He Gave Hip-Hop a Voice at the Grammys Before Being Fired. Ten Years Later, He’s Ready to Talk

AlanFoster_RS_050c.jpg Alan Foster x Rolling Ston - Credit: Photograph by Carlos Gonzalez/the1point8
AlanFoster_RS_050c.jpg Alan Foster x Rolling Ston - Credit: Photograph by Carlos Gonzalez/the1point8

It’s been nearly 20 years, but 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 more than 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.

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“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 any Black men in other positions of management throughout the building. … It seems like I was overlooked by someone with less experience, and he’s white.”

Today, Foster wants to finally speak about feeling maligned and mistreated for trying to do the hard work of broadening the academy’s outreach toward and representation of Black music years ago. It comes at a time when the organization has publicly committed to greater diversity and equity efforts in recent years and is, for the first time ever, run by a Black CEO, Harvey Mason Jr.

Throughout his 15-year tenure at the Recording Academy, Foster’s peers viewed him as an invaluable asset and trusted representative during a time when rap’s explosion was reshaping popular music in the late-Nineties. Foster, a musician himself — he served for years as Little Richard’s occasional guitarist (and assistant) in the 1980s — became one of the few Black midlevel employees at the organization’s main Los Angeles office. During his tenure, he says, it was virtually impossible to be hired or promoted to the executive/VP level of the organization as a Black person. But Foster had become so renowned in his corner of the industry that mogul Ernie Singleton honored him at his 2012 Toast to Black Music Executives, despite Foster never having an executive position.

Foster’s former colleagues say his biggest contribution was as a member of the academy’s awards department, where he was instrumental in diversifying the nominating-committee membership pool and helping to implement important new awards in the R&B and rap categories, such as Best Rap Song, Best Rap-Sung Collaboration and Best Urban/Alternative Performance, among others. During a time when rap was the fastest-growing genre in the country, Foster played a central role in strengthening the relationship between the hip-hop and R&B community and the academy, which was widely seen as slow to adjust to the changing landscape of popular music.


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Recording Academy president and CEO Deborah Dugan speaks during the 62nd Grammy Awards Nominations Conference at CBS Broadcast Center on November 20, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
Recording Academy president and CEO Deborah Dugan speaks during the 62nd Grammy Awards Nominations Conference at CBS Broadcast Center on November 20, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

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“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 screening committees Foster chaired. “He really brought awareness to the academy, internally, of the importance of Black music.”

“A lot of people didn’t trust that the academy knew about or supported their music, so Alan would actually go out into the community, take people to lunch, and explain how the process went,” adds acclaimed producer, arranger, and musician Larry Batiste, a current Recording Academy trustee who worked alongside Foster. “He was instrumental in demystifying the process and strengthening the integrity of the awareness of the awards process in the urban community.”

For the Black musicians, managers, executives, agents, and producers who worked in a music industry predisposed to marginalizing their contributions, Foster served as a rare representative of an old-guard institution who understood, valued, and championed their art.

“Alan was extremely helpful in every sense of the word,” rapper MC Lyte, who became the first female chair of the rap screening committee after Foster recommended her, writes to Rolling Stone in an email. “My experience at the academy was exciting, but even more so knowing there was someone I could depend on for clarity and leadership. … All of my peers knew [Alan] was the go-to for everything academy-affiliated. He was a great connector.”

But in the nine years that followed his first missed promotion in 2003, Foster’s relationship with upper management at the Recording Academy slowly deteriorated: His superiors reprimanded him for a series of infractions that he felt were minor.

Foster concedes that, like anyone who spends 15 years at an organization, he made some good-faith mistakes. In 2009, tasked with proofreading a list of songs as part of the awards process, he submitted to his boss a list with an incorrect entry, although today he contends that his superior failed to catch the error as well, but assumed none of the blame for the mistake. (Foster is also open about having been fired by two different large organizations prior to the Grammys, though he says in both instances he had a great working relationship with his superiors until he felt disrespected and had to “stand up for myself.”)

“There was a system in place that kept Black music from getting the same respect as other genres” – Alan Foster

But during his time at the organization, he would be reprimanded so often that he started to feel as though his bosses were leaping on any excuse to chide him: Holding a closed-door meeting in his office (he was told it should be open); declining to invite a higher-up to a meeting Foster was holding with a lesser-known artist (Foster says it was customary to hold such meetings on his own); requesting, after he had developed seniority at the organization, that he no longer take on the role of monitoring for earthquakes during the Grammys, a task he’d performed for years (Foster says he was told he was not being a team player.) In a written warning in 2009, Foster was reprimanded for his “time-management skills” after missing a meeting and for misusing his work email to recommend a White House Latin-music concert to the entire office.

At one point, he claims, someone from HR told him he “intimidated” a white higher-up by looking at him directly during a meeting. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Do you know how racist that sounds?’” Foster remembers replying. “If you are in charge of the meeting who else am I supposed to look at? ”

The reprimands, which mostly took place during an eight-year period between 2004 and 2012, began to wear on Foster, who continued to note, in meetings as well as written evaluations, the lack of hiring or promoting of Black executives in the Los Angeles office.

Then, in the fall of 2012, Foster was fired for what the academy told him was “unacceptable work performance.” Foster claims he was fired after an incident in which he refused to acquiesce after a high-level executive tried to interfere with the Grammys’ screening meeting process. A few months after his dismissal, Foster filed a complaint with California’s Department of Fair Housing & Employment. Eventually, a few years later, he reached a confidential settlement with the Recording Academy, with the academy agreeing to pay Foster a lump sum (roughly equivalent to two years of his salary) in exchange for Foster not pursuing any legal action and acceding to a confidentiality and nondisparagement clause.

“They chose to limit me, discredit me, humiliate me, and ultimately, fire me, all because a Black man challenged their system of exclusion.”

Foster had been a vocal advocate for both external and internal Black representation at the Recording Academy in an era when, publicly, the organization faced widespread and consistent criticism for its inability to adapt to or appreciate contemporary Black popular music. During Foster’s 15-year tenure, only two Black artists under the age of 65 won the Album of the Year Grammy, and the institution faced repeated allegations of racism from a range of high-profile artists, from Carlos Santana to 50 Cent.

Those criticisms continued in the years following Foster’s firing, after academy members voted for works by Adele and Macklemore over generation-defining records like Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. In 2017, the award-show telecast misidentified gospel legend Shirley Caesar as the singer CeCe Winans. (Asked later that year if he thought the Grammys had a “race problem,” then-CEO Neil Portnow said, “You don’t get Chance the Rapper as the Best New Artist of the year if you have a membership that isn’t diverse and open-minded.”) Since Mason assumed leadership in 2021, the academy has attempted to redress past criticism by diversifiying its membership and adding in an inclusion rider, starting with this past April’s award show.

In a statement to Rolling Stone, Mason says that Foster’s story is not representative of the academy in 2022. “Mr. Foster’s employment with the Recording Academy concluded a decade ago,” Mason writes. “It would be inappropriate to comment on the specific reasons for an employee’s departure, but regardless of his experience … 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 spent years trying in vain to get another job in the music or entertainment industry. He has remained largely unemployed since his 2012 dismissal, unable to land a position in entertainment. He has exhausted his life savings, and his housing situation has become precarious enough that he is unsure where he’ll live in the coming months.

“At this point, I’m trying everything I can to get back on my feet,” Foster writes in an email to Rolling Stone. “I’ve had to seek employment in other industries, which is not an easy task at my age. Without a way to earn a living, I have not been able to afford to have a place of my own or cover the cost of registration for my car.”

Foster, nevertheless, still hopes to contribute to the music industry and continue the work he started 25 years ago. He has grand ideas he’d love to try to make happen, like starting an awards show, similar to the Latin Grammys, that focuses on the increasingly mainstream popular music emerging from Africa.

“Alan was the spokesperson for Black music. He really brought awareness to the academy, internally, of the importance of Black music” – Matthew Knowles

Ten years after being fired, though, Foster is finally ready to tell his story, for the first time, about his experience working for the Recording Academy. In doing so, he has chosen to speak, despite the confidential settlement that he says he agreed to out of resignation and frustration back in 2015. He understands the risks of doing just that.

“I had to tell my story,” says Foster. “This isn’t about trying to get more money from the academy. This is about feeling like you’re fighting this big giant, and they throw a couple of crackers to make you shut up, and now all of a sudden everybody loves them because they’re politically correct, but I’m left in the dust.”

Nevertheless, he remains a firm believer in the Recording Academy’s mission and optimistic about the organization’s future under its new leadership. “I’m rooting for Harvey,” he says of academy CEO Mason. “It’s great to have these new departments [like the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force], and maybe they’re doing more outreach to these communities, which is great. That’s the kind of stuff I started. [They] should have [always] been doing that.”

Like Foster, several former academy employees and industry executives feel as though the academy’s newfound commitment to diversity is a long-overdue public shift. At the same time, they feel it’s only arrived after generations of employees and other professionals spent years internally engaging in the same type of advocacy to little or no avail.

“Alan’s presence really made an impact on the way we do business now,” says Batiste. “Alan Foster was DEI before it was popular. And, really, the one thing I would say is that he may have been ahead of his time.”

“For Alan to speak up was courageous,” adds Stacy Turner, a longtime executive who interacted with Foster at the academy as director of A&R at Quincy Jones’ label. ”Now we’re in an era where more people are having to address [these things]. I know some people might say, ‘Why are you digging up this story where someone is bitter?’ But that’s not the case. It’s important to share this story because [when he was there], it was courageous to speak up in the way people have done [in recent years].”

Another former Black employee at the academy has a blunter assessment of the organization’s recent DEI initiative: “I just believe that the academy was slow on [prioritizing diversity], and now they’re trying to play catch-up,” the former employee, who requested anonymity, citing fear of retribution, says. “But they’re also acting like all the Alan Fosters didn’t exist.”

Is there anything Foster wishes he could communicate to the Recording Academy executives who ultimately fired him 10 years ago?

Nothing, he says at first. “I’m done. I don’t need to speak to them.”

But shortly after one of his conversations with Rolling Stone earlier this year, Foster sends an email with additional thoughts. “I would [tell them] it’s sad,” he writes. “[Management] had insecurities about working with someone who challenged how things were at the Recording Academy when it came to the urban community, a community made up of mostly people of color. 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 Alan Foster to not fall in love with music as a child growing up in Dayton, Ohio, in the Seventies. By then, the city had become a hotbed of funk and R&B after bands like the Ohio Players, Lakeside, and Zapp grew to prominence. After he saw his first concert (the Commodores opening for the Jackson 5) as a young kid, Foster was hooked. His father, a bricklayer, bought him a guitar. After high school, Foster joined Record Player, a local Dayton funk band that had recently released its debut single, “Free Your Mind.”

Foster traveled to Los Angeles with Record Player, and although the band failed to land a big-time record deal there, it did have a chance encounter with someone who would change the course of Foster’s life: Little Richard.

alan foster james brown little richard
Alan Foster with James Brown and Little Richard.

For the next decade, starting around 1984, Foster would work as Little Richard’s right-hand man and occasional band member, flying around the world with the musician as he gradually transitioned from gospel back to singing his Fifties rock & roll material. In Little Richard’s presence, Foster met rock and pop royalty: Stevie Nicks, Mick Jagger, James Brown, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Jon Bon Jovi, George Michael, Billy Preston.

He came to view Little Richard as a father figure, and Little Richard grew to trust Foster, who endured the eccentric singer’s antics. One night, as Foster recalls, the singer was driving with Foster on a Los Angeles freeway, when he came to an abrupt stop in the middle lane to open up to his confidant about his own struggles. “It just gets hard sometimes,” Foster remembers Little Richard telling him through tears.

But by the early Nineties, Foster had two young children and needed steadier work. After a series of jobs, he landed at the Recording Academy in 1997, starting off with entry-level work in the library of the organization’s prestigious awards department, where he would catalog each year’s musical entries for Grammy nominations.

For the first few years, Foster loved the job. He developed close relationships with top execs like Diane Theriot, whom he considered a mentor, and felt close to Mike Greene, the CEO at the time, who extended his generosity to Foster when Foster’s son was murdered at age 19 in 2001. (Greene resigned in 2002 in the wake of sexual-harassment allegations.)

Foster eventually became a coordinator in the awards department, screening submissions for composing and arranging, and, eventually, gospel. Presiding over gospel submissions, Foster started to wonder about the genre’s racial representation within the Grammys. “I noticed there’s really not a good representation for Black gospel music,” he says. “They paid more attention to the Christian gospel [out of] Nashville.”

As an awards coordinator and, eventually, a midlevel project manager in the rap, reggae and R&B divisions, Foster worked to expand the Grammys’ reach, influence, and relationship with a sector of the music industry the academy overlooked. “In the past, the membership didn’t include many members from the urban community,” Foster told The Baltimore Sun in a rare on-the-job interview in 2004, after Pharrell, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Outkast became the most nominated acts for that year’s Grammys. “After I got here, the first goal was to have the membership reflect what’s going on.”

By 2004, Foster had already helped shaped the Recording Academy’s relationship to Black popular music. He had been spending years taking meetings and introducing himself — at record-label offices and recording studios — to whomever he could to convince segments of the R&B and hip-hop industry that the Recording Academy was finally taking Black popular music seriously.

“This is about feeling like you’re fighting this big giant, and they throw a couple of crackers to make you shut up, and now all of a sudden everybody loves them because they’re politically correct, but I’m left in the dust.”

Foster also worked to help create a new Grammy, for Best Rap-Sung Performance, an influential award that captured the hybrid pop-rap emerging in the early 2000s. Some of the earliest winners of the category ended up becoming some of the biggest singles of the decade, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Crazy in Love” and Usher and Lil Jon’s “Yeah!”

Between 2002 and 2004, Foster continued to help expand the Grammys’ recognition of hip-hop and contemporary R&B. He played a role in implementing a songwriting category for rappers in 2004, with Best Rap Song (the first two winners: “Lose Yourself,” by Eminem, and “Jesus Walks,” by Kanye West). He worked to help increase acknowledgment of female rappers, naming MC Lyte the chair of a nominating committee and advocating for the new category of Best Female Rap Solo Performance, which the Grammys then discontinued, much to Foster’s chagrin, after Missy Elliott won the award in its first two years, in 2003 and 2004.

(Years later, Bill Freimuth, who took over as the head of the awards department after Theriot retired in 2008, told the Associated Press that the category was removed because there “wasn’t enough competition … due to the lack of the number of releases in that category.”)

“They didn’t give [that award] a chance,” says Foster. To him, the idea that there weren’t enough entries for the category felt like an earlier iteration of a comment that Portnow, who became the Grammys’ CEO in 2002, would make years later, in 2018, when he said that women needed to “step up.” (Freimuth did not respond to a request for comment.)

Foster also recognized the need to create a new category (Best Urban/Alternative Performance) for the types of artists, like Meshell Ndegeocello, who never fit into the extremely narrow labels that the music industry put on contemporary Black artists.

“I just felt like there was a system in place that kept Black music from getting the same respect as other genres,” he says. “I work at an organization that has categories that put people in boxes. … I’m pissed they’re not putting Meshell Ndegeocello in ‘alternative,’ because she’s not R&B; she shouldn’t be going up against Destiny’s Child and Ashanti.” The category provided a space for artists like Erykah Badu, the Roots, Jill Scott, Raphael Saadiq, and India Arie to earn nominations in the mid-2000s.

The organization didn’t seem to prioritize the type of music to which he had devoted his energies. Another former Black employee at the Academy 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. “So I’m having issues over those categories, trying to do this stuff, and I had negative reviews going on my record. … I’ll be the first one to say that sometimes I crossed the line. I wouldn’t change my mind, and in staff meetings I would have discussions with my [superior], and it would get to the point where it would feel like we’re having a confrontation.”

But Foster doesn’t regret anything about this period. “Look at what we accomplished,” he says. “I was proud that I was able to work with this community to achieve [what we did] while that door was open.”

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 27: EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE Alan Foster of the Recording Academy (L) and Rapper Heavy D share a moment at Heavy D's Album Listening Party For "Vibes" hosted by Brett Ratner at Villa on October 27, 2008 in West Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Dr. Billy Ingram/WireImage)
Alan Foster of the Recording Academy (L) and Rapper Heavy D share a moment at Heavy D’s Album Listening Party For “Vibes” hosted by Brett Ratner at Villa on October 27, 2008 in West Hollywood, California.

When the Grammys announced a sweeping set of changes to their awards in 2011, it was intended, in part, to mark the organization’s broader effort to modernize and adjust to criticism that it was out of touch. A few months earlier, hip-hop executive Steven Stoute took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, accusing the Grammys of “a series of hypocrisies and contradictions.”

“The Grammys were so late on hip-hop as an art form, and they wouldn’t give it on-air camera time for many, many years,” Stoute explained in a follow-up interview at the time. “The Grammys are flawed, and … they need to acknowledge it finally.”

Portnow had taken over as CEO in 2002, and Freimuth, who’d previously worked at the Big Apple Circus, took over as the head of the Grammys’ awards department in 2008, after working in the department for four years. In the years leading up to 2011, the awards show faced an ongoing criticism of youthful relevance: In 2008, Herbie Hancock’s record of Joni Mitchell interpretations beat Kanye West’s Graduation for Album of the Year; in 2009, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s take on a decade-old Jimmy Page-Plant song won Record of the Year over M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”

The 2011 awards changes were intended to “create parity across all fields,” as Billboard reported at the time, part of a larger panacea to help the Recording Academy rehab its dated reputation.

But the drastic changes ended up being perceived as detrimental to many of the musical communities it was trying to appeal to: The number of R&B categories shrank in half, with Freimuth saying there had been insufficient entries in a number of them; jazz lost one-third of its genre-based awards, and recent categories representing Hawaiian and Native American music were folded into a single Regional Roots award.

The outcry was immediate: Legends such as Carlos Santana, Hancock, and Paul Simon added their names to a public letter that characterized the Grammys’ awards overhaul as a “blatantly racist justification … that … is necessary to disenfranchise Latinos, Native Americans and other minorities for the good of the Academy.”

Inside the academy, Foster was heartbroken and incensed over the changes, viewing them as an affront to his work expanding the R&B and hip-hop presence at the show over the past decade. In the buildup to the announcement of the changes, Foster says, he voiced his disagreement internally over the slashing of R&B categories. “That’s a big deal when you take away a category,” he says today. “You’re taking away four [categories] in a field that still don’t receive the love and respect.”

“The academy was slow on [prioritizing diversity], and now they’re trying to play catch-up. But they’re also acting like all the Alan Fosters didn’t exist” – Former Academy Employee

It was particularly difficult for Foster to hear his organization publicly justify the changes by saying, in essence, that the artists hadn’t stepped up and submitted enough music in some of the R&B categories, as Freimuth, who left the academy a few months into Mason’s tenure last year, told Reuters in an interview at the time. To Foster, the idea that it was the fault of artists for not submitting their music to the Grammys — and not the Grammys’ fault for not building a stronger, more welcoming relationship with those very artists — was entirely backward.

“Just because you don’t see it,” Foster says he would tell his superiors of these categories, “doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

One part of Foster’s job in those days was presiding over the screening committees, on which experts in their respective genres would decide which entries deserve consideration on the initial, long list of selections that would be sent to academy members to then decide who should be nominated.

But in October 2012, after the R&B screening committee decided on its entry list, Foster presented the list to his superior, who he claims pressured him to alter the committee’s decision regarding a specific artist. Foster said no, standing by what he viewed as the integrity of the process. The following week, he was summoned into HR and fired.

“They wanted me to do something, and I’m going, ‘No, I’m not doing that, because if I do, that’s me interfering with the process,’” Foster says. “They felt I allowed a screening committee to make a decision they shouldn’t have made, and I got blamed for making that decision. [But] you cannot change what [the committee] did after the fact.”

Batiste, 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. He was the person where, if [something] wasn’t right or whatever, he would call it.”

Foster’s firing came after years of receiving corporate reprimands that were put on his record. Two other former Black employees at the Recording Academy, who overlapped with Foster, independently describe to Rolling Stone a similar dynamic of receiving reprimands from upper management for what felt to them to be minor workplace mistakes.

“My first thought isn’t to go into a situation and say, ‘Somebody is discriminating against me,’” says one of those 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.”

George Thompson, a retired former IT manager at the Recording Academy who bonded with Foster as two of the few Black employees at the time, saw the reprimands as a means of “control.”

“Upper management tended to keep Alan on a leash instead of letting him put his ideas out into the world,” says Thompson. “That’s frustrating, and sometimes Alan would react to that, and, basically, that’s what they wanted. They wanted that disruptive person so they could say, ‘See how he’s acting.’ … The situation was, ‘Either you’re with us or you’re not, and if you’re not, we’re going to take care of you.’ And it’s not done in an instant manner. It’s gradual. 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.”

The two former employees, who are both Black, say that dynamic proved detrimental to their well-being. “They affected my chance to grow and have a good life,” says the second employee. “They didn’t give me raises that I should’ve gotten based on my documented work. … They always would elevate who they wanted to elevate. It didn’t matter how hard you worked, what your strategy was, what your knowledge of living in the community you worked in was; they just made it how they wanted it to be. As an African American worker you kind of know that’s what happens, so you just kind of play the game, and you do your best and get your strides and wins while you can.”

Portraits with Alan Foster, longtime Grammy employee and former assistant to Little Richard, who is speaking up about his time working for the Grammys. He was fired back in 2012 and believes that he's been blacklisted in the music industry after experiencing internal and external forms of racism. After threatining to sue the Academy for his firing, he instead settled but in the process had to sign an NDA that would not allow him to speak about his experience at the Recording Academy. Believing that he's been blacklisted from the music industry, he's finally speaking up about his experience and hoping that this action will help people remember all the work he accomplished like creating categories that would help highlight minority talent as well as pushing for more diversity in the Grammy membership. Portraits photographed in front of the Grammy Recording Academy as well as surrounding locations, located in Santa Monica, California.
Alan Foster in front of the Recording Academy in Los Angeles, September 2022.

As Foster tells the story, Grammy members — artists, producers, engineers — often walked into his office and expressed their frustrations about the institution he represented: They often did not feel like they belonged or could be recognized by such a vaunted organization.

“Man, I know I don’t have a chance,” they might tell Foster if he encouraged them to participate in the process.

Foster says he would point to a photo of himself posing with the obscure Dallas bandleader Larry “T-Byrd” Gordon that he had hanging in his office. He would tell the story of how Foster had encouraged the musician, at age 56, to submit his 2005 album Southern Meets Soul: An American Gospel Jubilee for Grammy consideration. Gordon was hesitant: How could anyone like him ever be considered by the Grammys? But that year, Gordon ended up receiving the one and only Grammy nomination of his career, for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album.

A decade since he’s worked at the academy, Foster still has the utmost belief in the importance of the institution, even if, as a workplace, the organization left him crestfallen. Despite what he feels was mistreatment at the hands of a few executives, he remains devoted to the principles of the Recording Academy, keeping up with its ever-changing leadership and awards changes, and bemoaning what he feels are unfair recent attacks on elements of its voting process.

Despite the hurt and disappointment he still carries from his tenure, he remains as proud as ever of his 15 years at the organization. As a born musician, “If I’m not doing music,” he says, “what better job can I have than working at the Grammys?”

In the years following his firing, when asked about his departure, Foster would just say, “They said I did one thing. I didn’t agree with it.” But mostly, he didn’t talk about it, nor did he discuss his years of failing to earn gainful employment in the industry. But Foster is no longer ashamed to talk publicly about those years of unreturned phone calls, failed job interviews, and loss of relationships with colleagues he had once considered close friends.

Foster, as well as most of his associates, friends, and former colleagues interviewed for this story, is unable to separate his internal workplace story from the academy’s larger struggle to recognize contemporary Black popular music during the same period he was employed there.

“My story was the reflection of, ‘When it comes to certain music, you give it love. But when it comes to R&B and rap, you’re not giving it the love,’” he says. “And this is the music that, in the years I was there, was really driving the industry.”

During his unemployment, Foster has been able to spend more time focusing on his first love: making music. He hopes to record a proper album with his band, Alan Foster’s Redemption, which gigs around locally when it can.

One of the things Foster would like to get a chance to record one day is an in-progress number he wrote called “I’ll Probably Never Win a Grammy.”

The song name-checks a number of famous artists who never won a Grammy: Chuck Berry, Curtis Mayfield, Janis Joplin, the Staple Singers — but it begins on a personal note:

When I was a little bro

I used to watch that Gram-mee TV show

‘Cause they gave shiny trophies to the best in song

Sometimes they got it wrong

I tuned in, still clapped along

“I still encourage people to be part of the organization, to go after their dream,” Foster says. “If you want to win a Grammy, go after the Grammy, but understand the game. It’s political.”

Ten years after being fired, Foster is still reckoning with those politics. “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.”


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