Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Paul Simon protest Grammy category cuts; coalition leader calls decision ‘blatantly racist’

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Esperanza Spalding’s surprise Grammy win for new artist in February was shocking considering the relatively unknown jazz artist beat out the phenomenon that is Justin Bieber and critical darlings Florence + the Machine and Mumford & Sons.

It’s the type of win that Bobby Sanabria, himself a four-time Grammy nominee, doesn’t think will happen if the Recording Academy goes through with planned changes to tighten the belt on the number of categories.

“Everybody was happy that Esperanza won, but everybody was insulted with the way [jazz has since been] denigrated,” he said. “What they did to all of these marginalized categories, let’s get real. Once they are cut, the power of independent recording labels goes way down. You’re not going to see [someone like] Esperanza Spalding winning again. The way things are now, nobody like that is going to win.”

Sanabria is leading a coalition of artists demanding the academy reverse its previously announced plans to eliminate more than 30 categories from the Grammy Awards, which would take the number of awards from 109 to 78. A new rule would also allow the academy to suspend or eliminate categories that receive fewer than 25 entries for three consecutive years, and to transfer submissions in that category into the ‘next most appropriate category.’

The coalition has already started to protest the changes, first in New York on Sunday and in Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon at an academy board meeting.


During an April news conference to announce the new structure, Grammy President and Chief Executive Neil Portnow said that as the academy continued to add more categories to keep up with the changing scope of music, “the result has been more of a collage without consistency across the various genre fields.” In a letter to the Recording Academy Board of Trustees on Thursday, the coalition denounced Portnow’s decision and pleaded for reconsideration.

“Executives of the Academy have told us that it is necessary to erase and ‘consolidate’ these categories because ‘the Grammies [sic] have become a huge collage.’ The implication of this outrageous and blatantly racist justification is that it is necessary to disenfranchise Latinos, Native Americans, and other minorities for the good of the Academy,” the letter stated. “This is utter nonsense. The Academy was created to promote and ensure diversity and excellence in the recordings arts. The collage is our strength, not a weakness.”

Sanabria, of course, was among the letter’s more than 30 signees; also signing the letter were Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, Andy Garcia and John Santos. Academy officials have not yet responded to requests for comment.

When the news hit, plenty of black music blogs weighed in, as a number of traditionally ethnic genres such as R&B and blues/roots had their overall number of awards reduced from eight awards to four (rock and country also felt similar pinches). While some were consolidated: male and female categories got combined, as did distinctions between contemporary and traditional albums; categories such as zydeco or cajun music album or Latin jazz album (a category Sanabria has been nominated in) are no more.

“They are clearly sending a message –- a coded message –- that they do not want cultural diversity at the Grammys,” Sanabria said. “If we are going to just look at one community, the African American communities were devastated. They took away Cajun music, traditional blues and contemporary blues, zydeco, contemporary gospel, contemporary R&B gospel [both gospel and American roots were both consolidated to five awards].”

Sanabria also disagrees with Portnow’s notion that the changes would make the Grammys more competitive and a more coveted prize.

“How much more competitive can it be? He told us that people have complained that it’s too easy to get a Grammy. You ask anybody that has a Grammy how hard it is to get one,” he said. “I have four nominations and I’ve been a member for over 15 years, and just the nominations within itself is a supreme honor. It changes people’s careers. It changed mine.”

Portnow said the restructuring, the first in the Grammys’ 50-plus years, came after more than a year of consideration and examination.

Sanabria maintains he has nothing against the academy, just the administration, but is vowing boycotts of the Grammys and CBS, which broadcasts the telecast.

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy