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Column: The Recording Academy should reconsider genre categories

Trevor Noah emerges from a flower-adorned gramophone during a pretaped segment for the 63rd Grammys at the Los Angeles Convention Center on March 11, 2021. Photo courtesy of Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS.

The 64th Grammy Awards, the music industry’s biggest night, took place earlier this month in Las Vegas. The night was of little consequence in comparison to the more controversial Oscars back in March, but saw many show-stopping outfits, performances and wins. 

Regardless of who took one home, the Recording Academy should reconsider several of the awards categories — especially for international acts. 

The Grammy Awards, originally called The Gramophone Awards, began in 1958 to recognize leading artists in the music industry. At the time, the Oscars and Emmy Awards already existed to honor those in film and television. During the ceremony, a number of awards are given across numerous genre categories, including country, rock, jazz, comedy, gospel and more. 

The biggest awards of the night — best new artist, song of the year, album of the year and record of the year — are not genre-specific. The number of categories available each year fluctuate, but that also might not be obvious to viewers at home because all of the awards are typically not presented during the live show. 

While genres like rock, R&B, jazz and hip-hop are native to the United States, the Recording Academy also recognizes acts with strong international ties, such as Latin, reggae — which used to be referred to as world music. 

In 2020, the academy announced that they were changing the name to “global music” in an attempt to depart “from the connotations of colonialism, folk and ‘non-American’ that the former term embodied.” 

This came as part of a broader initiative, perhaps pushed by the social unrest of that year, that led to several categories being renamed. 

While this step focuses on the semantics of the award, the academy neglects to consider how this continues to lump international artists into a single category instead of honoring their distinctiveness.

The newly named global category only has two awards — best global music performance and best global music album. Among those nominees were Femi Kuti, Daniel Ho, WizKid, Rocky Dawuni, Angelique Kidjo and Arooj Aftab. Their styles range from a variety of genres,  such as jazz, classical music, R&B, reggae and a variety of places like Ghana, China, Nigeria, England and Hawaii. 

Aftab — a Pakistani neo-Sufi artist based in Brooklyn — won both awards from the global category this year . Aftab’s music is a new approach to Sufi, a centuries-old South Asian art form with roots in poetry and Islamic prayer practices. 

Though the category is designed to honor the international sounds and influences that these artists share in their music, they fail to recognize how these distinct sounds have emerged as full genres in their own right. The global categories should include awards that reflect the talent emerging from artists that are bringing in their culture through their art. 

Afrobeat, for example, is a genre of music made popular in Nigeria in the 1960s that combines traditional Yoruba music with jazz, West African high life and funk. Fela Kuti — regarded as the father of the genre — has continued to evolve and adapt with inspiration from R&B, Reggae and hip-hop. 

In 2021, Burna Boy, a contemporary Afrobeat artist who has found success in both the US and UK markets, won best global music album. This year, Kuti’s eldest son, Femi Kuti, was nominated in both global music categories, which is significant because it shows the genre’s legacy and its longevity. 

Afrobeat has continued to grow since its inception, with some of the biggest artists in America and the globe, such as Beyoncé and Drake, collaborating with Afrobeat artists based in the U.S., U.K. and countries across the African continent. Justin Bieber featured on a remix of “Essence,” a song by WizKid, also nominated for Best Global Performance. 

Categorizing music from around the world into a single genre or awards category at the Grammys fails to acknowledge how these sounds all have their own separate histories and traditions. 

Despite their attempt to diversify and modernize the categorization, the Recording Academy continues to marginalize the different sounds these artists bring to the table, even if they may be heavily influenced by more mainstream sounds. Even if they are based in the United States, they face many barriers to being recognized since they must face more competition within these narrow categories. 

Expanding the categories of global music would enable acts to be judged against their peers. Just as country music and gospel have numerous awards, so should global music including neo-Sufi, reggae, dancehall, afrobeat and more. The establishment of these genres and distinct categories will only generate more creativity within music for us to enjoy and celebrate. 


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