After a two-month delay caused by the pandemic, this year’s Grammy Awards are set to be held in Las Vegas on April 3. And again, the music industry’s most prestigious awards are shrouded in controversy.
Unsurprisingly, the issue is race. At least in part.
The Grammys have long had a strained relationship with race, an inevitable consequence of the fact that much of American popular music is produced by white artists appropriating African-American genres.
Last year, for example, popular Canadian artist The Weeknd announced his decision to boycott the awards after his latest hit album, After Hours, was dropped from the nominations altogether. The Weeknd’s boycott, which came on the backs of popular black artists – from Beyoncé to Kendrick Lamar – consistently failing to win in major categories despite releasing chart-topping and critically acclaimed albums, has bolstered the belief of many that black performers were devalued at the Grammys.
Indeed, some recent awards committee decisions have been so controversial that white artists like Adele and Macklemore have felt the need to apologize for their wins. Many other prominent black artists, including Drake, Kanye West and J Prince, have called for boycotts and alternative award shows.
Artists have reason to believe that the odds are stacked against them. According to a recent study by the diversity think tank USC Annenberg Inclusion initiative, despite making up about 38% of all artists on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts between 2012 and 2020, black artists only received 26.7 % of top Grammy nominations – Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist – during the same period.
“How is this classical music?”
This year, the Grammys face two separate controversies, both again tied to race — and perhaps efforts to shield the awards show from longstanding accusations of racial bias and discrimination.
The first concerns the nominations of two African-American artists, polymath musician Jon Batiste and violinist Curtis Stewart, in two categories of classical music.
Batiste, who is the bandleader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert house band, Stay Human, received a total of 11 nominations for his album, We Are, and was dubbed “it” artist of the year by many critics. But the nomination it received in the Best Contemporary Classical Composition category caused an uproar in the classical music community. Titled, Batiste: Movement 11, and clocked in at just over two minutes, the song is certainly pretty, but contains little to no recognizable classical elements.
For its part, Curtis Stewart was nominated in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category for his Pandemic Produced Album, Power. Unlike Batiste, indelibly rooted in New Orleans, Stewart is a recognized classical virtuoso. But like We Are, his album deliberately breaks the boundaries between classical, jazz and pop. The songs of Of Power alternately »riffas one review put it, set to well-known jazz and classical melodies. The overall sound, however, isn’t what most people would define as “classic” – why that remains a crucial point of debate in a genre struggling to gain a wider audience.
What Batiste and Stewart highlighting their jazz credentials in their advertising and feeling that bending the boundaries to be central to their music doesn’t seem to solve the problem. Batiste, for example, once said, “I don’t even think the genre exists…Diversity and access…changes the way people perceive music.
For their part, classical musicians and composers are near apoplexy in the face of what they call the “miscategorization” of the “anything but classical” sounds of Stewart and Batiste.
They even sent letters of complaint to the organizers, the Recording Academy, arguing that Batiste and Stewart’s eclectic style belittles the years of intense training and focus needed to compose and perform classical styles more “correctly”.
That controversy surrounds two African-American artists in the category of predominantly white classical music inevitably raises fears of racism. While overtly racist comments from some classical musicians seem to back them up, it’s also doubtful whether black jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard has been nominated in any classical music category for his acclaimed new opera, Fire locked in my bones, the first creation at the Met by an African-American composer, there would be so much opposition. Blanchard’s naming would probably not be considered a “miscategorization” because, whatever the jazz and other non-classical elements of his work, it is firmly rooted in the classical tradition and is, to borrow the famous definition by world-renowned conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. classical music, much more »exact” than the compositions in question.
A fellow multi-Grammy winner said it well when describing the two nominations, explaining that while they were both fine, they clearly did not represent the “peak” of classical composition possibilities, even of the hybrid kind reflected in The work of Batiste and Stewart.
On the other hand, there is little evidence to suggest, as Is New York Times columnist John McWhorter said these were simply diversity nominations. It’s far more likely that Grammy voters in those two categories, most of whom, thanks to a rule change, are likely classical musicians or artists themselves, have heard a cross-call that would benefit the field increasingly. hungrier for money. McWhorter is also wrong to state that an artist like Duke Ellington does not have to be considered classic. As Bernstein himself said in a 1966 press conference after Ellington noted how the boundaries between jazz and classical had become porous, “Maybe the difference between us is that you wrote symphonic jazz and I wrote jazz symphonies”, Ellington responded with a smile and, grabbing Bernstein’s hand, said, “I love you, man.” At this level, borders no longer matter. The problem is that composers of this brilliance and stature are rare today, especially in the classical world, which is why works like “Batiste: Movement 11” and “Of Power” are nominated.
From “world” music to “global” music… and back?
The second controversy surrounding this year’s Grammys concerns the new “Global Music” category. In 2020, the Recording Academy renamed the Best World Music Album category to Best Global Music Album.
The Academy explained its decision by saying it wanted the category to be “more modern, relevant and inclusive”. “The change symbolizes a break with the connotations of colonialism, folk and ‘un-American’ that the old term embodied while adapting to current listening trends and the cultural evolution of the diverse communities it may represent” , he said in an email to members.
Admittedly, the term “world music” was popularized as a marketing gimmick for the 95% of world music that was not “Western”.
But what a success this gimmick was! After its creation in 1992, particularly during the 2004-2011 period when it was split into “traditional” and “contemporary” prizes, the World Music category has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams in arousing worldwide interest both for traditional ‘roots music’ and, most importantly, encouraging the emergence of an identifiable global musical aesthetic including African, Caribbean, Islamic and Euro-American pop styles. By the 1990s, an entire global music ecosystem had solidified, including record labels, festivals and films from both North and South.
Artists such as Youssou N’Dour, Angelique Kidjo, the Gipsy Kings, the Chieftans, Ali Farka Touré, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Toumani Diabaté, Manu Dibango, King Sunny Ade, Fela, Femi, Seun, and now Made Kuti, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and entire musical genres, from raï to Sufi soul, from Afrobeat to Sahelian blues, owe much of their success to the global imagination and brand image, represented by “world music”. and the lucrative tours, collaborations, and performances that understanding has enabled.
In this context, while the Recording Academy says it has changed its name to “symbolize a break with the connotations of colonialism”, what is happening is neither decolonial nor useful for a large part of the artists working in the trenches of music. of the world, who now have to contend not only with pandemics and restrictive visa regimes that make touring risky and expensive, but also with competition in their category from global superstars like Burna Boy and Wizkid, and soon enough, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran, as a highly refined and increasingly uniform global pop aesthetic colonizes what has been much more deeply rooted, sophisticated and analog music – the living evolution of centuries of often painful movements of people, instruments , music and culture in both directions across oceans and deserts, mountains and plains.
And so, as a pioneer of Afrofunk Ebo Taylor explained to me, artists like him, Fela, and Tony Allen could create Afrobeat because they could literally feel and trace the myriad of roots—African, Caribbean, and American, Muslim, Christian, and traditional—whose blending made him created; quite the opposite of the depthless aura and sparkle that defines pop today, no matter who makes it.
As with all things where race meets art, the best intentions can often produce less than virtuosic results, especially when money, marketing and ratings are involved. If the Grammys are to ensure that all musicians have an equal opportunity to excel in their chosen craft, the industry will need to devote far more resources and effort to supporting musical and cultural education in the midst of a brutal and racialized culture war, while adding rather than removing award categories to allow recognition of a much fuller and more diverse range of musical achievement.
Anything less is just bubblegum pop.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.