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Latinos and The Grammys: The Death of Musical Diversity?

Created: 01 July, 2011
Updated: 13 September, 2023
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11 min read

   There isn’t one person reading this who hasn’t seen or heard of the Grammys. You know, the TV show that comes on every February that gives out those gold trophies that are replicas of a vintage gramophone record player in miniature. Getting nominated for one changes one’s career.

   For most of us watching, the show is a form of simple escapism. We really don’t know how the award winners are selected and all we see, for the most part, are the current pop stars of the day performing on the telecast. As Latinos we notice that there aren’t many of us represented on the show except for the perfunctory appearances recently by artists like Christina Aguilera, Marc Anthony, J.Lo and, of course, everyone remembers when Ricky Martin shaked his bon bon way back in . . . what year was that? It’s great they have appeared as performers and presenters, but as conga legend Ray Barretto once said, “They got there under false pretenses.” In other words, they didn’t perform music that represents the depth of our cultural experience . . . they performed “pop music.”

   You’re probably saying, “Who really cares? As has always been our history in this country, we’re lucky to get the crumbs and should be happy.” Right? WRONG!!!

   Wake up hermanos and hermanas. It’s 2011 and as the statistics show, Latinos ARE the largest minority group in this country and we’re leading the charge in this multi-cultural Universe we call the USA. That’s the set up for several questions that beg to be answered.

   Why has an artist like salsa pioneer, piano virtuoso, bandleader and nine-time Grammy winner Eddie Palmieri never been asked to appear on the telecast? Why hasn’t Los Tigres del Norte, a legendary band from Mexico that sells out stadiums to crowds of 40 to 50,000, not been asked to perform on the mainstream broadcast (as opposed to the Latin Grammys (which, by the way, are another can of worms)? You get it. I could go on and on.

   The optimist would think, “Well, we’ve come this far, eventually we’ll get someone performing some music on the Grammy telecast that represents our “real” culture in one form or another . . . and didn’t Santana play a few years ago on the show?” But wait, it has happened before, way back in the ’80s and ’90s when Celia Cruz and Tito Puente appeared on the telecast. Linda Ronstadt shocked mainstream America by performing authentic mariachi music on the Grammy telecast and showing everyone she was proud of her Mexican heritage. Cuban Latin jazz and jazz piano virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba played piano on the Grammys. We were actually getting somewhere in terms of our musical contributions to this country being displayed in the music world’s biggest night, Grammy night.

   So what happened?

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   Since November 2002, when current NARAS (The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) President Neil Portnow took office, not only have all things Latino been excised from the main telecast, but anything remotely displaying America’s cultural diversity has disappeared from it. No jazz, classical, or Latin music (in any of its diverse forms) have been featured since 2002. Mind you, this country’s cultural diversity has grown exponentially.

   The mission statement of the Grammys, or NARAS states it was formed to honor, propagate, and nurture all forms of American born music. It also states that its mission is to also EDUCATE the general public about all these forms, not giving preference to one genre over the other.

   As Frank Sinatra said at the first Grammy Awards in 1959, “Remember ladies and gentlemen, it’s about excellence, not popularity.” Following this mandate, the Grammys’ two previous Presidents before Portnow, Michael Greene (a former saxophonist with Frank Zappa) and Michael Melvoin (a jazz pianist and Sephardic Jew who speaks fluent Spanish) grew the Academy to 109 robust categories celebrating America’s musical/cultural heritage and diversity and brought the membership to an all time high of 28,000. Categories like Latin Jazz, Zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American, Polka, Norteño, Ranchera, Classical, Contemporary Jazz, Traditional and Contemporary Blues and Gospel, Instrumental Country, as well as many others which were added during these two progressive-minded Presidents’ tenures and displayed our magnificence as a collective culture.

   But then something happened. Portnow became President after Greene was forced to resign following a now famous speech he gave during the telecast criticizing the Bush administration for cutting arts programs. Greene, a musician-friendly President (practically the entire NARAS membership is made up of musicians), was now replaced by a major label-friendly President.

   Portnow used to work as the West Coast Vice President of Jive Records, a division of Zomba. Since 2001, independent recording companies began getting nominated for Grammys and, in many cases, winning them. Since these labels are a haven for truly creative artists who buck the tide of commercialism, they began being perceived as a threat to the major labels.

   Why? Because getting nominated and, if you’re graced with winning one of those little miniature gramophones as I stated before, changes careers but, more importantly, increases CD sales. Having a progressive jazz rock group like Steely Dan win Record of the Year over Eminem in 2001 sent shudders through the pop music community.

   It all culminated this past February with more Grammys being won by Indie record companies last year than in any other year. In addition, Esperanza Spalding (a jazz artist who at the most had sold between 10,000 to 15,000 units) won the coveted Best New Artist of The Year Grammy over Justin Beiber last year as well.

   Before you start saying, like most people did, “Esperanza who?,” you have to keep in mind that the Grammys is a peer-based award. It isn’t a popularity contest like American Idol or the American Music Awards. We, the members of the Academy, voted as Ole’ Blue Eyes stated, for excellence. Spalding is a virtuosic bassist, vocalist, composer, a musician par excellence. It was easy for us as members of the Academy to vote for her. It was also the first time a true musician won over an entertainer in that category.

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   What was the reaction? A few days after this unprecedented event, Steven Stoute, a music industry insider-lobbyist, whose client list includes Jay Z, took out a $40,000 full page ad in the New York Times insulting the Academy for its decision and insulting Esperanza Spalding by stating that Justin Beiber should have won. Talk about sour grapes!

   What did our Grammys President do? Absolutely nothing. No press statement or press conference defending the membership and its decision, no teaching moment for the young Beiber-heads letting them know that the Grammys are a peer based award and not a popularity contest.

   On April 6th this year, NARAS sent out an e-mail blast to all of its 21,000 members telling us there was a major announcement about the Grammys and to follow the link they had posted. Guess what? They cut 31 categories, downsizing the awards from 109 to 78. All the categories I mentioned before and more, categories that celebrated this country’s incredible musical diversity, were cut. Over 70percent of these categories represent ethnic and race- based styles of music.

   There was no warning, no asking the 21,000 members, no asking the Grammy Chapter City Governors who represent the membership in all 12 Grammy Chapter cities. Nothing, nada. They just went ahead and did it. In a meeting that President Portnow held with the New York City Chapter on April 11th, he stated that the Grammys have become “…too big of a musical collage.” Really?

   Their rationale? They said they consolidated categories to give more parity because it’s become too easy to get a Grammy. Really? I’ve been fortunate to have been nominated four times and, believe me, it’s probably the hardest thing to attain in the music business. Ask anyone.

   Portnow said everyone still has a chance — all they did was “streamline” everything. Really? Now a contemporary jazz CD (like Kenny G) has to compete against a Latin jazz CD (like me), against a traditional jazz CD (like Wynton Marsalis). Guess who is not going to win? It’s like having a mariachi CD competing against a salsa CD competing against a merengue CD. Completely different genres all competing against each other in one category. The kicker is, if you were dreaming about Eddie Palmieri ever getting on the main telecast, you can now totally forget about it.

   What NARAS has done is initiate the largest act of cultural insensitivity in the history of arts organizations. They have, in fact, erased us, silenced us, from the Awards.

   Since April 6th there has been an upheaval of protest led by committed members of the Latin jazz community on both coasts like John Santos, Bobby Matos, Sandy Cressman, Wayne Wallace, Clay Leander, yours truly and many others. Press conferences have been held in San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles. Major artists like Carlos Santana (the first to speak out), Eddie Palmieri, Paul Simon, Bill Cosby, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss, Herbie Hancock, Larry Harlow, Ruben Blades, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, and others have publicly protested this outrageous ill-advised action by NARAS and asked, in solidarity, for the return of all the 31 cut categories, not just the Latin Jazz category.

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   What has been the NARAS response? On June 15 at the Academy’s New York offices, President Portnow told long time NARAS member, Grammy-winning pianist Arturo O’Farill, NARAS Latin Music committee President Elvira Franco, BMI Latin Music Head and newly-elected New York. Chapter Governor Porfirio Piña, and others, after a four hour meeting, that he admits they made a mistake but they will not re-instate the categories. Oh, but maybe we’ll consider it for next year. Nice guy.

   What are the consequences of this infamnia?

   First, the entire mission of the Grammys has been compromised because the 31 categories that were cut represent the most marginalized communities and music. In effect, they will never be recognized and exposed to larger audiences. You will never see an Indie artist like Esperanza Spalding or Arcade Fire (they record for a small Mom & Pop label in North Carolina and won the Best Record of the Year at the last Grammys) win a Grammy ever again.

   Second, the major record labels have, in effect, attained a monopoly on the Grammys. This is the case since they have eliminated all of the competition.

   Third, the lives of thousands of musicians who have spent thousands of dollars on recordings, and the small record labels they either own or record for, in the hope of getting a Grammy nomination and possibly a win, are now destroyed since they can’t enter an appropriate category.

   Fourth? The Grammys have sent a clear message to the entire world: WE DON’T CARE ABOUT CULTURAL DIVERSITY.

   A curious fact that no one seems to be addressing is that NARAS will save between half a million to a million dollars by cutting these categories. Those trophies, the medals (you get a gold medal from Tiffany & Co. when you get nominated plus an engraved certificate), the six screeners that are assigned to each category that listen to all submitted recordings in each category and are placed in a first class hotel for three days with all expenses paid, the two tickets every nominee gets, the mailings, press, etc, etc., etc., all that costs money.

   How quaint that the money is being saved by cutting out cultural diversity. I repeat, over 70 percent of the cut categories are ethnic and race based.

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   What does all of this have to do with you, the reader, and why you should be afraid?

   Because it’s yet another example of how we are being wiped off the face of the earth as far as recognition is concerned. It is another sign of the homogenization and corporatization of culture going on at all levels in our society. Welcome to today’s new form of racism. It even has a politically correct name, “cultural insensitivity.” In other words, even though you’ve been invited to the party, no one will speak to you because in their minds you don’t even exist. First we get Ken Burns ignoring us in baseball, then in the Civil War, then in WW II, and finally in Jazz.

   Looks like the Grammys have followed suit.

   Want to help? Go to www.grammywatch.org and sign the growing petition to reinstate the 31 cut categories.

Bobby Sanabria is a noted drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, bandleader, educator and a four-time Grammy nominee. He is a professor at the Manhattan School of Music and an Associate Professor at the New School University. His newest CD is entitled Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!! His website is: http://www.bobbysanabria.com/

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