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Michal Shapiro

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Are the Grammys Racist?

Posted: 07/06/11 12:39 PM ET

It's official: Bobby Sanabria will be suing the Grammys in response to their recent category restructuring. At a press conference at the law offices of Balber Pickard Maldonado and Van Der Truin, Mr. Sanabria, a four-time Grammy nominee read his own explanation of the reasons, as he sees it, for the action. I will let him and his council speak for themselves, before throwing in my two cents.


Unlike Mr. Sanabria, I have always thought of the televised Grammys show as a carefully packaged, mainstream media program, calculated to maximize the sale of goods. When a friend of mine won a Grammy, she did not receive her award on air, nor did she expect to, it having been in an "ethnic" category and unlikely to raise the profit margins of the show's various sponsors. Whether they ought to or not, the general public does not tune in to see awards for Best Hawaiian Slack-key Guitar, or Best Native American music. (I invite comments on this topic.)

But is this what the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (as opposed to the broadcast) is predicated upon? According to the Wikipedia, NARAS is an "organization of musicians, producers, recording engineers and other recording professionals dedicated to improving the quality of life and cultural condition for music and its makers." That is a far cry from how it is currently represented on air, or where it is veering with this decision. By lumping together certain ethnic musical forms, it makes it far harder for the artists involved in those genres to get the acknowledgement that the Grammy award bestows, and the career benefits thereof. And it shows a shocking ignorance -- at best, heedless and dismissive -- of what these various genres are really about.

Since they refuse to divulge the minutes of the meetings that led to the decision, we are left to imagine the true motivations and the conversations that took place. Where was the need for the "streamlining"? Did it have anything to do with financial troubles: an overextended budget, a cutting back of foundation support and a diminishing membership? Perhaps Latin Jazz was eliminated because "they have their own Grammys" or because "jazz is jazz" (both can-of-worms discussions that I am sure they would not want put up for an open debate). Did CBS' or any major label's input affect the decision directly or through other means? Exactly who voted for or against it? Which of them was an expert in the fields that were affected? Or were the panels all made up of pop, rock, R&B and rap aficionados? One could go on, but I don't wonder that NARAS refuses to disclose the information demanded by Mr. Maldonado's firm. They are damned if they do and damned if they don't. And I don't mean that sympathetically. I mean, what did they expect?

While some of the category winnowing is not dreadful (best male or female pop vocals are now merged into "Best Pop Vocal") some categories need further expansion, not compression. Best Traditional World Music and Best Contemporary World Music are already inadequate, vague categories, and have been reduced to Best World Music Album --- grrr. By the way, Tex-Mex, Zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American and, yes, polka, are world music!

For whatever reasons it may give, NARAS has made a heavy-handed blunder, and after stirring up this hornet's nest, it is responding autocratically. By remaining inflexible, it does itself a great disservice. Even as it, along with the music industry, may be grappling with economic downturns and a changing landscape, it is obligated to stay true to its founding tenets by supporting all the music its membership is dedicated to. Members who were knowledgeable in the fields most affected should have been consulted in these decisions; those decisions should have been announced with sufficient time given for preparation by the artists; and secrecy was not the way to go. In excluding its constituency on such crucial matters, NARAS has placed its own credibility at risk.

For more information regarding action on this issue, go to grammywatch.org. To see the categories as they were and as they now are, go to grammy.org/recording-academy/announcement/category-list.

 

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