It’s easy to make Alastair Moock the hero of the story.
The Boston singer-songwriter and two other acts last month turned down their Grammy nominations for best children’s music album because all five nominated acts were white and four were male. Immediately, they were met with praise: Journalists reached out to them, representatives from the Recording Academy acknowledged the need for change, and Moock’s name was hailed as an example of social justice by friends and fans.
“But I’m not a martyr or some heroic figure,” said Moock, whose album “Be a Pain” uses folk music to tell the story of social justice and leadership. “In the last year, I’ve just learned a lot.”
This is the case for many white allies: 2020 was a year of racial reckoning — after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent resurgence of white interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, inequality and racism entered everyday conversation. The children’s music space quickly followed suit: Family Music Forward, a national collective that aims to amplify Black voices and artists of color in children’s music, was formed by Moock and 11 other artists in June.
That same group met for an emergency meeting the evening Grammy nominations for best children’s album were announced in November. The white artists were shocked by the lack of diversity given their efforts to address inequality in the field. The Black artists were not.
“The days following the announcement of the nominations, my phone was just blowing up with sympathetic white folks who were just flabbergasted by the results,” said Pierce Freelon, a North Carolina musician who released a children’s album last year and helped found Family Music Forward. “It felt a bit like gaslighting. It’s like, have y’all been living under a rock for the past decade?”
Since the category was created 10 years ago, only two Black-led acts have been nominated for a Grammy in the children’s music genre. In response to the backlash, the Recording Academy’s chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, Valeisha Butterfield Jones, said this year’s Grammy nominees across all categories were among the most diverse ever. “We will continue to push for even greater inclusion and representation,” she said in statement to Pitchfork, the music website. “We have met with Family Music Forward and others to reaffirm our commitment to drive necessary change. We are confident that together our industry can keep moving forward.”
But right now the children’s music space is hardly an even playing field, said Shawana Kemp, lead singer of Shine and the Moonbeams, a children’s R&B group and a founding member of Family Music Forward. She’s spent the last 15 years not receiving invitations to certain festivals or not having her music played on children’s radio stations.
“It’s frustrating because I’m not just an R&B singer,” said Kemp, who is based in New York. “I am classically trained. I’ve studied, I’ve invested in my music. I know what I’m doing. So how is it that I’m consistently not invited to the party?”
It’s a question many artists of color in the children’s music industry face. And it’s not for lack of representation: Freelon, Kemp, Aaron Nigel Smith, Rissi Palmer, Saul Paul, and 123 Andres are just a few of them. So, why are the same sounds, “white guys with guitars,” Freelon calls it, getting recognition over and over again?
Part of it comes from internal biases, said Moock. The Recording Academy is made up of music creators — described as “people involved in the technical and creative aspects of recording” — who vote on all submissions. The list is then sent to the national nomination review committees who create a short list; then the Recording Academy members vote again.
“I’ve spent years around music,” Moock said. “I think I know a good album when I hear one. But do I? Do other white folk? Like if you grew up around folk and pop music and the Beatles. How much time have you spent with hip-hop? How much time have you spent with reggae or R&B? Are you really a good judge?”
In 2013, Moock was nominated for his album “Singing Our Way Through: Songs for the World’s Bravest Kids.” At the time, it didn’t even occur to him to turn down the nomination, he said. This time was different: He heard the experiences of his Black peers and decided to reject it. The two other acts who turned down their nominations, the Okee Dokee Brothers and Dog on Fleas, also discussed their decision with Family Music Forward.
But those conversations, along with the many others taking place at that time, took a toll on the Black artists. Freelon had to take several weeks off after being inundated with phone calls. “Having these conversations is a labor, and it often falls upon the shoulders of the folks who are hurting the most,” he said.
So when the nominees turned to him for advice, he gave them two choices: Either turn down your nomination or begin advocating for a change in the name of the category.
“Let it be known on the front end that this isn’t children’s music. This is ‘white guys with guitars’ music,” said Freelon. “So people of color and women don’t get it twisted.”
Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.