Dozens of musicians demonstrated outside the Grammy Awards on Sunday protesting the Recording Academy’s decision to eliminate dozens of ethnic music award categories, including Hawaiian, Haitian, Cajun, Latin jazz, contemporary blues and regional Mexican. Some protesters see racial bias in the revisions, others see them as harmful to low-budget indie labels. Last August, four Latin jazz artists filed a lawsuit with the New York Supreme Court claiming that the dropping of such categories had adversely affected their careers. They also said the academy was violating its "contractual obligations" to its 21,000 members. We speak to Oscar Hernández, founder of the Grammy Award-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra, and Roberto Lovato, co-founder of Presente.org, which helped organize the protest and petition signed by more than 20,000. "[The Grammys have] given me the credibility that I need to go forward to do what I do, to do the music that I love, and gave me the stamp of credibility across many boundaries," Hernández said. "I’ve traveled all over the world playing my music. And it’s an important part of what we do, for sure." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Dozens of musicians protested outside the Grammy Awards last night, protesting the Recording Academy’s elimination of award categories that helped artists such as Whitney Houston rise to prominence. Under the Grammy’s restructured categories, Whitney Houston would not have won four out of her six Grammys. They were in categories now eliminated, such as Best R&B Performance, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
The 31 musical categories cut from the awards included Hawaiian, Haitian, Cajun, Latin jazz, contemporary blues, regional Mexican, world music, and other ethnic music categories. Some protesters see racial bias in the revisions. Others see them as harmful to low-budget indie labels.
Last August, four Latin jazz artists filed a lawsuit with the New York Supreme Court, claiming the dropping of such categories has adversely affected their careers. They also said the academy is violating its "contractual obligations" to its 21,000 members. A jurisdictional issue has delayed the lawsuit for now.
During a news conference last summer, several of the artists who were impacted expressed their concerns. This is Lisa Haley, who was nominated for a Grammy for best Cajun/Zydeco album.
LISA HALEY: This elimination of many venerable categories for the Grammy, and this deplorable and degrading lumping together of completely unassociated categories in the interests of expediency, should have warranted not only a full and reasoned discussion by all members, but also a full vote. Can I hear "amen"?
LISA HALEY: Is there anyone in our NARAS organization who would not have preferred the increase, even the doubling, of our yearly dues, in order to keep many of these decimated categories intact on the ballot? Can I hear "amen."
LISA HALEY: Speaking myself for the worldwide Zydeco/Cajun musical community, the idea that genres of music as diverse as Hawaiian, Native American and Zydeco/Cajun should be forced to compete against each other for a single Grammy is deplorable, an insult to our respective and growing genres, each of which are widely diverse, treasured and richly cultured American musical styles.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Lisa Haley, who was nominated for a Grammy for best Cajun/Zydeco album. She is one of the many protesters with Grammy Watch, an organization formed last year in opposition to the category restructuring. On Thursday, the organization presented a petition to the Recording Academy officials signed by about 23,000 people.
For more, we go now to Los Angeles, where we’re joined by two guests. Oscar Hernández is a Grammy Award-winning pianist and founder of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, who is involved in the lawsuit. And Roberto Lovato, a co-founder of the civil rights group Presente.org, which is working with Grammy Watch in protesting the new music awards categories.
Oscar Hernández, Roberto Lovato, welcome to Democracy Now! Oscar Hernández, you won a Grammy, yet you were protesting yesterday.
OSCAR HERNÁNDEZ: That’s correct. I felt it’s such an important issue. And the truth be told is, the Grammy process worked for me twice. I’ve won two times. I’ve won a Grammy when I didn’t have the most popular CD. I didn’t sell the most, I didn’t have the most sales. So, it worked for me, and I have belief in the process, generally. But in this case, I think it’s a huge wrongful doing, and it’s a huge oversight on the part of NARAS to eliminate these 31 categories.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of the Grammys for Latin musicians, Oscar?
OSCAR HERNÁNDEZ: Well, it has a huge impact for me personally. I could tell you that it’s given me—I’ve been in music—I’ve been involved in music for close to 40 years, working with some of the top people in my genre and some other genres. But it’s given me the credibility that I need to go forward to do what I do, to do the music that I love, and give me the stamp of credibility across many boundaries. I’ve traveled all over the world playing my music. And it’s an important part of what we do, for sure.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to share with you the comments of Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, who told the Los Angeles Times, quote, "We stand behind our process... Change is always hard for those that are used to something happening in the same way for a long time. But sometimes change is good," he said. He added, the restructuring of the Grammy Awards is the result of, quote, "a long, exhaustive study that involved our members, who represent the music community." Your response?
OSCAR HERNÁNDEZ: Well, that decision was accomplished behind closed doors. I could tell you that, as a Grammy and NARAS member, I wasn’t consulted. And I think none of the Grammy members were consulted. And the fact of the matter is that, as far as him saying restructuring, I understand their decision as to why they did it, but the truth of the matter is, they need to take into account how this affects the countless lives of people who perform in these categories. And it has a huge impact on them. And sometimes you have to, you know, do things that are not convenient for the sake of doing what’s correct. And that’s the case here. You know, it’s affecting so many people.
And the case of Latin jazz is one that I can specifically speak to. It’s a music that I’ve personally witnessed, performed and listened to all over the world. It’s a music that transcends cultural barriers. And I’ve gone to Russia, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, to name just a few countries, Israel—I can go on and on—of the countries that I’ve been to that people are listening to Latin jazz, and people are performing Latin jazz in those places. So, it has a huge impact on that particular genre, you know, from my own personal experience. And it is a huge legacy. We’re talking about a music that now even, you could say, predates rock and roll here in this country. And it involves so many, you know, important people that have been part of that legacy. And for them to all of a sudden eliminate the category? For what? For the sake of expediency? For the sake of saving a few dollars? It’s not the—he can say whatever he wants. It’s not the correct decision, that’s for sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, the Los Angeles mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, said he understands what the musicians are going through. He said, "I love Latin jazz. I love salsa. I understand that what people are looking for is inclusion. We’ve got to celebrate that." Roberto Lovato, put this in a broader context.
ROBERTO LOVATO: Thanks, Amy. Glad to be here, especially with Oscar, a musician whose music I really appreciate. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra has done a lot for me personally in my personal life, in my own struggles.
Yesterday we mourned and celebrated the life of Whitney Houston, who got her start as a seven-year-old gospel singer, which is now one of the categories that’s been eliminated, for example. And so, the death of Whitney Houston, the deaths of Don Cornelius, of Etta James, and the elimination of these three categories provide an opportunity right now, I think, to remind ourselves about what matters. People or profits? Musical virtuosity or money? A scholar at the University of Texas, Ben Agger, called this the—this decision to abolish the categories "the McDonaldization of music" and the cultural banality that will result. So, the larger context for this is, this has to do, I think, with a global crisis that the community that Whitney Houston came out of is affected by, that the community that Oscar and Latin jazz musicians came out of is affected by, and the community that a lot of these different Zydeco and Native American musics are—all came out of, where all these communities are affected.
I mean, it’s no coincidence, for example, that when you hear Russell—when you hear Neil Portnow, the head of the Grammys, say that, you know, this is just hard decision, that, you know, it’s evolutionary, we’re going in a certain direction—it’s the same things that people like Russell Pearce and Joe Arpaio say when they’re abolishing ethnic studies in Arizona or when they’re banning books or uprooting culture. I mean, you know, history has taught us anything, it’s that the uprooting of culture is a servant to, I’d say, the control and domination of communities that belong to those cultures. And so, we shouldn’t take these kinds of decisions by Grammy and other cultural institutions lightly. They matter in a profound way for the little girl today that wants to be a gospel singer but is not going to recognized anymore, because that music is not worthy of being—or the Latin jazz singer—I mean, musician, that wants to, you know, be virtuous and make beauty, rather than make money.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break in about 30 seconds, but, Roberto Lovato, the Grammys starting in 1959, first best Latin recording wasn’t given out until 1974. It went to Eddie Palmieri. The lawsuit—can you talk about where it goes from here?
ROBERTO LOVATO: Yeah, a lawsuit was carried forth by Bobby Sanabria and three other musicians who are impacted by this, who are rightfully claiming that this affects their livelihoods, as you heard in the case of Oscar, for example. I mean, the lawsuit, protest, the 23,000 signatures that Presente and others have gathered, most of which were gathered in the course of like less than a week, reflect the—I think, the dignity and self-respect that our communities command and are demanding and are continuing, with or without the Grammy organization. I think that’s important to put upfront. So, you know, we’re actually helping Grammy move away from the route of greed and inequity that it’s taken under Mr. Portnow’s leadership and trying to bring it back to its roots, because all these categories were roots music.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Roberto Lovato of Presente.org and Oscar Hernández, Grammy Award-winning pianist, founder of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Our break is your music, Oscar. Thanks so much.