How not to decolonise the Grammys

The controversies surrounding this year’s Grammys signal the efforts to make the prestigious awards more inclusive are far from complete.

Grammy award statuettes are pictured
Grammy Awards trophies are displayed backstage during the pre-telecast on 28 Jan 2018, in New York US [Carlo Allegri/File Photo/Reuters]

After a two month delay caused by the pandemic, this year’s Grammy Award Ceremony is due to be held in Las Vegas on April 3. And once again, the music industry’s most prestigious awards are surrounded by controversy.

Unsurprisingly, the issue is race. At least partly.

The Grammys have long had a fraught relationship with race, an unavoidable consequence of much of American popular music being 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 completely shut out of nominations. The Weeknd’s boycott, which came on the back of popular Black artists – from Beyoncé to Kendrick Lamar – consistently failing to win in major categories despite releasing chart-topping and critically acclaimed albums, reinforced the conviction held by many that Black artists were being devalued at the Grammys.

Indeed, some recent decisions by the awarding committee caused so much controversy that white artists like Adele and Macklemore felt the need to apologise for their victories. Many other leading Black artists, including Drake, Kanye West and J Prince, have called for boycotts and alternative awards shows.

The artists have reason to believe the odds are stacked against them. According to a recent study by the diversity think tank USC Annenberg Inclusion initiative, despite comprising about 38 percent of all artists on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart between 2012-20, Black artists received only 26.7 percent of the 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 are facing two distinct controversies, both of which once again relate to race – and perhaps the efforts to protect the award show from longstanding accusations of racial bias and discrimination.

The first surrounds the nominations of two African American artists, the polymath musician Jon Batiste and violinist Curtis Stewart, in two classical music categories.

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 is being dubbed the “it” artist of the year by many critics. But the nomination he received in the Best Contemporary Classical Composition category has caused an uproar in the classical music community. Titled, Batiste: Movement 11, and clocking in at just more than two minutes, the song is certainly pretty, but has few if any recognisably classical elements.

For his part, Curtis Stewart was nominated in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category for his pandemic-produced album, Of Power. Unlike the indelibly New Orleans-rooted Batiste, Stewart is a recognised classical virtuoso. But like We Are, his album purposefully breaks the boundaries between classical, jazz and pop. The songs in Of Power alternately “riff”, as one review put it, on well-known jazz and classical melodies. The overall sound, however, is not what most people would define as “classical” – why that is remains a crucial subject of debate in a genre struggling to build a wider audience.

That both Batiste and Stewart emphasise their jazz credentials in their publicity and feel boundary-bending to be central to their music doesn’t seem to help the issue. Batiste, for example, once declared: “I don’t even think genre exists … Diversity and access … changes the way people perceive music.”

For their part, classical musicians and composers are close to apoplectic about what they call the “mis-categorisation” of Stewart and Batiste’s “anything but classical” sounds.

They even sent letters of complaint to the organisers, the Recording Academy, arguing that Batiste and Stewart’s eclectic style devalues the years of intense training and focus necessary to compose and perform more “properly” classical styles.

That the controversy surrounds two African American artists in the white-dominated classical music category inevitably raises fears of racism. While overtly racist comments by some classical musicians seem to confirm them, it’s also doubtful that if Black jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard were nominated in a classical music category for his celebrated new opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first premiere at the Met by an African American composer, there would be this much opposition. Blanchard’s nomination would likely not been considered “a miscategorisation” because, whatever jazz and other non-classical elements his work may have, it is firmly rooted in the classical tradition and is, to borrow world-renowned conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein’s famous definition of classical music, far more “exact” than the compositions in question.

A multiple-Grammy-winning colleague put it best when describing both nominations, explaining that while they were both fine as far as it went, they clearly do not represent the “apogee” of possibilities for classical composition, even of the hybrid kind reflected in Batiste’s and Stewart’s work.

On the other hand, there is little evidence to suggest, as does New York Times columnist John McWhorter, that these were simply diversity nominations. Far more likely is that Grammy voters in these two categories, most of whom, thanks to a rules change, are likely themselves classical musicians or artists, heard a cross-over appeal that would benefit the increasingly cash-starved field. McWhorter is also wrong to declare that an artist like Duke Ellington has no business being considered classical. As Bernstein himself declared in a 1966 news conference after Ellington noted how porous the boundaries between jazz and classical had become, “Maybe the difference between us is that you wrote symphonic jazz and I wrote jazz symphonies” Ellington responded with a smile and, grasping Bernstein’s hand, declared, “Love you, man.” At that level, boundaries no longer matter. The problem is that composers of this brilliance and stature are few and far between today, especially in the classical world, which is why works like “Batiste: Movement 11” and “Of Power” are being nominated.

From “World” to “Global” Music … and Back?

The second controversy around this year’s Grammys involves the newly created “Global Music” category. In 2020, the Recording Academy renamed the Best World Music Album category as the Best Global Music Album.

The Academy explained its decision by saying that it wanted the category to be “more modern, relevant and inclusive”. “The change symbolises a departure from the connotations of colonialism, folk and ‘non-American’ that the former term embodied while adapting to current listening trends and cultural evolution among the diverse communities it may represent,” it said in an email to members.

To be sure, the term “World Music” was popularised as a marketing gimmick for the 95 percent of the world’s music that wasn’t “Western”.

But how successful that gimmick has been! After its creation in 1992, particularly during the 2004-11 period when it was split into “traditional” and “contemporary” awards, the World Music category succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams in generating global interest in both traditional “roots music” and, crucially, encouraging the rise of an identifiable world music aesthetic comprising African, Caribbean, Islamic and Euro-American pop styles. By the 1990s, an entire global musical ecosystem had solidified, comprising record labels, festivals and films across Global North and South alike.

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, Afrobeat to Sahelian blues, owe much of their success to the global imagination, and branding, represented by “world music” and the lucrative tours, collaborations and performances this understanding enabled.

In this context, while the Recording Academy says it changed the name to “symbolise a departure from the connotations of colonialism” what is happening is neither decolonial nor helpful for a large share of the artists working in the world music trenches, who now have to face not only pandemics and restrictive visa regimes that make touring risky and expensive, but competition in their one category from global superstars like Burna Boy and Wizkid, and soon enough, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran, as a highly polished and increasingly uniform global pop aesthetic colonises what has been a far more deeply rooted, sophisticated and analog music – the living evolution of centuries of often pain-filled movement of people, instruments, music, and culture back and forth across oceans and deserts, mountains and plains.

And so, as Afrofunk pioneer Ebo Taylor explained it to me, artists like he, Fela and Tony Allen could create Afrobeat because they could literally feel, and trace, the myriad roots – African, Caribbean, and American, Muslim, Christian and traditional – whose comingling created it; the very opposite of the depthless aura and sheen that defines pop today, no matter who’s making it.

As with everything related to the meeting of race and art, the best of intentions can often produce less than virtuosic outcomes, especially when money, marketing and ratings are involved. If the Grammys want to ensure all musicians have the same chance to excel at their chosen craft, the industry will need to devote a lot more resources and effort into supporting music and culture education in the middle of a brutal, racialised culture war, while adding rather than deleting awards categories to enable a much fuller and more diverse range of musical accomplishment to be recognised.

Anything less is just bubblegum pop.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.