Grammys go Global? Changing World Music category name only masks the guilt for cultural appropriation

The change of category name from 'World' Music to 'Global' music makes the Recording Academy feel like it is truly doing something without really doing much. A non-change, if you will.

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri November 05, 2020 10:59:03 IST
Grammys go Global? Changing World Music category name only masks the guilt for cultural appropriation

Angelique Kidjo accepts the Grammy Award for Best World Music in 2020

The Recording Academy, an American institution of musicians and professionals relating to the world of music, is renowned for presenting the annual Grammy Awards. In the business since over 60 years, the academy has — in the recent past — tried to desperately to keep up with changing times. 

(Also read: Grammys 2019: Many deserving artists won top honours — but what about the music?)

It recently announced that what has so far been the Best World Music Album, will henceforth be called the Best Global Music Album. In a statement, the Recording Academy said: “As we continue to embrace a truly global mindset, we update our language to reflect a more appropriate categorisation that seeks to engage and celebrate the current scope of music from around the world. Over the summer, we held discussions with artists, ethnomusicologists, and linguists from around the world who determined that there was an opportunity to update the best world music album category toward a more relevant, modern, and inclusive term. The change symbolises a departure from the connotations of colonialism, folk, and ‘non-American’ that the former term embodied while adapting to current listening trends and cultural evolution among the diverse communities it may represent.”

So, all this in-depth research done in the summer of the lockdown fuelled by a need for more inclusivity, resulted in simply a synonym swap? That would be rejected in ad agencies on grounds of being a contrived, almost superficial suggestion. As we understand it so far, the Recording Academy has been advised that this change is sufficient to symbolise “a departure from the connotations of colonialism…”?  

The entire category needed an overhaul, not just a name change. There are no further sub-categories to truly include the volume of global music, nor are the criteria sharpened to embrace more specific types of non “Western” music.

By attempting to give the category another tepid name, the academy feels it is distancing itself from the cultural appropriation it has been accused of. 

In the larger scheme of things, the Grammys are just as global as the Oscars. With the peculiarly American brand of navel gazing, it is another self-proclaimed, self-righteous benchmark of exceptional cinema that originates in the United States, while also deigning to embrace cinema from across the pond. It would be perfectly okay if they wished to keep their categories restricted to their specific Western demographics and reserve the right to include the occasional album or movie from around the world. That would still be honest. It is when they project themselves as the beacon of quality around the world and then reduce the rest of the world to one album or one movie, that their sub-heads start to sound problematic. 

The Oscars too have had to rename their Best Foreign Language Picture category to a more universal, Best International Feature Film award. The word “foreign” has the potential to sound as irritating as a “foreign object” stuck in your eye. But what has “global” got that “world” does not? 

The perception of change. It makes the Recording Academy feel like it is truly doing something without really doing much. A non-change, if you will.

Grammys go Global Changing World Music category name only masks the guilt for cultural appropriation

Grammy Awards World Music category will now be called the Global Music category. But why?

According to the Grammy website, this is their description of the Best Global Music Award category for the 63rd Grammy Awards in January 2021: “This category recognises excellence in albums of world music, including recordings of international non-Western classical music, international non-American and non-British traditional folk music, international cross-cultural music based on the previously mentioned genres as well as international recordings of world beat, world jazz (with a higher percentage of world than jazz music), world pop, and cross-cultural music. Albums of reggae, Latin or European pop music are not eligible in this category and should be entered in other categories as appropriate.”

So, in this token, “rest of the world/globe” category, an Indian vocal album will continue to jostle for space with a Sudanese instrumental one? It is not even an “apples to apples” comparison since the whole offence to the World Music phrase was over how it was a blanket category that incongruously clubbed musical disciplines and influences. Unlike the Latin music category where there is at least the acknowledgement that the region can throw up multiple genres of music (Latin Pop or Urban album, Latin Rock or Alternative album), the rest of the world is recognised for its rich musical influences through one album. It does not matter if it is solo, a group, vocals or instrumental.

Talking Heads’ frontman David Bryne wrote famously in his The New York Times article over 20 years ago: “In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one’s own life. It’s a way of relegating this ‘thing’ into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us.”

As a category, World Music is a product of the marketing brains in the '80s who were looking to find an umbrella genre for non-Western, often non-English music albums. Even then, it was hardly such a marketing success given that these albums did not ever have the kind of reach that mainstream, general category ones did. More than marketing, it was a cataloguing solution for record stores. It became problematic for many musicians because it automatically tended to relegate the music against the might of the colonial, more “White” music. It became the space where you would shove Pandit Ravi Shankar along with Fela Kuti even though their music has absolutely nothing in common apart from being collectively different from the West. 

In a world as dynamic as music, strict labelling is counter-productive especially since musicians are constantly blending styles and disciplines, breaking rules and making new ones, borrowing cultural influences and their instruments, as part of their evolution process.

Occidental musicians turn to the Orient, DJs sample vocals from other international language music, as this constant borrowing and sharing only increasing with the times.

Yet, over the years when one thinks of the Recording Academy, we imagine the whitest people in the world doing what they do best: Segregation. For decades they’ve had an Us and Them attitude (sorry, Pink Floyd) for their categorisation of artists, and now that the world is getting more “woke," the internet is bringing us closer by releasing much more music than the hallowed Academy finds interesting, and there is dwindling interest in the relevance of these awards. It is now just an awards show with a more entertaining red carpet, becoming less about the music, more about everything else.

(Also read: Grammy Awards 2018 checked all the politically correct boxes but failed on its primary account — music)

In the past, it has famously ignored deserving candidates, overlooked genres which did not suit its prejudices despite audience approval, and has gotten embroiled in all things social and political instead of the music itself. Of course, it is still a prestigious validation for many artists to win a Grammy Award. However, in the hyper connected world of today where “Likes” and streams are as indicative of fame as the recognition the award gives, where one need not wait for a Grammy to become famous or even make money, the significance of these awards is fast coming into question. And such sustained frivolous moves from the Occident-prone academy are certainly not helping its cause.

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