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3 Grammy Contenders Share Outrage At All-White Category, Decline Nominations

Justin Lansing (left) and Joe Mailander of the Okee Dokee Brothers have declined their 2021 Grammy Award nomination for best children's album. The duo won the honor in 2013 for their album <em>Can You Canoe?</em> and have amassed five total nominations.
Frederick M. Brown
Getty Images
Justin Lansing (left) and Joe Mailander of the Okee Dokee Brothers have declined their 2021 Grammy Award nomination for best children's album. The duo won the honor in 2013 for their album Can You Canoe? and have amassed five total nominations.

Three of the five acts nominated for the 2021 best children's album Grammy Award are saying "no thanks." They're upset that the contenders in their category are all white.

One of them is Alastair Moock, whose nominated album, Be a Pain, is about American heroes who stood up for their principles: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, Rosa Parks, the Parkland, Fla., shooting student protesters and others.

Upon hearing the news he was nominated along with three other white male acts and one white woman, Moock smacked his head. "After this year, to have an all-white slate of nominees seemed really tone-deaf," he says.

The Boston-based singer-songwriter says he'd love to get a Grammy, "but I don't want it like this, where the playing field's not even."

Moock is protesting by turning down his nomination. So are fellow acts Dog on Fleas and the Okee Dokee Brothers.

"We thought that it was the strongest thing we could do, to stand with people of color whose albums are too often left out of the Grammy nominations," says Joe Mailander, one of the Okee Dokee Brothers. He hopes to expand notions of what children's music is. "This is not just white guys with guitars playing for kids. We want to welcome all different types of music to this community."

The Okee Dokee Brothers, Moock and Dog on Fleas — all "white guys with guitars" — sent a letter to the Recording Academy asking that their names be removed from the final Grammy ballots. They wrote they "couldn't in good conscience benefit from a process that has historically overlooked women and artists of color."

The other Okee Dokee Brother, Justin Lansing, said they felt a special responsibility to ask for change in a genre "tasked with modeling fairness and kindness to kids and families."

Last month, the nominees met with the Recording Academy's new interim president and CEO, Harvey Mason Jr., and its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Valeisha Butterfield Jones.

"We're an organization that's ready for change, but you know, we're not unique to the challenges of the world and to the challenges of our industry," Butterfield Jones says of the 63-year-old organization being revamped. "I think it's time. You know, we saw in 2020 a racial reckoning. So now, you know, it's, you know, up to us what we're going to do to take real and meaningful action."

Butterfield Jones says since she started her job in May, she's been looking for ways to increase diversity among the academy's membership and in the Grammy's secret nominating committees. The academy recently partnered with the racial justice group Color of Change to begin holding itself and record labels more accountable. They're pushing for more transparency at the academy and support for artists, especially those who are Black.

"We have made a very clear and firm commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion as a part of our core values," Butterfield Jones says. "I think many of the actions that we've taken and have put into place are signs of that. But we still have a lot of work left to do."

Family Music Forward, a collective whose mission is to amplify Black voices in children's music, was also invited last month to the Recording Academy meetings.

"We had the floor, and we had the opportunity to voice our concerns. They definitely responded with a sense of urgency," says Aaron Nigel Smith, a founding member of Family Music Forward.

The collective formed in early 2020, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Smith says the Recording Academy seemed open to recommendations such as restructuring the nominating committees.

"We left it in a very hopeful tone that we can keep a discussion going and work together to increase membership with people of color in the academy," Smith says. He hopes the academy can add more people "voting for projects that don't necessarily sound like the mainstream, that might sound like [they've] got an African vibe or reggae vibe or a hip-hop vibe."

All of the musicians interviewed for this story agreed that Pierce Freelon should have been nominated this year for his critically acclaimed album D.a.D., which has elements of hip-hop, jazz, electronic and Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

Freelon appreciated the stance the Grammy nominees took to support diverse artists. "I just couldn't think of another example in my memory of white men specifically revoking their privilege in this way," he says.

He points to other nonwhite artists who should be on the Grammy's radar: SaulPaul, a rapper from Texas; 123 Andrés, a bilingual duo with immigrant roots in Colombia; and the R&B soul band Shine and the Moonbeams. He also thought about the 96-year-old folk singer Ella Jenkins.

"She's probably the most prolific and foundational person in children's music. And she's a Black woman. But guess what? She's never won a Grammy Award through the Recording Academy process," Freelon says. "They had to give her an honorary lifetime achievement award, but she actually never got that recognition from her peers in the industry."

One of the two Grammy nominees who decided to remain on the ballot is Joanie Leeds. Her ninth children's folk music album is titled All the Ladies.

"I didn't decline because my album is really about empowering young women. I mean, I have 20 women on my album. So for us, it was like it was kind of counter to our empowering women message to step down," Leeds says. "I know that this is really about the guys that dropped out, but I feel like a lot of times women are kind of left on the side. It's a shame. I wish there was more equality with women."

The other nominees and Family Music Forward say they support Leeds' decision. Next year, they expect to see more women and people of color up for Grammy Awards.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.