Rolling Stone

‘I Was Doing the Right Thing’

Alan Foster spent years advocating for Black music at the Grammys — then he was fired


Alan Foster can still remember the first time he was passed over for a promotion at the Recording Academy. Foster had been working in the organizati­on’s ticketing department for about four years when, in 2003, his boss told him to interview for a new role.

But as soon as Foster sat down for the 20-minute interview, something felt off: The decision, he sensed, had already been made by the time he walked into the room. “I felt like it was a sham interview,” he says. A few days later, Foster was told the role would be going to another employee with less experience.

“That was the first time I started noting, in my evaluation­s, my issues with the hiring practices,” says Foster, 59. “I said, ‘I notice that you don’t have [many] Black men in other positions of management. . . . It seems like I was overlooked [for] someone with less experience, and he’s white.’ ”

Throughout his 15-year tenure at the Recording Academy, Foster’s peers in the music industry viewed him as an essential liaison who expanded the reach and representa­tion of Black popular music within the academy. A musician himself, Foster became one of the few Black midlevel employees at the organizati­on’s main Los Angeles office.

“Alan was the spokespers­on for Black music,” says music executive Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father (and former manager), who was a member of one of the committees Foster chaired. “He really brought awareness to the academy, internally, of the importance of Black music.”

But in the nine years that followed his first missed promotion, Foster’s relationsh­ip with upper management deteriorat­ed as he was repeatedly reprimande­d for infraction­s that he felt were minor. Foster concedes that he made some good-faith mistakes. But he recalls feeling as though his bosses were leaping on any excuse to chide him, for incidents as small as holding a closeddoor meeting in his office when he was

told it should be open. At one point, he claims, someone from HR told him he “intimidate­d” a white higherup by looking at him directly during a meeting. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Do you know how racist that sounds?’ ” Foster remembers.

Then, in the fall of 2012, Foster was fired for what the academy told him was “unacceptab­le work performanc­e.” A few months after his dismissal, Foster filed a complaint with California’s Department of Fair Housing & Employment; years later, he says, he reached a confidenti­al settlement in which the Recording Academy agreed to pay Foster a lump sum.

Foster had been a vocal advocate for both external and internal Black representa­tion at the Recording Academy in an era when the organizati­on faced widespread public criticism for its inability to appreciate contempora­ry Black popular music. During Foster’s time there, the institutio­n faced allegation­s of racism from a range of high-profile artists, from Carlos Santana to Herbie Hancock. Those criticisms continued in the years following Foster’s firing, after academy members voted for works by Macklemore and Adele over generation-defining records like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and Beyoncé’s Lemonade.

Today, the academy has publicly committed to greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts; since 2021, it has been led by Harvey Mason Jr., its first Black CEO. “Mr. Foster’s employment with the Recording Academy concluded a decade ago,” Mason writes in a statement to Rolling Stone. “This is a new academy. Through the hard work of many people, including those who came before us, we have made great progress the last few years, and we hope those changes clearly demonstrat­e who we are today and who we continue to work to be in the future.”

Foster has remained largely unemployed since his dismissal, exhausting his life savings, and his housing situation has become precarious enough that he is unsure where he’ll live in the coming months. Yet, he says, he remains optimistic about the Recording Academy’s future under its new leadership. “I’m rooting for Harvey,” he says. “Maybe they’re doing more outreach to these communitie­s, which is great. That’s the kind of stuff I started.”

Another former Black employee at the academy has a blunter assessment of the organizati­on’s recent DEI initiative­s. “The academy was slow, and now they’re trying to play catch-up,” says the former employee, who requested anonymity, citing fear of retributio­n. “But they’re also acting like all the Alan Fosters didn’t exist.”

“It’s sad,” Foster writes in an email. “They didn’t embrace [me] as a positive asset to the company. Instead, they chose to limit me, discredit me, humiliate me, and ultimately, fire me, all because a Black man challenged their system of exclusion.”

It was hard for Foster not to fall in love with music growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the Seventies. The city was a hotbed of funk and R&B, thanks to bands like the Ohio Players, Lakeside, and Zapp. After high school, Foster joined a local act called Record Player, which led to a chance meeting with someone who would change the course of his life: Little Richard.

For a decade, starting around 1984, Foster worked as the rock & roll pioneer’s right-hand man and occasional guitarist. He came to view Little Richard as a father figure. But by the early Nineties, Foster needed steadier work. He landed at the Recording Academy in 1997, eventually becoming a coordinato­r in the organizati­on’s prestigiou­s awards department.

By 2004, Foster had helped shape the academy’s relationsh­ip to Black

popular music as a project manager in the rap, reggae, and R&B divisions. He spent years taking meetings at label offices and studios, hoping to convince segments of the R&B and hip-hop industry that the Recording Academy was taking their music seriously. Internally, Foster helped implement a series of crucial new categories like Best Rap Song, Best Urban/Alternativ­e Performanc­e, and Best Female Rap Solo Performanc­e. “I just felt like there was a system in place that kept Black music from getting the same respect as other genres,” he says.

Another former Black academy employee recalls an event during that time: “They didn’t know the difference between hip-hop and rap,” the employee says. “You had three little white men at the head of the table, and Alan is trying to explain to them the difference.”

Foster refused to budge in his advocacy for Black music, and he acknowledg­es that it was a scenario ripe for conflict. “Anytime you’re trying to bring new ideas to someone stuck in old ways, you’re going to bump heads,” he says. “I’ll be the first one to say that sometimes I crossed the line.”

One part of Foster’s job in those days was presiding over the screening committees that worked on the initial, long list of entries sent to academy members, who would then choose the nominees. In October 2012, after the R&B screening committee decided on its entry list, Foster presented it to a manager, who he claims pressured him to alter the committee’s decision regarding a specific artist. Foster said no. The following week, he was summoned by HR and fired.

“I’m going, ‘No, I’m not doing that, because if I do, that’s me interferin­g with the process,’ ” Foster recalls. “You cannot change what [the committee] did after the fact.”

Larry Batiste, a renowned bandleader and current Grammy trustee who was the chair of that 2012 R&B committee, declined to comment on specifics, but adds: “I’ll just say that Alan had a strong personalit­y, he was outspoken, and he had a lot of courage. If [something] wasn’t right, he would call it.”

Foster’s firing came after years of reprimands, which George Thompson — a retired IT manager at the Recording Academy who bonded with Foster as two of the few Black employees at the time — saw as a means of “control.”

“Upper management tended to keep Alan on a leash,” says Thompson. “They write you up and put this and that in your file, and the next thing you know, you’ve got about four or five things in your file which are really nothing.”

Two other Black former employees who overlapped with Foster independen­tly describe a similar dynamic of reprimands for what felt to them to be minor mistakes.

“My first thought isn’t to go into a situation and say, ‘Somebody is discrimina­ting against me,’ ” says one of those former employees. “My first thought is to go in and do a good job. But when I notice things are not level, then I say something.”

The two former employees say that dynamic proved detrimenta­l to their well-being. “They affected my chance to grow and have a good life,” says the second former employee. “They didn’t give me raises that I should’ve gotten based on my documented work. . . . As an African American worker, you kind of know that’s what happens, so you play the game, and you do your best and get your wins while you can.”

Like most of his associates, friends, and former colleagues interviewe­d for this article, Foster is unable to separate his workplace story from the academy’s larger struggle to recognize contempora­ry Black popular music.

“I didn’t deserve to be fired the way I was,” he says. “I didn’t deserve to be put on trial constantly, because I was doing the right thing.”

“They didn’t embrace [me] as a positive asset. They chose to limit me, discredit me, humiliate me, and fire me, all because a Black man challenged their system of exclusion.”

 ?? ?? Foster in
Los Angeles, September
Foster in Los Angeles, September
 ?? ?? BUILDING BRIDGES Above: Foster with James Brown and Little Richard in the 1980s, during the decade he spent as Little Richard’s right-hand man and occasional guitarist. Right: With Heavy D at a listening party in 2008, during Foster’s Recording Academy tenure.
BUILDING BRIDGES Above: Foster with James Brown and Little Richard in the 1980s, during the decade he spent as Little Richard’s right-hand man and occasional guitarist. Right: With Heavy D at a listening party in 2008, during Foster’s Recording Academy tenure.
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