Native American Music and the GRAMMY Awards
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) decision in April to drop 31 music categories from the annual GRAMMY Awards, including their own, has left Native American musicians dismayed. They say it took a herculean effort to achieve the academy’s recognition with their own category in 2001, only to have it taken away less than a decade later.
“It’s disappointing to hear that they’re taking these,” said Bill Birdsong Miller, a Native American artist who has won three GRAMMYS (in 2005, 2006, and 2010) and was in town last week to participate in a formal effort by NARAS members to ask the Academy to reconsider its decision.”We weren’t alerted to the fact that they were about to change our categories. We weren’t asked if it mattered to us. It just happened.”
The move eliminates some categories, merges others and transfers several music genres that formerly had their own award category, including Cajun, Zydeco, Hawaiian and Native American music, into the more general ‘regional music’ category. Traditional and contemporary blues were merged into one category, as were the traditional and contemporary brands of folk music.
“It doesn’t work,” said Miller, who has performed with the likes of Tori Amos, Pearl Jam and the BoDeans. “Our categories was one of the most strange, to me, categories. If you put every Hawaiian music CD ever made next to every native one, they wouldn’t even match. They’re not the same. They don’t use our native flutes, they don’t use our language. The same with Zydeco and Cajun.”
Miller argues that Native American and Hawaiian music don’t even qualify as regional music because they are indigenous, and there is no region in the Americas that does not have indigenous people of one band or tribe or another.
“It’s across the nation,” Miller said. “It’s deeply historical. Hawaiian and native music have a longer history than Zydeco and Cajun, and contemporary music.”
No musicians are being excluded by the decision to cut categories from 109 to 78, the Academy says. But artists will now compete in more general categories, and the competition will be tougher.
“It ups the game in terms of what it takes to receive a GRAMMY and preserves the great esteem (with) which it’s held in the creative community, which is the most important element,” Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow told the Associated Press. “That’s appropriate. We are talking about the most prestigious, coveted award and it should be a high bar in terms of the measurement of receiving that.”
Miller, who plays native flute and guitar and writes his own songs, says the competition will devolve into a numbers game.
“What’s going to happen in our category, it’s voting by numbers,” Miller said. “So let’s say Zydeco or Cajun get more votes that year than Hawaiian or native, then that will be the top category and the rest will not get any Grammys. So we’re sort of fighting against each other. We’re all trying to outdo each other. Which we don’t want to do.”
Miller said it’s similar to moves he has seen regarding native communities throughout history.
“It’s a strategy that’s been used over and over again by colonial societies,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen in communities, whether it be here or abroad, where you end up pitting communities against each other, almost like the poor against the poor. It’s out of ignorance, it’s out of not educating them on their own rights, people not realizing they have rights, voting in back rooms without us knowing you did the vote. And that’s how we felt.
The NARAS decision so angered artists that they decided to form GRAMMY Watch, a group of GRAMMY winners and nominees who are publicizing it and hoping to influence a change. They met in Los Angeles last week and testified to the importance of the dropped categories.
“I’m very blessed to have three GRAMMYS,” Miller said. “I love NARAS for what it does in the schools and the music things they do. I’m going to continue to support them in the bigger community sense. But in the intimate section of this, feeling that I have been a part of the musical community for all my life, I can’t . . . . That’s one thing I did love about the GRAMMYS: it’s a peer-oriented award system. It isn’t supposed to be based on numbers or the . . . commerciality of it. that’s why I really believed in it.”