Pierce Freelon said he had “a pretty good foreshadowing” of this year’s Grammy nominations debacle at a family event held in the Twin Cities last summer.
“It was inexcusably all white,” the Durham, NC-based singer / rapper said of the 11-act children’s lineup of the St. Louis Park Common Sound Festival, held virtually in June. .
So, when the Grammy nominations were announced in November, Freelon wasn’t surprised to see only white artists listed in the category of best children’s music album.
The nominated Okee Dokee brothers were also disappointed. Folk duo Twin Cities had joined the conversation with Freelon over the summer to add diversity to this local festival and knew the inclusiveness issues of their genre.
“There are unseen advantages for white folk and rock musicians in the category,” said Joe Mailander of the Okee Dokees, whose group won the Grammy in 2013.
In protest, the Okee Dokees became one of three (out of five) acts to make headlines in Rolling stone and newspapers across the country asking Grammy organizers to remove their names from the 2021 ballot for best children’s album. The list also included only one female artist.
Freelon and the Okee Dokees agree that the problem is an industry-wide problem in the world of children’s music, where folk guitarists like genre pioneer Raffi (who is actually of Egyptian descent), Laurie Berkner and, yes, the Okee Dokees have long been considered the standard of the genre.
“It’s an extension of white privilege,” Freelon said. “There is always a tendency for white artists – especially white men – to take up all the space.”
Said Mailander, “There must be more people on the [nominating] committee that includes hip-hop and R&B production, not to mention cultural sensitivities. “
Of course, the lack of diversity has also been an issue in major Grammy’s pop categories – like when the #GrammysSoWhite backlash first appeared in 2017. But these children’s music creators believe it’s a more pressing issue in their own right. category.
“Children deserve to see a more faithful reflection of the makeup of our society,” Mailander said.
Since the controversy erupted in November, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Science has hosted a Zoom meeting with the category nominees and the organization Family music forward modify the policies in this category.
“We are confident that together our industry can continue to move forward,” said Valeisha Butterfield Jones of the Recording Academy.
Freelon agreed that things were progressing: “It definitely makes a big difference.”
It’s too late, however, to make any change at this year’s Grammy Awards, scheduled for March 14. The Okee Dokees and the other two white groups wanted to step down had their wishes granted, leaving only two names on the ballot: Joanie Leeds and ex-Minneapolitan Justin Roberts.
The other Okee Dokee, Justin Lansing, said: “I can’t imagine next year that there won’t be any artists of color in the category, but even when it does, there will still be a lot work to do. “
In the meantime, to raise awareness of the diversity of family music, the Okees and Freelon came up with this list of artists of color who they say should have been nominated in recent years. (The Okee Dokees and many others in the genre have cited Freelon himself as perhaps the most snubbed contestant this year.)
Elena Moon Park
Classically trained violinist and singer from Tennessee, Park brought together many influences – including her East and Southeast Asian roots and her stint in the popular children’s group of former rocker from Del Fuegos Dan Zanes – in a fascinating album last year called “Unhurried Voyage” (available at elenamoonpark.com).
“Looks like Americana meets traditional Asian folk tunes,” Mailander said. “You hear banjo, double bass and violin combined with traditional Asian instruments and melodies and a few different languages. It’s an excellent musical collaboration between cultures. “
Lansing added, “It’s also unique because it’s a very beautiful and calming record unlike a lot of children’s music which is fast and full of energy.”
Raised in the same Houston hip-hop scene that gave us (gulp!) The Geto Boys and UGK, this singer / songwriter / rapper turned those influences and his own troubled youth into powerful songs of hope and respect on the l last year’s album “Be the Changer” (saulpaul.com).
“Who would have thought that someone with their experience and sound would make music like that?” Freelon raved. “It’s like UGK for kids. The music is great, and I think he’s an incredibly important voice right now.”
Mailander: “You rarely hear this kind of raw, pure truth in children’s music. It really pushes the boundaries of children’s music.”
Sonia De Los Santos
Hailing from Monterrey, Mexico, De Los Santos was also a member of Zanes’ troupe that released their 2018 album “Alegría,” a mix of ranchero, mariachi and traditional Mexican folk influences in Spanish and English.
“She has a great songwriting, lots of energy and really authentic instrumentation,” said Mailander, who plans to team up with her at the Ordway in St. Paul on June 3. The Okee Dokees also visited schools with her in California before the pandemic.
Lansing added, “She pairs really well with us, having that folk connection but adding the bilingual element.”
The multiracial Bay Area duo of Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd are more like a giant hip-hop dance night on records like ‘The Love’ of 2019 incorporating children’s singers and other guests (alphabetrockers.com). In their songs and especially on stage, they preach inclusiveness, pride and self-esteem in powerful ways.
“Their music tackles racism head-on,” Mailander said. “They are very direct with anti-racist messages, as well as pro-LGBTQ themes.”
Also a member of hip-hop / jazz group The Beast and a new member of Durham City Council, Freelon comes from a fascinating family: her mother, Nnenna Freelon, is a well-known jazz singer, and her architect father, Phil Freelon. , designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC
Sadly, Phil passed away in 2019, which, along with his own experiences of raising two children, inspired the courageously personal and moving songs on Pierce’s hip-hop and reggae-infused album “DAD” (piercefreelon.com).
“I wanted to make a record that celebrates my dad and being a dad,” Freelon explained. “Me and almost all of my black friends had awesome fathers. Too often we only hear the tale of the single black mother in popular culture. “
Mailander said: “He’s taken a risk in musical form, including snippets from everyday life, his own personal stories, and weaving into his own unique brand of hip-hop. It’s an innovative album in n ‘ any musical category. “
As for not being in the children’s music category of the Grammys, Freelon said, “The reaction to the record has been so deep, with people enjoying my own family history, it’s pretty rewarding.”
More recommendations: Lucky Diaz, Jazzy Ash, 123 Andrés, Aaron Nigel Smith, CJ Pizarro (Mista Cookie Jar), José-Luis Orozco, Flor Bromley-Mass, Uncle Jumbo, Wendy & DB, Kimya Dawson, Claudia Eliaza- Zanes, Ziggy Marley, Culture Queen, Nathalia, Lucy Kalantari, Shine & the Moonbeams, Uncle Devin, Asheba, Little Miss Ann, Father Goose, Inez Barlatier, Big Don, Rissi Palmer, Nanny Nikki, Suni Paz, Sol y Canto, Twinkle Time, Wunmi, Alina Celeste & Mi Amigo Hamlet, and Siama Matuzungidi from the Twin Cities.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • @ChrisRstrib