False progress

From 2024, the Grammys will feature an award for Best African Music Performance. Is the category a positive step embracing the global popularity of African music, or another homogenizing exotification?

Angélique Kidjo at Womadelaide in Australia. Image credit Simon Loffler via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

In June, the Recording Academy announced three new categories for the 2024 Grammys: Best African Music Performance, Best Alternative Jazz Album and Best Pop Dance Recording. According to Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr., “These changes reflect our commitment to actively listen and respond to the feedback from our music community, accurately represent a diverse range of relevant musical genres, and stay aligned with the ever-evolving musical landscape.”

On its surface, this acknowledgment appears like one of several marked steps forward by the American music market to embrace the growing popularity and influence of various music genres from the continent. In 2016, Beninese musical legend Angelique Kidjo accepted a Grammy for Best Global Music Album, and foretold an upcoming watershed moment. “I want to dedicate this Grammy to all the traditional musicians in Africa in my country, to all the younger generations that knew our music,” Kidjo declared. “Africa is on the rise.” Since then, megastar artists such as Burna Boy and Wizkid have gone on to win Grammys, Billboard has launched the US Afrobeats Songs chart, and seemingly ubiquitous hits such as Wizkid’s “Essence,” Rema’s “Calm Down,” and Burna Boy’s “Last Last” have become Billboard Hot 100 mainstays. Yet, when Mason was interviewed in 2021 about “Essence” failing to make the finals for Record of the Year as the best-selling African record of all time in the US, the response was noncommittal: “It is a great record. He’s a very talented artist. I can’t speak to why it didn’t make it, but I do really love the record.”

For decades, the American music industry at large designated artists like Kidjo to the nebulous genre of “world music,” a label that is not stratified by any meaningful technical criteria, but by a tacitly colonial taxonomy that reinforces an “other.” While constructing a category acknowledging African music may seem like an evolution away from that reductive framing, it is merely a reinforcement of a category that is vaguely ethnic, unrooted in any sense of musicology or pedagogy, and thus rendering the vast diversity of popular music indigenous to 54 countries and 1.4 billion people into a homogenized exotification. This is by the Recording Academy’s own admission. “The Category includes but is not limited to the Afrobeat, Afro-fusion, Afro Pop, Afrobeats, Alte, Amapiano, Bongo Flava, Genge, Kizomba, Chimurenga, High Life, Fuji, Kwassa, Ndombolo, Mapouka, Ghanaian Drill, Afro-House, South African Hip-Hop, and Ethio Jazz genres,” the Academy states. In the statement alone, 12 countries’ wildly varying styles of popular music are identified, with minimal musical cohesion outside of geographical borders. The academy has proffered the euphemism “regional melodic, harmonic and rhythmic musical traditions” as clarification behind this choice, begging the question what, exactly, is regional about the second largest continent in the world.

The awards process has long abandoned the pretense of feigning a meritocracy. All categories are now vulnerable to gamification by tactical campaigns from artists and their labels striving for the strongest chance at being nominated, especially since it is a nominating body that labels a “genre” classification. As it applies to African music performance, this emphasis on geo-location and implicit racial boundaries also begets inquiry on how eligibility for the award will be established. Will Selena Gomez, for example, be able to accept an African Music Performance Award should her collaboration with Rema get nominated and win? Will Aya Nakamura, the French pop megastar born in Mali, be eligible in the category, as she has consistently (and erroneously) been placed in Afrobeats lists? Does Amapiano have to be from South Africa by definition or can artists from other countries make Amapiano-influenced music? If Beyonce’s The Gift were to be rereleased now, would it be eligible for said new category? Grammy submission and nomination time is always fraught with complications, and as ideal as it would be for artists to be able to divest themselves from the chaos of an awards system that has consistently missed the mark when it comes to understanding the intricacies of Black musical taxonomies, it’s difficult to expect artists to just walk away from the prestige of acknowledgment by their industry peers, not least when it is perceived to be a platform for accreditation on America’s largest mainstream musical stage. It remains unclear, however, how this category offers much in the way of increased opportunity for African artists.

It is a near impossibility to have a Grammys program that showcases the full swath of popular music indigenous to the African continent. In truth, when the threshold into Western relevance is crossed, hierarchies are reassessed to adjust to the market needs of the global North consumer. Take the progression of Puerto Rican megastar Bad Bunny’s awards history: in 2020, 2021, and 2022, he was nominated in all Latin categories, (save for his feature appearances on English records). In 2023, the ubiquity of Un Verano Sin Tí and the subsequent stadium tour finally rendered him eligible for one of the Big 4 categories—Album of the Year. The same held true for fellow Puerto Rican Ricky Martin; his fourth studio album, Vuelve, garnered a Grammy win for Best Latin Pop performance, but it would be his self-titled fifth studio album in 1999, and the tour de force “Livin’ La Vida Loca” that would catapult him into the hallowed status of mainstream pop, with Grammy nominations for Song of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Pop Vocal Album. Despite being American citizens, both artists needed to capture the interest of Caucasian audiences. In the Latin Grammy Awards, however, they would win awards that were more tailored to their actual genre of music. Bad Bunny, for example, would regularly be nominated and win in the Urban/Fusion, Reggaeton, and Rap/Hip-Hop categories.

If the Grammys are truly invested in developing a relationship with the broad range of sonics throughout the continent, it should work to develop an analog of a system as it has with the Latin Recording Academy; a regionally focused collective of music industry professionals and experts that can build an infrastructure from the ground up with the Academy’s funding and support, with a well-funded awards system that can celebrate the full array of musical offerings that Africans are generating in the 21st century without the dominance of American chart sales crowding the conversation. Perhaps then African creatives can have a chance of being celebrated by a local nominating body that truly understands the African popular music scene, instead of one that only inducted the legendary Sauti Sol to the Academy in 2023.

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