unity. Every day, you hear our Chair of our national Board of Trustees, Tammy Hurt, and our CEO, Harvey Mason jr., talk about unity — and that's big. So often, we want to skip to the business. But we also have to be in the business of unity, and that's something that I know is a top priority for us and will continue to be.
The second is transparency: continuing to share what we can, when we can, to the widest possible audience. Always thinking about what we can share around our progress, what we can share about what we've learned — or even the areas that we want to improve — is important.
But then for us, it's global. So we're thinking about a global strategy. How do we reach more people to fulfill our mission in non-U.S. markets, while also making sure that we're expanding our offerings here in the U.S.?
You'll be hearing a lot more from us about what our plans are around that strategy — how we plan to always be more inclusive — and a part of that strategy will be expanding our global footprint.
"In every single meeting now, you're hearing DEI as a part of the strategy and the focus. To me, that signals that we're really getting it and doing the work. Because I really believe that DEI shouldn't fall on one person — it's everyone's job."
What are some lessons you absorbed from your background in DEI as per how the Recording Academy can improve as a diverse and inclusive space?
For me, it's really understanding how to analyze data and make data-driven decisions, but not at the expense of the human experience. What I believe is transferable is: How do we make business decisions with our hearts, and with data at its core?
As we think about every single area of our organization, DEI is at the heart of it. One of my dreams, always, since my first day in the role here as DEI Officer, was to make sure that we were building DEI capabilities across every single person and across every single department of the business.
And we're getting there. I really feel like we're moving in that direction. I'm so proud every time I'm in a meeting with our membership department and [Vice President of Membership & Industry Relations] Kelley Purcell, or with our Chapters in all 12 markets — or, you name it, the communications team, the marketing team.
In every single meeting now, you're hearing DEI as a part of the strategy and the focus. To me, that signals that we're really getting it and doing the work. Because I really believe that DEI shouldn't fall on one person — it's everyone's job.
**whispers** less talk, more action ....
— VALEISHA (@valeisha) December 23, 2020
What specifically can the Recording Academy and the music industry at-large do to create true diversity, equity, and inclusion in this field?
I think it starts with the fact that I am a Black woman working in the American music industry — and I have been for more than 20 years. It's really getting down to the real details around what the experiences of women like me and like many of our members are in music.
A part of that's around physical and psychological safety, part of that is around opportunity and access, and all the things that we need to thrive as women working in music. The Women In The Mix Study, which I'm so excited about, will really anchor and focus us around the areas that we need to prioritize for women working in the American music industry.
How do we resource it? How do we become better advocates? And again, how do we become better partners internally and externally in service of our members.
This study is going to help us find solutions to the issues facing women in music. That's the whole purpose of this study, and it's all-encompassing. We're going to find solutions that ensure that women in music can flourish and create pathways to success for them.
With the addition of yourself and Panos as Co-Presidents, Harvey's role has become a triage. What do you enjoy about the creative energy between you three?
We are three parts coming together as this trifecta of different experiences, leadership styles and ideas we want to bring to the table.
I think it's so exciting because we're going to learn from each other, stretch each other, and hold each other accountable. I think the three of us are really leaning into this new model in a very collaborative way. We are talking all day every day, we're building strategies together all day, and, more importantly, we're moving them to action.
So, I think it was such a brilliant idea for Harvey to bring in fresh voices — people with new ideas and different perspectives — to expand and move us into the next chapter as an organization.
"It is the people's choice. We are putting the complete power and decision-making authority into our members' hands."
There have been a lot of changes surrounding the GRAMMY Awards voting process. What sparked these major shifts and what is the ultimate aim with them?
The beautiful thing about the Recording Academy is that we are a membership organization and the GRAMMY Award is a peer-voted award. The new changes that you've seen with our rules [reflect] the transparency that you've seen around our awards process.
The changes are a direct result of hearing from our members that they wanted to see a change. We are always listening and responding to the feedback from our members, and that's what you've seen through these awards changes.
We always follow the guidance and direction of our members, and that's what we've done here. I'm excited to be a part of an organization that puts its members and the creative community first. We respond when we hear the feedback.
These voting changes will be implemented for the 64th GRAMMY Awards in 2022. Why is it especially important to vote this year?
It is the people's choice. We are putting the complete power and decision-making authority into our members' hands.
The voter turnout is so, so, so important this year because we really want to make sure that every single person's voice is heard and reflected on what you see throughout our voting process — and then, what you eventually see on GRAMMY night. I'm really excited about this model of letting our members decide.
Internally and externally, where do you see the Recording Academy in five years?
What I hope to see is that, one, we build on the solid foundation that has already been established over the last 64 years. So often, I think change can be scary, but what I'll say is that I'm excited to embrace it in a way that builds on the solid foundation.
The second thing is to make sure that every single member is heard and seen in the Recording Academy. It means we make sure that our members are part of our process, that we are being transparent about our process, and that we're always listening and making decisions based on the feedback from our members. That's so important.
Last but not least, I really hope that we accelerate our mission. We are in service of music creators and that's why we're here. We love music. We're part of the music community, and to be even better allies and advocates is the goal.
You'll start to see some of that in the next year —and even five years — with the services we offer, the support that we provide to music creators, and, ultimately, the programs that you'll be hearing about soon.
Again, just being a better partner to the music community every day is top-of-mind. We'll be doing that soon through some of the work that you've seen unfolding.