At the inaugural Grammy Award ceremony in 1959, recipients were culled from a meagre twenty-eight categories. These indicated the sociopolitical status quo under the Eisenhower administration as much as the country’s fledgling acceptance of African American genres as a key tenet of its cultural inheritance. The changing face of American society brought forth new styles of music, and, with time, new Grammy categories with which they could be recognized.
Cut, then, to 2011. In that year, the Grammy roster comprised a generous one hundred plus categories, spanning “Best New Age Album” and “Best Hawaiian Music Album”, in addition to coveted mainstays like “Record of the Year” and “Best New Artist.” It was in 2009, however, that the Grammy Academy, under the leadership of president and CEO Neil Portnow, decided that the awards ceremony needed a facelift. Portnow describes the gradual increase in categories prior to 2011 as having been “approached one category at a time, without a current overall guiding vision, [like] a collage without consistency across the varying genre fields.” He adds: “a transformation of the entire awards structure would ensure that all fields would be treated with parity.”
Now, the biggest night in music has just gotten a little smaller, and not everyone is cheering. The so-called Grammy Restructuring process, purportedly implemented in the interest of equality among genres, has trimmed away nearly one-third of last year’s categories. It is a euphemism that affects lesser-known artists, that benefited more from the awards than their mainstream counterparts.
The musicians most affected by the cuts are those who work in the World Music and Latin genres. For instance, Larry Rohter of the New York Times cites the compression of many regional forms of Latin music into a paltry two categories as suggestive of the Recording Academy’s reluctance to accept Latin music as prevalent and, more importantly, a legitimate part of the American tradition. Hispanic Americans, of course, are the fastest growing minority in the country, but the Recording Academy has yet to acknowledge their relevance in broader American culture beyond the niche Latin Grammy awards.
In particular, the outright elimination of the Latin Jazz award comes as a sting to many artists who fought hard to assert the ascendancy of their music. Eddie Palmieri, who won both the Latin Jazz Grammy for his CD Listen Here! and the Latin Tropical Grammy for a collaboration with Brian Lynch entitled Simpático, called the overhaul of the awards “an insult to our genre and many others; we fought for seventeen years to get this recognition, and then [the Academy] turns around and takes it away without informing anybody.”
It may not surprise, that accusations of behind the scenes racism are driving opponents of the measure. On February 9th, a group of musicians and community leaders presented a 23,000-signature petition at the Academy’s headquarters, demanding that the thirty-one eliminated categories be reinstated.
Though this outpouring of response did nothing to alter the outcome of the most recent Grammy awards, its impact could be felt moving forward. The group has received support from various Latin American advocacy groups, among them the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Inez Gonzales, the coalition’s senior vice president, issued an indictment of the Academy and Neil Portnow’s leadership, saying that it has “failed in its mission to honour, propagate and nurture all forms of American born music, and to educate the general public about all genres, not giving preference to one over the other.”
In fact, many of the arguments that Ms. Gonzales makes for the integrity of Latin music in the awards ceremony can be extended to other minority genres whose awards were also trimmed down, including R&B, rap, and gospel. Locally bred music, especially, should not have to be the unwanted guest at the Grammys. The archetypal American art form is jazz, which, it must be remembered, was banished to the margins of our society’s culture while being recognized abroad.
Neil Portnow, of course, is not oblivious to the controversy. “The greater purpose of promoting unity within the music community”, he says, “outweighed the natural inclination to resist change.” That unity, no doubt, will benefit from Portnow’s purported goal to run the Academy under a new “overall guiding vision”, taking input from its members as needed. But it could be argued that with the rise of the digital age, music is being produced in unprecedented quantity, and in categories that are increasingly difficult to delineate. In that context, the idea that an overarching vision can be applied to all genres and all artists seems reductive. Some may even see it as both dangerous and contrary to the fundamental ideals of artistic exchange, for new music deserves to be judged on its own terms.
Obviously, there has to be merit in the move. NARAS says that it has increased the minimum number of entries to forty artists per category, up from twenty-five. While this will mitigate the loss of nominations in minority genres—and strengthen the Grammy’s image as a highly selective organization—it will hardly make up for the accolades and publicity that followed a win in the categories that were dropped.
Portnow is aware that the Recording Academy needs to be more inclusive, however unwieldy the process may become. He has used the image of a collage of different interests co-existing within the Academy. But for many Grammy members the changes are testing old allegiances, and legitimacy is the one currency that the Academy trades in that it cannot afford to give up.
By Mical Klip Franklin