Q&A: Why the Grammy Awards Eliminated Roots Music

Peter Schurmann

From New America Media:


Editor's Note: Marred by the untimely death of R&B diva Whitney Houston, the 54th Annual Grammy Awards this past weekend celebrated musical greats across a range of genres. But mariachi, Hawaiian and Native American folk music were not among them, as they were cut along with 28 other categories in a move that has riled music fans across the country. Roberto Lovato heads the Latino advocacy group Presente.org, which has teamed up with Grammy Watch to organize protests against the decision. He spoke with NAM editor Peter Schurmann.


What do you make of the Recording Academy’s decision to eliminate 31 categories?

At the end of the day, this was about greed. Secondly, it was about… greed. The academy talks about music as a “product.” The awards have become more and more about glitter… they are more profit centered.


[National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences President] Neil Portnow and his cronies made this decision without the participation of the Academy’s 21,000 members. It was essentially an anti-democratic move on their part that finds its corollary in the financial industry’s efforts to uproot communities through foreclosures. The final message is, “We don’t want you to have roots.”


What are the implications for individual artists and society as a whole?

The implications extend far beyond music. Jobs will be lost, including all those whose livelihoods depend on the ability of these musicians to thrive and succeed. But beyond this, it serves as a way to kill off culture… By ignoring these categories, that’s essentially what is happening.


It’s a similar dynamic to the push to eliminate ethnic studies in schools. Most of the 31 categories cut involved roots music of some kind, music that told the stories of the new majorities in this country; stories of war, love and the ills of society. The decision to eliminate these categories pushes these spirits, these histories even further into the margins.


What is Presente.org doing about this issue?

We’ve partnered with Grammy Watch in a petition drive that aims to have the categories reinstated. Presente.org represents social justice issues, and it is important that there is justice in music and culture, which provides an interpretation of justice. So far we’ve gathered more than 23,000 signatures.


What is the importance of these categories specifically?

Four of the six categories that [the late] Whitney Houston won in [Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance] were categories that have now been eliminated. There would have been no Whitney with the current categories. There would have been no [Latin jazz greats like] Tito Puentes.


Beyond this, what’s important in the music is the spirituality and beauty that’s behind it. In a sense, the Grammy decision is pushing communities to value more what is important to them. So many people have become activists through this music. Think of Billy Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” speaking on the sublime roots of her struggle.


The elimination of these categories only furthers what the sociologist George Ritzer called the “McDonalds-ization” of culture. It says styles like mariachi aren’t deserving of a thing in this society. On the east coast, the elimination of Latin jazz is going to get a lot of people mad.


You’re quoted in the Los Angeles Times as calling this a civil right issue. Can you expand on that?

This is a human rights issue, because music is broader than the struggle for civil rights. Like the Occupy movement, which is about the enclosure of public space, this is an issue about the enclosure of musical space.


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