Members of Family Music Forward and two acts that asked for their nominations to be withdrawn from the best children’s album Grammy category said that Recording Academy officials admitted during a Dec. 11 meeting that the nomination review committee for the category was not diverse enough.
The Academy’s admission was discussed in a soon-to-be published roundtable discussion that Billboard conducted with children’s music artists Aaron Nigel Smith, Christina Sanabria of 123 Andres, Pierce Freelon, Joe Mailander of The Okee Dokee Brothers and Alastair Moock. All of the participants are members of the FMF, an artists’ collective formed this past summer to fight institutional and systemic racial bias in the music industry.
The Academy subsequently set up a Dec. 11 Zoom meeting to discuss the issue which was attended by all of those nominated in the category — Mailander and Justin Lansing of the Okee Dokee Brothers, Moock, Dean Jones of Dog on Fleas, Joanie Leeds and Justin Roberts, who is an Academy trustee (elected by the Chicago chapter) — as well as Lucy Kalantari, the frontwoman of Lucy & The Jazz Cats, and Black children’s music artists Smith, Uncle Devin, his manager wife Lolita Walker and Tommy Shepherd of the ABC Rockers.
Recording Academy interim president Harvey Mason Jr. and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer Valeisha Butterfield Jones were among the Academy officials who took part in the meeting.
“The big thing that the Grammys admitted in that meeting was that the nomination review committee [for the category] did not have strong representation from people of color,” says Mailander. “That was said outright — they said it should have been stronger, and that it was unacceptable.”
After the Academy’s general membership votes for the children’s albums that deserve nominations, a nomination review committee made up of 13 to 17 members who are experts in the category listens to the top 15 selections and pares them down to a field of five via a confidential ballot.
A more diverse nomination review committee could well have been less likely to overlook standout children’s music releases rooted in hip-hop, reggae, and Latin music. Moock observed, for example, that Freelon’s album, D.a.D., which chronicles the experiences of a Black millennial father living in the South, “by far, got more national press this year than any children’s album that came out in 2020. He was on the Today Show, NPR and a bunch of other programs. The national audience understood that this album was important, he said. “ How does that not get a nomination?”
In four of the past five years the children’s music category has included nominees of color, making the lack of diversity in this year’s ballot particularly galling after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, as well as the Academy’s pledge to make its membership and nomination process more diverse and inclusive. Four of this year’s nominees are folk or rock-flavored (with Dogs on Fleas favoring a playful electro-funk) — a showing the roundtable panelists agreed is not representative of the diversity of children’s music today. “I would say this is a special category that really needs to have experts that understand the diverse array of genres,” said Mailander during the roundtable. “They didn’t have that, and it is embarrassing to our category.”
The Dec. 11 Zoom call was actually the second meeting that the Academy held on the matter. It reached out to members of Family Music Forward on Dec. 4 after the organization noted the all-white ballot for best children’s album onsocial media in late November following the Grammy nominations announcement.
Smith, who was among the FMF members that attended the first video call, said the meeting was a “heart-to-heart” during which the collective presented “recommendations for how we could move forward.” Those recommendations included “more transparency in the entire voting process, including an overhaul of the nomination review committee.” A Recording Academy representative said the names of nomination review committee members are kept confidential out of a “need for protection and privacy,” but added, “Nothing is off the table, and we will continue to evaluate.”
Butterfield Jones’ statement in the wake of the Dec. 11 meeting affirmed the Academy’s commitment to diversity, while acknowledging that there was still work to be done. But some of the artists who took part in discussion were disappointed that she offered no mea culpa regarding the category’s nomination review committee. “We expected them to put out a statement taking responsibility in a very clear way,” says Mailander.
Nonetheless, Smith said the Academy “seemed to be on board for creating meaningful change.” For example, he said the Academy has invited FMF to participate in a “Listening Session” in February. According to the Academy rep, “the “goal for the discussion is to build community, increase representation and submissions among Black creators of children’s music, and to ensure that the category is prioritized and centered in our strategy and work.”
And though Grammy ballots had gone out before the Okee Dokee Brothers, Moock and Dogs on Fleas announced their protest — which, according to the representative, prevented the Academy from removing their names — Mailander says he and the other musicians were surprised to learn on Jan. 7 that votes for the three acts will not be counted and the Grammy will go to which of the two remaining nominees, Leeds and Roberts, gets the most nods.
The Academy representative said that the two remaining nominees had been informed of the decision. The protesting nominees had not, however, and when Mailander was alerted to this development, he said the Okee Dokee Brothers and their fellow protesters, “are pleased to hear that we are no longer an official nominee this year; that the academy adhered to our request, and that there is no chance we will win this award.”