The televised version of this year's "biggest night in music" - the Grammy awards ceremony - saw less musical categories than usual. With Adele's winning streak and Whitney Houston's tragic death, the fact may have gone unnoticed by most viewers at home.
As stars drove up to the Staples Center on Sunday, about three dozen people rallied on the corner of Pico and Figueroa to call for the reinstatement of 31 musical categories that were cut from this year's lineup.
Last year, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS), also known as the Recording Academy, the largest non-profit association of musicians, producers and other recording professionals in the U.S., announced that they would eliminate almost one-third of its categories from Grammy consideration, including Native American, Cajun, Hawaiian, Traditional World Music, Gospel, Blues and Latin Jazz, to name a few.
The fact that at least half of these categories are traditionally won predominantly by people of color was not lost on those who raised critical questions about why these particular categories were cut.
"We think it's ironic that the Grammy categories are becoming less diverse and that the 31 are 'roots' or ethnic categories in an era when the audience for music in the U.S is becoming more diverse," said Robert Sax of GrammyWatch, a coalition of musicians based primarily in New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area. The rally was organized by GrammyWatch and Presente.org, a national online civil rights organization that aims "to amplify the political voice of Latino communities."
"NARAS argued that the canvas got too broad and we don't think it reflects the taste or make-up of the American public," said Sax. "Without those categories it becomes difficult or impossible for different artists to win. Grammys are very important for musicians to build a career."
Two weeks ago, Rev. Jesse Jackson moderated a discussion on the controversy. But before starting, he said a few words on the death of legendary singer Etta James. Incidentally, James won Grammys in 2004 and 2005 in two categories that have now been eliminated: Best Contemporary and Traditional Blues.
And as Jorge Rivas at Colorlines points out, as of this year, four of Whitney Houston's six Grammys are now in defunct categories.
During the segment, Bobby Sanabria, a Grammy-nominated Latin American Jazz musician said he was particularly disappointed with the decision because:
The Grammys are the largest non-for profit arts organization in the country, and their mission is not only to celebrate -- through the mainstream telecast that they have every year with CBS -- the major categories in popular music, but to celebrate all forms of popular music that are indigenous to the United States. And to propagate and educate the general public about all of these forms of music. So, the secret sub-committee that met for 18 months and did this unilaterally without any input form the 20,000 members of the Grammys is completely wrong. There was no due process.
...It's an insult to the spirit of sister Etta James who just passed away. How can you cut out traditional blues and traditional gospel?
And Sandy Cressmen, a NARAS member for more than 20 years, wrote on GrammyWatch.org:
Although NARAS administrators say that these genres were merely combined into larger categories, the net effect of this is that the identities of these unique forms of music have been stripped away, and because these forms of music rarely get produced and promoted by large record companies with big promotional budgets, they stand no chance of achieving the recognition of even being nominated. So the musicians who have the least resources to fund and promote their recordings have even less chance for the kind of recognition that might make a difference in their careers.
Roberto Lovato, a co-founder of Presente.org, says the cuts for many musicians means "The devastating loss of income, opportunity, and recognition."
"Now, if you look at those communities, this is bad, bordering on dangerous, culturally speaking. It is reflective of a time period where books are being banned in Arizona, and school districts are banning ethnic studies. And the schism between rich and poor is great, so from that perspective, this is a move from the 1 percent of the music industry," added Lovato.
"There's a cold calculus at the heart of it and it was a decision made by the president of the Grammys, [Neil Portnow] and a handful of his cronies, it was an anti-democratic decision at its core. They did it to consolidate profits and they talk about music as product. What kind of people talk about music as product? People who don't care about the communities who give birth to the music."
According to NARAS: "The GRAMMYs are the only peer-presented award to honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position."
Last week, Latin Jazz musicians hand-delivered a petition with an estimated 23,000 signatures calling for the reinstatement of the 31 eliminated categories by next year. The petition is circulating on presente.org.
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