The Crisis Behind the All-White Grammy Category
The only artists up for the 2021 Best Children’s Album Grammy are white — which, in a year of reckoning for the Recording Academy over diversity problems, has drawn wide ire, and led to three of the five white nominees writing to the Academy last month asking for their names to be removed from the ballot to make room for artists of color. The Academy has agreed to take them off the slate but is leaving the award open only to the remaining two nominees, sources tell Rolling Stone.
It began when the Grammys announced the category’s all-white slate of nominations in November. Three of the acts — Okee Dokee Brothers, Moock, and Dog on Fleas — spent several weeks “soul-searching,” they say, and they noticed a memo written by the Family Music Forward (FMF) organization, which was formed by musicians over the summer. FMF had asked the Academy to review internal policies and educate voting members about the diversity of genres, sounds, and styles within children’s music. The three acts worked with the FMF to pen a letter to the Academy announcing that they could not “in good conscience benefit from a process that has — both this year and historically — so overlooked women, performers of color, and most especially black performers.”
Moock’s nominated album, which focuses on leadership, activism, and equality, highlights figures like 23-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai and the late Elizabeth Cotten, a black folk singer born in the late 19th century. Observers have noted the awkwardness of a white man being nominated for work powered by stories from people of color; the three acts also pointed out in their letter that less than 10% of nominated acts in the category’s history have been led or co-led by people of color. “These numbers would be disappointing in any category,” they wrote. “But — in a genre whose performers are uniquely tasked with modeling fairness, kindness, and inclusion; in a country where more than half of all children are non-white; and after a year of national reckoning around race and gender — the numbers are unacceptable.”
On Wednesday, a rep from the Recording Academy confirmed to Rolling Stone that it did not remove the three names from the final ballot because that ballot had already been sent out to voting members — but, in respect of the decisions of the three artists, the Academy has since withdrawn their names from consideration in the category. However, the Academy has declined to add new names to the slate, meaning the award will go to one of the two remaining white artists: Joanie Leeds or Justin Roberts. (Leeds’ album centers on female empowerment and Roberts, four-time nominee, sings softly about parenthood.)
Aaron Nigel Smith, a longtime children’s music artist and FMF co-founder, says the Recording Academy did move quickly to address the protestors’ frustrations: Executives members including interim president Harvey Mason Jr. and chief diversity officer Valeisha Butterfield Jones recently met with the FMF and “really gave us the floor to express our disappointment and make recommendations for actual change in this industry and within the Grammy organization,” Smith says, noting that execs “seemed very on board when it came to partnering with us.” Smith says a larger roundtable discussion with the Academy is scheduled for February. In partnership with The Academy, FMF will invite artists of color to discuss recent events. “I feel that the leadership team there is aware, willing, and listening,” he says. “I’m hopeful.”
The Okee Dokee Brothers’ Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing describe the meeting as productive and positive, noting that the Academy admitted the awards “did not have strong representation from people of color on the Children’s Music Nomination Review Committee this year.”
“It’s like being served a baked potato with fries and hash browns on the side. Slight variations of the same dish.” – Pierce Freelon
But on a broader scale, the all-white category, which remains that way even after the withdrawal of the three acts, points to pervasive problems around race within the children’s music genre, if not the American music industry at large.
“It’s beyond the Grammys,” says Smith. “The Grammy Awards are the pinnacle. But they’re a part of this system that has been built with white superiority in mind, like all of our other systems in this country.”
Pierce Freelon, a Durham City Council Member, African American studies professor, and children’s music artist who put his debut album out this year, wishes the Grammys would release the number of artists of color involved in nominating decisions. A couple months before putting out his now-lauded album D.A.D, Freelon sought advice from Mailander, who told him journalists don’t cover the genre like they used to 10 years ago. Freelon wondered if that might be because children’s music festivals tend to skew extremely — sometimes entirely — white, and the media spotlight has fallen on white men strumming acoustic guitars.
“It’s like being served a baked potato with fries and hash browns on the side. Slight variations of the same dish,” he says. “Meanwhile, [Latin duo] 123 Andrés is over here with their flavor, we’ve got some Jamaican flavor, we’ve got hip-hop. These are different elements and aspects that bring a richness to the genre but are being systematically excluded.”
After D.A.D was released, Freelon says it saw some of the biggest sales and radio spin numbers for the genre in years, and outlets like NPR and The Today Show covered the album positively. “[Mailander] called me and was just like, ‘Wow, this is wild. I literally haven’t seen this in five or six years,'” Freelon recalls. When it came to Grammy nominations: “We just thought this might be the year. We thought there might be a whole black and brown ballot. We were that audacious.”
Tommy Shepherd, one half of acclaimed children’s music act Alphabet Rockers, whose last two albums were Grammy-nominated, says multiple venues have asked him and his partner Kaitlin McGaw to play acoustic instruments, claiming an “instrument-only” policy. But they don’t do that; they make socially conscious hip-hop music.
“We had to fight for our DJ being an instrument,” he says. “We’ve made a name for ourselves now. But we had to get to a place where people stopped asking us, ‘Is the music appropriate?’ That’s a strange question to ask a children’s music artist.”
Add in the reality of being a mixed-race duo — Shepherd is black and McGaw is white — and these two have had particularly eye-opening experiences. “I’ve pulled up to libraries [where children’s music shows often take place] and the librarian wouldn’t open up the door until Kaitlin got there,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Do you see me, lady? I’m on the poster’ … I’m not calling each person a racist, but there’s white privilege at play. That’s one thing we’d really like to eliminate from the genre. We want artists to represent all of the children who listen to the music.”
“Folks are trying to protect their kids’ innocence. It really irks my nerves some times. I want my kid to be innocent too but the world won’t allow that.” – Tommy Shepherd (Alphabet Rockers)
While many people may think children’s music is about “protecting children’s innocence by playing songs about slides, oceans, and things like that,” Shepherd says he creates children’s music to help them weather the world. His black children, he says, started hearing the N-word in preschool. “He was told black people were thieves in kindergarten, so we started creating empowering music and noticing that there wasn’t a lot of music out there that addresses anything else than having a good time and bananas. But that’s not what every kid is experiencing,” he says. “When it comes to violence and calling out racism, folks are trying to protect their kids’ innocence. It really irks my nerves some times. I want my kid to be innocent too but the world won’t allow that. He’s going to be looked at in a different way. As he gets older, he’s going to stop being cute and start being threatening.” (Alphabet Rockers is currently working on an album that tackles the criminal justice system, the prison industrial, and how it applies to schools, because kids have cops in class now and they requested the content, Shepherd says.)
Shawana Kemp, frontwoman of Shine and the Moonbeams — which makes rich R&B and soul music for kids — says she got in the game because most of the options were “dumbed down” and lacked rhythm and energy. She grew up listening to her mother’s picks like Bob Marley and Chaka Khan, and she knows there are kids out there that want more than just catchy tunes.
Shine and the Moonbeams’ debut album success was tethered to a magic-moment performance at Kindiefest 2011, which resulted in a burst of blog mentions. When it came time for the second album’s release in 2017, though, Kemp says the silence was deafening. That time around, there was no virality — just good songs — but everyone around her acted as if they didn’t exist. Because tastemakers weren’t touting it and organizations like the Grammys weren’t highlighting it, it didn’t matter. “It’s not a big room, so it feels very ‘black sheep,'” she says. “You’re in the room but not really… It becomes really overt and passive aggressive. To me, it just says, you’re not serious. You don’t really want this small space to be diverse, because it engenders competition, and if you don’t supply it, then there’s no demand for it. And I think that works for the people who are being presented as the best.”
Before Rissi Palmer released her first children’s album, Best Day Ever, in 2013, she was a country artist — and the first African-American woman to chart a country song since Dona Mason in 1987. When she entered this new arena, she came in blind but instantly realized how rare black artists got opportunities: “Outside of [genre veteran] Uncle Devin and Ella Jenkins [known as the “first lady of children’s music”], I didn’t really know of very many other artists of color.” Palmer, who was featured on both Freelon’s and 123 Andrés’ albums this year, says she owes a lot to mentorship from the Uncle Devin, as well as allyship exhibited by the likes of Jim Cosgrove, also known as Mr. Stinky Feet. The former reached out to her out of the blue after discovering her album, and the latter put her music on compilation albums for Hallmark called Smiles Ahead and Heart Beats, which she calls deliberately diverse. “If the industry’s not going to change the way they do things, then we the artists — and people with platforms — have to figure out how to bridge the gap,” she says.
Even though 2020 was filled with high-profile discourse around race, Freelon considers the all-white Grammy announcement simultaneously mind-boggling and unsurprising. “I’m a black studies professor,” he says. “I get how progress works. Historically, when black folks start shining, stunting, and glowing, something happens. There’s a visceral reaction to black progress. I think Trumpism was a reactionary reflex to our first black president. So, when my phone started blowing up with text messages like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this,’ I was like, ‘For real? Y’all don’t know how racism works?'”
Smith, who’s been doing children’s music for 15 years and has put out seven albums, considers himself a pioneer: “I’ve watched the genre change from character-driven cartoon artists to actual physical people with cool vibes, whether they be Latin, rap, reggae, or pop/rock. But it seems like the only genres that are acknowledged are folk and pop.” He agrees that white men strumming acoustic guitars has been “the flavor of the decade.” (He even started his own festival, Rox in Sox, because he was consistently excluded from mainstream ones.)
“But in this year of all years, it seemed like the greater community of voters as well as the committee would have some greater discernment and make more-informed choices,” he says, adding that D.A.D should have been a “slam dunk” as well as SaulPaul’s Be the Change. “There could’ve been one person, even if it was symbolic,” says Smith. “I’ll take that symbolic thing in this climate.”
Freelon agrees, shouting out 123 Andrés, whose timely Hola, Amigo: Songs of Friendship is about finding common ground and overcoming tough times. He also points to Asian American musician Elena Moon Park, and Smith, who also had an album on the early ballot.
Not only were there standout albums from people of color to consider in 2020, children’s music artists say, but it was also a year that birthed promising new opportunities like FMF and Kukuza Fest, a new children’s music festival created to celebrate black voices. “There are no excuses, but especially this year,” says Freelon.
Smith keeps his own list of diverse members of the American children’s music community, which currently has 100 names on it. “There are all these lists that will come out each year with the top 10 or 20 children’s artists, and I’ve never been included in any of those,” he says. “It’s clear that there’s a wall there that aligns with systems of oppression we’ve built in this country. It’s important that there are more members of color in the Academy and more children’s musicians of color that are being acknowledged. We’re out there. We’re just not given a platform.”