A Myopic Perception of Non-Western Music The ‘Global Music’ Category at the Grammy Awards

The Recording Academy needs to review and redirect how they categorize non-Western musical practices and cultures. To start, more award categories could be introduced to reflect the diverse range of Black music across the world. 

On November 15, 2022 the complete list of nominees for the 2023 Grammy awards was announced. The ‘Best Global Music Album’ and ‘Best Global Music Performance’ categories were filled with nominated artists who make a wide variety of music, which hardly intersect or interact with one another. The only discernible unifying factor is they were made by artists that are indigenes of non-western countries. This ‘othering’ continues to perpetuate harmful stereotypes that hinders creative progress outside the West.  

Despite being worlds apart, Burna Boy’s afro-fusion album titled Love, Damini and the Indian Pop album titled Shuruaat by Berklee Indian Ensemble, were both nominated within the same ‘Best Global Music Album’ category. It is questionable that an afro-fusion album and an Indian pop album are mindlessly placed in the same category, without considering the varied cultures and musical influences reflected in both works.  The contrasting genres explored on Love, Damini and Shuruaat highlight the Grammys’ continued tradition of grouping musical genres in an attempt to appear inclusive. This inclusivity is merely piecemeal. In reality, the Recording Academy is detached from the intricacies that underpin different genres of traditional, non-Western music and unwilling to engage with non-Western cultures in a more meaningful way.

‘GLOBAL MUSIC’

The Recording Academy needs to completely review and redirect how they categorize non-Western musical practices and cultures. To start, more award categories could be introduced to reflect the diverse range of Black musical practices across the world. This is more significant than grouping contrasting musical genres into a vague ‘Global Music’ category. Although the ‘Best Reggae Album,’ category was established in 1985, genres like afrobeats, amapiano and highlife exist in today’s world. These genres are widely listened to, acknowledged and respected in musical spaces worldwide. Despite their global reach, the Recording Academy is yet to introduce a ‘Best Afrobeats Album,’ ‘Best Amapiano Album’ or ‘Best Highlife Album,’ category; reflecting its reluctance to evolve with the times.  

Minimal and performative actions have so far been taken to rectify the concerns surrounding the ‘Global Music’ category. In 2020, the Grammy Awards changed the ‘Best World Music’ album category to the ‘Best Global Music’ category in an attempt to present ‘a more relevant, modern and inclusive term.’ The Grammys intended ‘connotations of colonialism and division’, glaringly obvious in the use of the term—‘world music’. The transition from ‘world’ to ‘global’ music is akin to covering up a broken bone with a plaster. The Recording Academy has only adopted a slightly more accommodating label to continue its process of superficially grouping non-Western forms of music. As recognized by The Guardian’s music critic, Ammar Kalia, ‘the change does not answer the valid complaints of the artists and record label founders who have been plagued by catch-all terms…marginalized music still needs championing and signposting in the West.’      

CHAMPIONING THE CAUSE; FANS OR ARTISTS?

Fans, music critics and overlooked artists appear to be much more vocal about these concerns than the artists nominated in and awarded through the ‘Global Music’ categories. There are no formal records of non-Western artists boycotting the Grammys or vocalizing concerns on how the nominees in the ‘Global Music’ categories are selected. This is quite ironic, considering such artists have most cause to boycott or at the very least complain about the Grammys’ nomination and selection process. It also raises the question of why Western or external validation is so important to these artists, particularly from an organization that hardly understands the intricacies of indigenous cultures and what makes them different and unique. In response to this question, a Grammy nomination or award often leads to mass exposure, more opportunities and widespread acknowledgement which can be great for any artist’s trajectory. These are all valid reasons why artists who win—or at the very least— nominated within the ‘Global Music’ categories, feel validated instead of tokenized.  

In the song ‘Level Up’ (Twice as Tall), Burna Boy highlights the importance of winning a Grammy and presents the award as the ultimate personal triumph. The song emphasizes the pressure artists place on themselves to win a Grammy, as Burna candidly expressed his disappointment when his African Giant album—although nominated—did not win the 62nd Annual Grammy Award for ‘Best World Music’. On ‘Level Up’, Burna shares that he felt ‘envious’ of other artists who won Grammy awards and was ‘asking questions like why it wasn’t [him and his team],’ going on stage to receive the award he worked so hard for. Considering how self-assured Burna presents himself to be, it is quite concerning that he cared so much about the Grammys’ understanding or perception of African Giant.  Winning a Grammy was clearly a huge aspiration for Burna Boy—as it is for many artists; therefore cementing the Grammys’ importance and prestige within the music industry.  

The obvious approach of divesting from the Grammys and focusing solely on local award shows is easier said than done, as many artists feel little to no incentive to take this route. The Grammys is the most critically acclaimed music award ceremony in the world. It has occurred annually since 1959 and its long history of accomplished award winners is something many artists, including non-Western artists, aspire to be part of. For instance, divesting from the Grammys is particularly difficult for Nigerian artists because our local award shows, (which recognize the nuances of Nigerian music) are far less established, organized and universally acknowledged than the Grammys.  

On 5 September 2022, the 15th edition of the Headies was held in Atlanta. Ayo Animashaun, the creator of the awards ceremony, cited better production quality and improved efficiency as the main reasons for the Headies’ re-location in 2022. Sadly, many music commentators agree that the show was just as underwhelming as previous editions. According to Tami Makinde, the Managing Editor of Native Magazine, ‘the Headies didn’t deliver a great ceremony. There were barely any positive highlights; a lot of Nigerian music’s biggest stars were visibly absent, and the viewing experience remained aesthetically unappealing.’     

THE AMERICANIZATION OF POP CULTURE, MUSIC AND THE GRAMMYS

The Americanization of pop culture and music is another key reason why indigenous artists are reluctant to divest from the Grammys. American ideas, concepts and ways of life permeate our minds not solely through music, but through film, television and advertising. For instance, the widespread success of the American soft drink brand, Coca-Cola, illustrates how American values and cultures affect and touch practically every corner of the world. As further explained by the Media and American Studies Professor, Jaap Kooijman, ‘Coca-Cola effectively functions as a carrier of American values and ideology … [by presenting] its “‘foreign” ideology as a universal one, promoting an American interpretation of values like freedom, democracy, and individual agency, all within a free market economy, as the shared values of global multiculturalism and human universalism.’  

This is parallel to how the Grammys are presented as the world’s most prestigious music award ceremony, but in reality the ceremony is a music association that continuously projects an American-focused lens and viewpoint on its categorization of non-Western music and culture. For a song to be nominated for a Grammy, Vox writer, Kelsey McKinney, notes that it must be ‘commercially released and sold in the United States.’ McKinney further writes that ‘the Grammy guidelines state that an album must be ‘available for sale’ through a broad distributor and not the ‘artist’s website.’ These guidelines and rules automatically eliminate artists who do not operate within the frameworks of Western society or modernity, where uploading music on streaming platforms and across different jurisdictions is the norm. Non-US artists who distribute their music locally or solely upload their content on their websites are automatically excluded or at a disadvantage during the Grammys selection process.  

The rule that artists have to distribute their music in the US (to be eligible for a Grammy nomination), disproportionately impacts non-Western musicians. This barrier demonstrates the dominant influence and social capital that the Grammys and American culture have over African countries and to a lesser degree, the global south. The hegemonic nature of the Grammys and American culture in general, are much more insidious reasons why artists nominated in the ‘Global Music’ categories are often excited to be included and recognized. To these artists and many people across the world, America seems to be a land of ‘victory’ or ‘opportunity’ because we are constantly consuming American focused content and propaganda.  

To illustrate this, the American national anthem describes America as ‘the land of the free and home of the brave.’ It is a fairly common idea that if an individual can make it in America—particularly in large American cities—they can make it anywhere. This ideation is ingrained in our minds through different forms of media.  In the song ‘New York State of Mind’ by Jay Z and Alicia Keys, New York City is presented as a ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of.’ Similarly in Lin Manuel’s musical theatre show, Hamilton, America is presented as the land of opportunity where Alexander Hamilton’s self-actualization and re-invention began. As acknowledged by Jaap Kooijman, ‘whether the global omnipresence of American pop culture is passively consumed, actively appropriated, or even not recognized as being American at all, does not alter the way American pop culture [and by extension the Grammy Awards] promote its American conception of the world as an assumed self-evident ideal of human universalism.’      

A MYOPIC PERCEPTION OF NON-WESTERN MUSIC

The Grammys cosplay as an internationally inclusive music award institution. In reality, it is an American initiative that promotes a myopic perception of non-Western, indigenous music through its ‘Global Music’ category. For the Nigerian music industry, improving our local or national award ceremonies could serve as a positive distraction from the Grammys’ ‘Global Music’ selection process. If subsequent editions of the Headies are organized more efficiently, this could encourage Nigerian artists to divest from the Grammys and its detached grouping of indigenous music

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