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Opinion: Grammy's 'global music' categories ignore musicians from much of the globe

The nominees in this year's two "global music" categories for the Grammys include (from left): Burna Boy and WizKid (both from Nigeria), Benin superstar Angelique Kidjo, Hawaii's Daniel Ho and Femi Kuti (he's also Nigerian).
Kevin Winter, Tristan Fewings, Ilya S. Savenok, Jason Merritt and Kristy Sparow
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The nominees in this year's two "global music" categories for the Grammys include (from left): Burna Boy and WizKid (both from Nigeria), Benin superstar Angelique Kidjo, Hawaii's Daniel Ho and Femi Kuti (he's also Nigerian).

In theory, international music makers should be thrilled about the Grammys being handed out this Sunday.

Instead of one category for global music, there are two, doubling the number of nominations from 5 to 10.

(The new category is called "best global music performance." The Grammy rules says it is "reserved for international performers exhibiting non-European, indigenous traditions.")

But if you look at the list of nominees for the 64th annual awards ceremony, it's not that diverse.

Seven of the nominees are from two nations: Nigeria and Benin.

There are no newcomer countries – places that have never been had a local artist nominated.

What's more, the number of artists is limited: four of the five artists nominated in the brand new global performance category are also nominated in the global album category.

There's not a lot of linguistic variety either.

I would argue that the Grammys inadvertently perpetuate the legacy of colonialism by focusing on countries that were former British colonies and have inherited English as an official language, like India, Nigeria and South Africa. In fact, all five of this year's nominations in the global music album category feature predominantly English language songs.

It's a category I care a lot about – and often have a personal stake in. I've had the honor to record 38 records by artists across Africa, Asia, Europe and South and North America — often in places that are reachable only by boat or on foot. Two of these artists have been nominated for a Grammy – Tinariwen (who went on to win for the album Tassili in 2012) and the Zomba Prison Project in 2016, representing Malawi's first (and only) case of artists receiving a nomination.

Global performers can win in non-global categories. Remember 'Who Let The Dogs Out?'

Now it is true that the so-called "global" categories aren't the only place where an international musician can vie for an award.

There are currently 86 Grammy categories, bestowed by the Recording Academy, a group founded in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of nominees are typically from the U.S., Canada and England.

Spanish language performers can not only compete in the global categories but have six categories for their music – plus a whole Grammy program of their own with the Latin Grammys.

Some international musicians are nominated in categories like classical, "small ensemble" and movie scores. And once in a while, an international performer captures a mainstream award – in 1965, for example, the bilingual bossa nova and jazz song "The Girl from Ipanema," performed by Brazil's Astrud Gilberto and saxophonist Stan Getz, was named record of the year.

And "Who Let the Dogs Out" — from the Bahamian group Baha Men — won for best dance record in 2001.

South Korea's hugely popular K-pop boy band BTS has been nominated twice in pop music categories although they've not yet been winner.

The record shows how narrow the list of nominated countries is

But as a rule, the best chance for a Grammy for an international performer is in a global category.

A nomination or win in one of the two global categories can have a tremendous impact. Isabel Soffer, co-founder and co-director of globalFEST— an annual international music festival in the U.S. that features international artists, states: "The Grammys could be a particularly powerful platform to educate, celebrate diversity and foster musical discovery through this extraordinary category in a truly meaningful way.

"The public who may listen to new music through Grammy nominations is cheated out of new sounds from around the world, artists are cheated of new audiences and the opportunity to make money and the world suffers because music, as we all know, is the best way to start to understand the world, re-think differences and create joy."

Yet in the decades the global category has been around — the first year such an award was given was 1992 -- the list of countries that have had a winner or even just a nomination has been scant.

Here are some of the statistics:

*Over two-thirds of the 197 nominations in the history of the global categories have been shared by just six nations: Brazil, India, Mali, Nigeria, South Africa – and the United States. In fact artists from the U.S. have been nominated and won more times in the Global category than any other nation. (Though this is an "international" category, artists from the U.S. have never been excluded from eligibility; this year, for example, Hawaii-born Daniel Ho is a nominee and in past years American rock stars like Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead have won.)

*Overall, only 14 out of 56 African nations have had artists receive a nomination: Benin, Cameroon, Cape Verde, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Uganda, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.

*Countries that have never been on the global music nomination list include: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Georgia, Myanmar, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Vietnam and Yemen.

Some omissions are particularly perplexing. The sonically-innovative, cello-driven Ukrainian group DakhaBrakha which has released seven critically-acclaimed albums since 2005 and racked up almost 3 million views for its video for NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. Yet they've never registered on the Grammy radar.

"World music, like rock, jazz or classical is an enormous category yet there is a consistent omission of many outstanding artists," notes Isabel Soffer of globalFEST.

So why aren't the winners in the global category more ... globally diverse?

I do know that hundreds of artists in the global arena are eager to be nominated – for the same reasons that any musician is interested in a Grammy nod. The Grammy award is the most prestigious music award. Recognition can bring tremendous exposure for airplay, concert dates – and of course the financial boon that can come along with an award.

This year, nearly 400 candidates were considered for the two global categories, submitted typically by record labels, publicists or the artists themselves. They come from such culturally diverse and far-flung places as China, Comoros, Finland, Tunisia and Venezuela, all nations that have never had a single artist nominated in the global category.

The submissions are reviewed by a small, confidential "screening committee." Next the artists' fate is determined by the official Grammy voters— a group made up mostly of producers, engineers, and artists.

And if you look at the statistics I've cited above, you can see that familiar faces and countries are favored.

I asked the Grammys to comment on these statistics and the current nominees, but they did not respond to my request in time for the posting of this article.

Jimi Hendrix never won a Grammy in his lifetime!

Of course, the Grammys themselves are far from a perfect measure of the best music in all categories. There've been past charges that the process is deeply flawed.

One point is that all "12,000 strong" voting members are eligible to vote in three categories of their choosing if they feel they have expertise in that type of music – but the Recording Academy does not vet their assertion that they are familiar with, say, classical or jazz or "global" sounds. Voters choose three genre fields by their own accord.

And as in any awards, voters may make their selections based not solely on the artistry of a nominee. Some industry insiders allege that voters who work for a label often vote as a block for that label's nominees: giving a possible advantage to a global performer like WizKid. The Nigerian musician, who was nominated twice in the global categories this year, is on the world's second largest label group, Sony Music (RCA).

And it's important to note that with all Grammy awards, the merit of the music is not necessarily the sole determinant of winning an award. A parlor game is easily made of naming fabled performers never as much as nominated for a Grammy during their lifetime— icons like Jimi Hendrix, Fela Kuti, Patsy Cline, Bob Marley, NWA, Cecil Taylor and the Ramones.

Angelique Kidjo's Grammy vision

Angelique Kidjo is arguably the world's most recognized performer in the global realm, has been nominated 3 times this year and has won 4 Grammys.

She's personally seen how the Grammys have grown in importance in the global realm.

"The Grammys have become something really huge in Africa," she told me.

"When I first won a Grammy [2008], there wasn't much knowledge about the award in Africa. Even my father on his deathbed said, 'What is a Grammy?' And I had to explain it to him. And then he looked at me and said, 'Finally you've found a country that recognizes talent.'

Kidjo states, "We need to be really mindful of the importance of international music and representing diversity.

"The thing we have to do to really change things is not just represent all of these places, but from time to time to perform on the TV [awards] show for people to see global musicians.

"That's how the business is built."

And there's no question that international musicians, like all musicians trying to earn a living in their chosen field, can benefit from the exposure. Some of the rural musicians I've worked have told me of the hard lives they lead: a lack of clean water, electricity, reliable transportation and good roads; losing family members to even minor ailments like infected cuts due to struggles locating access to health care; difficulty securing schooling for their children.

The untimely passing this year of northern Ghana musician, Small, who was renowned for his exuberant performances at local funerals and was on the verge of his first international trip, is one of far too many such tales. His family did not have enough money to pay for his own funeral.

But of course these are just a few of the many "global" performers who make glorious music in spite of the hardships they face. To me, this makes especially glaring the Grammys' negligence in not rigorously making room for less-advantaged musicians, particularly the most physically isolated — those from remote rural areas, artists literally living on the margins.

And Angelique Kidjo makes it clear that this is a category that should have a mission: "We've got to educate people to understand that it's not just commercial music that is 'music.' We have music in the global category that is the roots of all the commercial music that people are listening to. It's important to go back and find out where the commercial music you are listening to comes from.

"We need to bring the topic of global music to the forefront of the Grammys. We need to have a constant discussion to improve and get better. The whole world is watching."

Ian Brennan is Grammy-winning music producer (Zomba Prison Project, Tinariwen, The Good Ones [Rwanda], Tanzania Albinism Collective). He is the author of seven books. His latest, Muse-$ick: a music manifesto in fifty-nine notes, was published last fall by Oakland's PM Press.

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Ian Brennan