Awards

A Seat At The (Kids) Table: Children's Music Grammy Nominees — And Their Overlooked Peers of Color — Open Up

When the children’s music album category produced an all-white ballot, three nominees protested — and the conversation about the diversity that should define it is just getting started.

The announcement in December that three of the five Grammy nominees for best children's album were asking to have their names withdrawn from the ballot reverberated through the industry, bringing attention not just to the Recording Academy's ongoing struggles with diversity, but also to music too often overlooked by anyone except for children and their parents. In a year marked by the most powerful social justice protests in nearly a half century — a year that saw the Recording Academy pledge to create a more diverse and inclusive membership and voting process — all of the nominees were white, and all but one of them were men. This even though there had been no lack of notable children's music releases from artists of color in 2020.

Children's/family music is one of the places kids first learn about the world and the forces that shape it. It has long carried messages of progressive politics (as, indeed, many of the albums nominated this year do), which made the exclusion of Black and Brown artists from this year's ballot sting all the harder. And that exclusion is hardly an anomaly. In 2017, there were no Black-led acts nominated, and the nominees that vied in 2018, 2019 and 2020 included only one act of color each year.

The all-white ballot for best children's album was first brought to light by Family Music Forward, a collective led by artists of color, shortly after the nominations were announced at the end of November. But it wasn't until three of the nominated acts — Alastair Moock, The Okee Dokee Brothers and Dogs on Fleas — asked to have their nominations withdrawn (and after learning that the Academy would not remove their names from the ballot, called on members to not vote for them) that the issue became national media fodder.

Academy officials — including interim president Harvey Mason Jr. and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer Valeisha Butterfield Jones — met twice via video conference over the issue. The first meeting was with a small group of Family Music Forward members after the organization's initial protest. The second was with a larger group that included Moock; members of The Okee Dokee Brothers and Dog on Fleas; the two other nominees in the category, Justin Roberts and Joanie Leeds (neither of whom have withdrawn their nominations); and children's music artists of color Uncle Devin, his wife Lolita Walker and Tommy Shepherd of the Alphabet Rockers (themselves two-time nominees in the category).

At both of the meetings, the Academy admitted that the nomination review committee for the best children's album category — which culls the top 15 albums that get the most nods during general voting to five nominees — had lacked diversity. Although the statement that Butterfield Jones issued afterward contained no such mea culpa, it did say, "We have met with Family Music Forward and others to reaffirm our commitment to drive necessary change. We are confident that together our industry can keep moving forward." (On March 1, members of FMF submitted a proposal to the Recording Academy with recommendations for creating more transparency in the nomination process. They are expecting a response after the Grammys.)

In order to delve deeper into the issue, Billboard invited five artists in the children's and family music space, including Moock and one half of The Okee Dokee Brothers, Joe Mailander, to join in a roundtable discussion. The other participants were Pierce Freelon, a hip-hop artist and city council member in Raleigh City, NC, whose 2020 debut children's album D.a.D was celebrated on Today, NPR and elsewhere; Christina Sanabria of the Latin Grammy-winning husband-and-wife duo 123 Andrés (pronounced Uno Dos Tres Andrés), which released Hola, Amigo: Songs of Friendship; and 15-year children's music veteran and reggae artist Aaron Nigel Smith, who put out the concert album Live in L.A.

Four of the five participants are founding members of Family Music Forward, which formed this past summer (Mailander is a member but joined later in the year). They recounted their meetings with the Academy, the changes they would like to see in the voting process for children's music, and the systemic racism they see in the music industry, including the media that covers it. As Moock put it, "All white people have to do to be part of racist society is nothing because the system already serves us."

They also discussed the artists they would have liked to have seen nominated for the best children's album Grammy, the events that led to the formation of the Family Music Forum, and the steps that its members are taking to create opportunities for artists of color. "We are tired of waiting," says Smith.

The industry is responding as well. February saw the unveiling of Nashville-based 8 Pound Gorilla Records, a division of the comedy label 800 Pound Gorilla Media. With SiriusXM Kids Place Live host Kenny Curtis heading up A&R, 8 Pound Gorilla will devote itself to releasing a diverse roster of talent, including music by SaulPaul and DJ Willy Wow. "We want to help our artists create music that sounds like the world kids live in today," says Curtis.

Everyone here has put out an album this year that would have been eligible in the best children's album category. Were all of your albums submitted for nomination? If so, can you briefly tell me how your album was submitted?

Sanabria: We are Grammy members, and so we submitted our own album, Hola, Amigo: Songs of Friendship.

Smith: I am a voting member, and I submitted my album, Live in L.A. This was the seventh album of mine that I have submitted.

Pierce, D.a.D is your first album of children's music. Are you an Academy member and did you submit your album yourself?

Freelon: I'm not a voting member so I had to submit through a friend.

Moock: I'm a voting member, and I submitted Be A Pain myself.

Joe, this would have been the Okee Dokee Brothers' fourth nomination?

Mailander: Fifth. We submitted Songs For Singin' ourselves. We are voting members.

All of you make music to entertain and comfort children, but you also use music to educate. How have the events of 2020 affected your feelings about the role of children's music in the world, as well as your feelings about this year's Grammy nominations in your category?

Smith: Children's music is one of the most important offerings that we can provide to our generation. Music has a way of breaking down barriers, and it can really teach because it's received by youth without discrimination and preconceived notions. We can teach numbers, letters and colors, but we can also teach loving kindness. We can teach how to be a good neighbor. With the Grammys this year, the nominations were a reflection of our society today and our history. This year of all years, it was surprising and, more importantly, disappointing that there was no acknowledgement of the rich diversity that's offered in the children and family music space.

Freelon: This year, I thought a lot about how racism starts at a young age because I put out D.a.D as a Black father at a time when I also had to have a conversation with my Black son about institutional racism. When a police officer like the one that kneeled on George Floyd's neck or the one that shot Tamir Rice or killed Michael Brown was a kid, what images of Black men were they seeing in their childhood? Would George Zimmerman have killed Trayvon Martin had he seen positive, affirming, nurturing Black role models? They're largely absent from children's media and media in general. So, last year I really started thinking about the power of children's music to interrupt that narrative — to flip a switch in the minds of folks who are killing Black men and boys at these alarming rates. George Floyd was a catalyst, just like Emmett Till was a catalyst, but neither of them was an anomaly.

Christina, you and your husband have been nominated three times for Latin Grammys and won in 2016. Yet you've never been nominated by the all-genre Grammys. How did your Latin Grammy nominations and win affect the visibility of 123 Andrés, and why do you think your work has been overlooked by the Grammys at large?

Sanabria: Once you can put that on your website, in your bio and every piece of marketing, that opens doors for you. And if it doesn't open doors, it increases the chances they will open for you when you knock. The same is true for any prestigious award like the Grammys. So, one reason it is so important for the Grammys to reflect the diverse field of children's music creators out there, is that this category is uniquely positioned to serve all children. And all children include what I looked like as a child and the range of my experiences. There were days when I was, like, "I want bubblegum," but I also dealt with concerns of having parents who were undocumented immigrants. You might say, "Are children ready to think about that?" But this summer, we attended a number of protests and marches and saw so many children who were the age that Tamir Rice would have been or younger. Some were carrying signs that read, "I won't be cute in 15 years." They showed us that this is the reality for a lot of children today. The latest census information shows that more than 50 percent of children today are non-white. Some are grappling with poverty and inequality. And if you look at what sounds those children are gravitating to on YouTube and TikTok, they are a lot more diverse than what some people might think of as children's music.

Joe, The Okee Dokee Brothers have won a best children's album Grammy. What kind of effect did it have on your career?

Mailander: We won in 2013 for an album called Can You Canoe and yeah, it had a tremendous impact on what we were doing at the time. We were just coming up in the industry, and it led to a relationship with a booking agent that put us in front of performing arts center audiences and the national press. From there, we used that momentum to engage with our fan base. We've never put down what this award can do for artists. We do think it needs to go hand-in-hand with quality music and engagement for it to do much good, but yeah, it's an effective tool even in the children's music space.

Moock: The Grammy is a very big deal. It's recognition from your peers. It opens a huge number of doors — especially in a small category like this — to be able to use that brand as part of your brand for the rest of your life. All of us want it because we have awards in children's music, but nobody outside of children's music has ever heard of them. But what happened this year is not the way that any of us wanted it, and I think I'm right in speaking for all five of the nominees in saying that we were all taken aback.

Can you walk us through how you came to put out the statement rescinding your nominations?

Moock: I spent this last year as part of Family Music Forward. I feel very fortunate to be part of it. It's a Black and Brown-led organization, and I spent much of this year listening to the stories of peers. I've known Aaron and Uncle Devin for a long time, but I had never had that conversation with them. And that's mostly because I never asked them, what has your journey in family music been like? As I started to ask more people that question, I was really taken aback by the obstacles I heard about over and over again. Then, Family Music Forward came together over the summer and under the leadership of folks like Aaron, put together our first-ever Black music festival, Kukuza Fest. And not only did the group create this two-day festival of performances, when it came time to hire a graphic designer, we went and researched Black graphic designers because none of us in the group, including any of the Black members of the group, knew any. Uncle Devin found a Black publicist because there are none in the children's music space. It was a real learning experience.

Family Music Forward first brought attention to the all-white Grammy nomination slate at the end of November via social media. Did the Academy respond to you?

Smith: Yes. When we did our initial protest, I felt there was a sense of urgency. They were like, can we meet today? They respected the fact that something needed to be addressed. On December 4, we had a heart-to-heart with them — myself and a couple other members of Family Music Forward — where they acknowledged that there was a lack of judgment within the Grammy organization, and we were appreciative of that. We presented recommendations for how we can move forward, such as education programs to inform the Academy membership that there's a wide variety of genres in the children's music category. One of the key recommendations was more transparency in the entire process — the nominating process included — and we want an overhaul of the nominating committee. After the votes are tallied and calculated, it goes to a secret review committee and that's where the wisdom, the discernment, the ability exists to make this situation right. That's where they could have said, "Hey, all of the nominees are white. How do we correct this?"

Mailander: After members vote for the category, there is a nomination review committee that reviews the top 15 vote getters, and they choose the five nominees from there.

Smith: So, that was our initial meeting, and then there was a follow-up meeting with the Academy on Dec. 11 where FMF and the artists were represented. Do you want to speak to that Joe?

Mailander: The big thing that the Academy admitted in that meeting was that the nomination review committee did not have strong representation from people of color. That was said outright. They said it should have been stronger and that it was unacceptable. We suspected this was the case because of the amazing albums that came out in 2020 that were overlooked. That didn't add up for us. We could see that our music, which kind of fits within the white narrative, seems to have unseen advantages when there's only white people listening to it. Those are people that understand what we're doing with folk music. But this is a special category that really needs to have experts on the committee that understand the diverse genres that were submitted in the children's category — hip-hop, R&B, reggae and Latin music. They didn't have that, and that's absolutely unacceptable for a professional organization to drop the ball like that. It is embarrassing to our genre, and it hurts our music community.

Was any reason given for this lapse?

Mailander: They said that they didn't have enough people of color because of review committee term limits as well as conflicts of interest. But as I tried to piece together what had happened, I see that maybe they reached out to a handful of people of color. They need to have 50, 60, 100 people that they can reach out to make sure the committees are diverse — and those people do exist.

Who did you meet with at the Academy?

Mailander: Harvey Mason Jr., Valeisha Butterfield Jones and other top executives around them.

In light of the Academy's admission that the review committee was not diverse, what did you think of the statement that Valeisha Butterfield Jones released after your meetings? There was no reference to that admission.

Mailander: We expected them to put out a statement taking responsibility in a very clear way, which did not happen.

Smith: We're disappointed by that, but I understand that they were protecting their organization. They weren't not going to throw themselves under the bus. But we do feel heard to a certain degree and hopeful that they seemed responsive. But we're operating on the principle of trust but verify. We're not going to leave it in their lap to create this change. The change is coming with or without the Academy.

Aaron, you spoke about the need for more transparency. Can you tell us what's not transparent? What are the failings and how should they be corrected?

Smith: The nomination review committee has a lot of power to determine who's going to be nominated, but the members of that committee are kept secret and the protocols they use to determine the final list of nominees is not really known unless you've been on one of the committees. Perhaps they could open up the process and let us audit that information or publicly release the information. Let's be open and upfront.

Mailander: Aaron we might disagree on this, but I think the Academy's reason for not releasing those names is to protect their privacy and keep them from being flooded with solicitations. You can push for that, and I'm open to hearing more, but we should be able to work with the Academy to determine what percentage of people of color are on the committee as well as gender percentages.

Smith: That would be fair. That way we could make a proper assessment without disclosing personal information. Another one of their arguments was that there weren't enough submissions by artists of color to be considered. But after reviewing the entire list, we found that actually a quarter of the entries were [artists of color]. That means a quarter of the nominations should have reflected that. I've released seven albums. I'll say that two of them deserved to be acknowledged — I'm a tough critic when it comes to my work. And I've got the same agents as all of the guys and women that have been nominated. I understand the game thoroughly. I have put the marketing money into it. I've "played the game" at the level of many of the people who have been nominated, and I don't know why I haven't been on that on that list for all these years. And this is not just for me. This is for Pierce. This is for SaulPaul. This is so artists of color don't have to wait 20 years to get acknowledgement. It hurts to not feel the support of your peers.

Freelon: You don't know why? It's systemic racism.

Mailander: An NPR piece on the protest came out recently, and I felt like the writer did a great job telling the story. Yet, what gets put on the net is a picture of The Okee Dokee Brothers — two white guys — and a headline ["3 Grammy Contenders Share Outrage At All-White Category, Decline Nominations"] that leads to white savior-ship. That story gets told over and over again, which is why this protest is saying we need to make room for Black and Brown voices. It's not that our voices and stories aren't important. They are – I'm really proud of my album, what it's about and the message it sends to kids — but the nominations are so white and so male that we're telling the same stories to the same audiences. That's a disservice to Black and Brown people. It's a disservice to white people, too.

Freelon: Could I build on that? Children's music, let's be honest, is a relatively obscure genre. What's the one time a year where, if you are interested in music, you think, "I wonder what's going on in children's music?" The Grammys play a big role in the media's interest in what's going on in our category. And so for them to look up annually and constantly see this very narrow representation of talent — imagine a best of the best competition where the top four are Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, James Taylor and Joan Baez. They are among the best — as are, by the way, the five nominees for this year's children's music category — but why aren't Bob Marley, Lauryn Hill and Tupac in the conversation? It's mind-boggling. And brother Aaron, this is not something where we should be saying, "I have no idea how this happened."

The last thing I'll say is Billboard, you play an important role in perpetuating the status quo. We're here because some white guys decided to rescind their nominations — not because you were fascinated by the music of Pierce Freelon, 123 Andrés or Aaron Nigel Smith. Basically Alastair and Joe hoisted us on their backs and brought us into this meeting because you didn't pay attention until the controversy of their choice made it mandatory. We need a lower bar of entry than white guys rescinding their nominations. Some of the gatekeepers that can allow that access are publications like Billboard, Rolling Stone and NPR, which don't typically do a lot of children's music stories. When Family Music Forward first said this is wrong, Billboard, Rolling Stone and NPR were like, meh. But when Joe and Alastair and Doug said it's wrong, guess what? We got phone calls from all three.

Moock: I want to cosign and speak to white people for a second. All white people have to do to be part of racist society is nothing because the system already serves us. A lot of us in the children's music world have struggled with this because we feel like hey, we're good people, we all want change, and we all want to see the nominees be diverse. But we keep getting the same result. It's hard to point fingers. The Grammys play a role: the nominating committees look like us; the field itself is overwhelmingly white. I think there's a real disconnect for a lot of people in our field when it comes to hip-hop, reggae, R&B. I don't think many of us have the tools to evaluate that music critically. So, we don't know what Pierce is doing. And yet, Pierce's album got more national press this year than any children's album that came out by far. He was on the Today show and a bunch of other programs. So, the national audience understood that this album was important. How does that not get a nomination?

Christina, what's your perspective?

Sanabria: There's something unique about children's or family music in that it's not a genre, even though it's sometimes called one. It's more of an audience that listens to many genres. But there's also something that's not unique about children's music. It's what American music looks like. The members of Family Music Forward want to approach change through the idea of intersectionality. We want to lift up the voices of people of color and other identities, whether it's gender or ability. These are the children and families that we are serving, and we recognize that unless we move forward together, we are not achieving justice, equality and representation. We've been talking a lot about the Grammy process, but I think that Family Music Forward and all of us here recognize that change needs to happen industry-wide — from the performance spaces, the radio spaces, the press spaces. All of those things need to come together to make sure that there are no barriers for musicians making high-quality music to make a living.

Everyone here is a member of Family Music Forward. How did the organization get its start, and when did each of you join?

Sanabria: Family Music Forward started over the summer in reference to some virtual events that had an all-white lineup. We began to meet regularly, and as Aaron said, our first outward looking project was Kukuza Fest.

Freelon: The festivals that Christina mentioned are not new. There have been white festivals and white booking agents, white-exclusive artists and events. There were two or three things that made it different this year. COVID was one. So, festivals that may not have been on everyone's radar were now in our faces because everything had become digital and virtual. What started as a conversation that Alastair and others were having around George Floyd, and what do we do about this racist festival thing, became an opportunity to create a group dedicated to dealing with this. If there was a timeline, I was in the second tier. Aaron was in the third. There's a first tier before me, and we're all founding members except Joe. Also, I want to make sure that when you write about Family Music Forward you know that, although last summer was a catalyst, this movement is building on a very solid foundation created by some amazing Black women like Ella Jenkins, Sweet Honey in the Rock and Lolita Walker, who is Uncle Devin's wife, and a cofounder of WEE Nation Radio.

Smith: I was one of the last to the dance. We were all quarantined and doing our own projects, and Alastair reached out to me. He was, like, "Yo man, there's something you might want to know about that's starting." So, I'm bigging up Alastair for introducing me to the group. It has been life-changing and empowering. Rather than feeling isolated, I'm part of a team. We're meeting multiple times a week. We're forming committees, and we've got initiatives that you'll be excited to see.

Mailander: I'm not a founding member. For me, it was a slow process of participating in certain initiatives throughout the fall. But I will say this about Family Music Forward: I've been in the children's music space for 10 years and have never felt as inspired and energized as I have in the last three months as I get to know these people who are really walking the walk and doing incredible work.

Moock: My origin story started with a bad idea. We have a children's music forum, and after George Floyd's murder, I jumped into that space and threw out the idea to do a concert to raise money for Black Lives Matter. Fifty people raised their hands, which is a testament to our community, but 45 of them were white. One of our other founding members, Amelia Robinson, called that out and was like, "Hey, I don't think this is how we honor Black Lives Matter." In a very gracious way, Devin and Andrés reached out and told me that they were already working on an idea for a Black music festival or concert but maybe we could collaborate. It was a much better idea. But that's not the origin story of Family Music Forward. Like Christina says, a lot of people in this field were already working and collaborating, and that specific conversation around the concert led a number of us to get together. One conversation led to another, and we found ourselves with a group. Then we reached out to some other folks like Pierce and Aaron and we built ourselves a coalition.

In your opinions, who are the deserving artists who should have been on that nomination ballot?

Mailander: I think Pierce Freelon made a masterpiece. He made an incredibly meaningful and personal album that reflected his relationships with his daughter and his father. It's fresh, it takes a lot of risks and it's super vulnerable. It 100 percent should have been on that nomination list. Elena Moon Park's album, The Unhurried Journey, is also a masterpiece and was completely overlooked. It's traditional folk music from East and Southeast Asia meets Americana. SaulPaul's Be The Change was one of the best records of 2020. His sound is not understood by old folkies, so it was also overlooked. Uno, Dos, Tres Andrés was overlooked. Aaron Nigel Smith cut a live reggae record that's full of incredible energy. That doesn't happen very often in this field. Mista Cookie Jar, Jose-Luis Orozco, Lucky Diaz, who's been overlooked way too many times. Those are just a few personal favorites.

Moock: Obviously, we have our favorites, but three of those albums — Pierce's, SaulPaul's and Elena Moon Park — have come up over and over again with people in our field who have talked about this. For me, it was a travesty that SaulPaul was not nominated. This is his fourth album, and he did what it often takes to get on the ballot. He included a lot of well-established members of the community, including people who have been nominated for Grammys themselves. Joe put his finger on it: SaulPaul's sound isn't well understood. He uses Auto-Tune. But it was an inclusive album as well as a deeply personal album that, on some songs, spoke directly to Black kids. He has an incredible story about growing up poor and spending time in jail, and he articulated that in such a personal way on the album. That story is so valuable and it's so rarely heard in this space.

Musicians in other categories have said that, by talking to their colleagues, it's possible to figure out who's on a nomination review committee. Have any of you been able to suss that out and approach these committee members to voice your frustration and anger?

Sanabria: Andrés and I have not. That is not something of interest to us. We see this as a historic issue. This particular year was a glaring example, but in 2017 there was no act led by people of color. And in other years there were one, maybe two nominees, but that doesn't make it okay. Next year we might have one or two nominees and everyone will be like, "Oh, that's great. Problem solved." But it's not. It's an ongoing long-term thing. It's not just about this year. It's about the system.

Smith: It's going to take a holistic approach to manifest the change we want to see. So pointing the finger at one particular committee or one particular challenge that we're having — I don't know if that's where the solution lies. Organizations like Family Music Forward are where the solution is. Let's build and let's create. We're in that process, and the first thing we did was found Kukuza Fest, highlighting people of color. The second thing we did was this protest, which has had significant impact. We're building the industry that needs to be here. We're tired of waiting.

Additional reporting by Joe Levy.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 13, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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