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NiLP Guest Commentary 

Latinos and The Grammys:

The Death of Musical Diversity?

By Bobby Sanabria (June 27, 2011)


Bobby SanabriaThere isn't one person reading this who hasn't seen or heard of the Grammys. You know, the TV show that comes on every February that gives out those gold trophies that are replicas of a vintage gramophone record player in miniature. Getting nominated for one changes one's career. All of a sudden your visibility quotient goes up as a recording artist. People who never spoke to you are suddenly congratulating you and, the best part? The phone starts to ring for offers of work. Imagine what happens when you actually win one.


For most of us watching, the show is a form of simple escapism. We really don't know how the award winners are selected and all we see, for the most part, are the current pop stars of the day performing on the telecast. As Latinos we notice that there aren't many of us represented on the show except for the perfunctory appearances recently by artists like Christina Aguilera, Marc Anthony, J.Lo and, of course, everyone remembers when Ricky Martin shaked his bon bon way back in . . . what year was that? It's great they have appeared as performers and presenters, but as conga legend Ray Barretto once said, "They got there under false pretenses." In other words, they didn't perform music that represents the depth of our cultural experience . . . they performed "pop music."


You're probably saying, "Who really cares? As has always been our history in this country, we're lucky to get the crumbs and should be happy." Right? WRONG!!!


Wake up hermanos and hermanas. It's 2011 and as the statistics show, Latinos ARE the largest minority group in this country and we're leading the charge in this multi-cultural Universe we call the USA. That's the set up for several questions that beg to be answered.


Why has an artist like salsa pioneer, piano virtuoso, bandleader and nine-time Grammy winner Eddie Palmieri never been asked to appear on the telecast? Why hasn't Los Tigres del Norte, a legendary band from Mexico that sells out stadiums to crowds of 40 to 50,000, not been asked to perform on the mainstream broadcast (as opposed to the Latin Grammys (which, by the way, are another can of worms)? You get it. I could go on and on.


The optimist would think, "Well, we've come this far, eventually we'll get someone performing some music on the Grammy telecast that represents our "real" culture in one form or another . . . and didn't Santana play a few years ago on the show?" But wait, it has happened before, way back in the '80s and '90s when Celia Cruz and Tito Puente appeared on the telecast. Linda Ronstadt shocked mainstream America by performing authentic mariachi music on the Grammy telecast and showing everyone she was proud of her Mexican heritage. Cuban Latin jazz and jazz piano virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba played piano on the Grammys. We were actually getting somewhere in terms of our musical contributions to this country being displayed in the music world's biggest night, Grammy night.


So what happened?


Since November 2002, when current NARAS (The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) President Neil Portnow took office, not only have all things Latino been excised from the main telecast, but anything remotely displaying America's cultural diversity has disappeared from it. No jazz, classical, or Latin music (in any of its diverse forms) have been featured since 2002. Mind you, this country's cultural diversity has grown exponentially.


The mission statement of the Grammys, or NARAS states it was formed to honor, propagate, and nurture all forms of American born music. It also states that its mission is to also EDUCATE the general public about all these forms, not giving preference to one genre over the other.


As Frank Sinatra said at the first Grammy Awards in 1959, "Remember ladies and gentlemen, it's about excellence, not popularity." Following this mandate, the Grammys' two previous Presidents before Portnow, Michael Greene (a former saxophonist with Frank Zappa) and Michael Melvoin (a jazz pianist and Sephardic Jew who speaks fluent Spanish) grew the Academy to 109 robust categories celebrating America's musical/cultural heritage and diversity and brought the membership to an all time high of 28,000. Categories like Latin Jazz, Zydeco, Cajun, Hawaiian, Native American, Polka, Norte�o, Ranchera, Classical, Contemporary Jazz, Traditional and Contemporary Blues and Gospel, Instrumental Country, as well as many others which were added during these two progressive-minded Presidents' tenures and displayed our magnificence as a collective culture.


But then something happened. Portnow became President after Greene was forced to resign following a now famous speech he gave during the telecast criticizing the Bush administration for cutting arts programs. Greene, a musician-friendly President (practically the entire NARAS membership is made up of musicians), was now replaced by a major label-friendly President.


Portnow used to work as the West Coast Vice President of Jive Records, a division of Zomba. Since 2001, independent recording companies, many run by musicians themselves, or by Mom & Pop operations, began getting nominated for Grammys and, in many cases, winning them. Since these labels are a haven for truly creative artists who buck the tide of commercialism, they began being perceived as a threat to the major labels.


Why? Because getting nominated and, if you're graced with winning one of those little miniature gramophones as I stated before, changes careers but, more importantly, increases CD sales. Having a progressive jazz rock group like Steely Dan win Record of the Year over Eminem in 2001 sent shudders through the pop music community. In 2008 jazz piano legend Herbie Hancock won Record of the Year over Amy Winehouse and Kanye West. I guess you can imagine what happened when they didn't hear their names announced.


It all culminated this past February with more Grammys being won by Indie record companies last year than in any other year. In addition, Esperanza Spalding (a jazz artist who at the most had sold between 10,000 to 15,000 units) won the coveted Best New Artist of The Year Grammy over Justin Beiber last year as well.


Before you start saying, like most people did, "Esperanza who?," you have to keep in mind that the Grammys is a peer-based award. It isn't a popularity contest like American Idol or the American Music Awards. We, the members of the Academy, voted as Ole' Blue Eyes stated, for excellence. Spalding is a virtuosic bassist, vocalist, composer, a musician par excellence. It was easy for us as members of the Academy to vote for her. It was also the first time a true musician won over an entertainer in that category.


What was the reaction? A few days after this unprecedented event, Steven Stoute, a music industry insider-lobbyist, whose client list includes Jay Z, took out a $40,000 full page ad in the New York Times insulting the Academy for its decision and insulting Esperanza Spalding by stating that Justin Beiber should have won. Talk about sour grapes!


When one insults the Academy one is, in fact, insulting the membership. Of course, you heard and read about Justin Beiber fans going viral with their insults at Ms. Spalding, even going the extra mile and hijacking her Wikipedia page by writing the vilest of commentary.


What did our Grammys President do? Absolutely nothing. No press statement or press conference defending the membership and its decision, no teaching moment for the young Beiber-heads letting them know that the Grammys are a peer based award and not a popularity contest> Nothing.


Lobbyist Stoute has been notorious for his criticism of the Academy and his transparent views. Just look him up on the internet and you'll be shocked at some of the things he has said. To him, if Jay Z is going to appear on the Grammy telecast then he should be guaranteed a Grammy. The fact that President Portnow is an ex-record company exec and was reaching out to someone who is working for major artists and labels who insulted the Academy raised eyebrows from coast to coast with the membership. The joke on the Hip Hop scene was that Stoute was trying to hijack the Grammys. It gets better Read on.


All of a sudden, on April 6th this year, NARAS sent out an e-mail blast to all of its 21,000 members (a 7,000 member drop, by the way, from previous years) telling us there was a major announcement about the Grammys and to follow the link they had posted. Guess what? They cut 31 categories, downsizing the awards from 109 to 78. All the categories I mentioned before and more, categories that celebrated this country's incredible musical diversity, were cut. Over 70percent of these categories represent ethnic and race- based styles of music. Any human resources department at a major corporation would have recommended in the strongest of terms: don't do this or you'll have a torrent of protest from Black and Latino communities.


There was no warning, no asking the 21,000 members, no asking the Grammy Chapter City Governors who represent the membership in all 12 Grammy Chapter cities. Nothing, nada. They just went ahead and did it. In a meeting that President Portnow held with the New York City Chapter on April 11th, he stated that the Grammys have become "...too big of a musical collage." Really?


Their rationale? They said they consolidated categories to give more parity because it's become too easy to get a Grammy. Really? I've been fortunate to have been nominated four times and, believe me, it's probably the hardest thing to attain in the music business. Ask anyone.


Portnow said everyone still has a chance --- all they did was "streamline" everything. Really? Now a contemporary jazz CD (like Kenny G) has to compete against a Latin jazz CD (like me), against a traditional jazz CD (like Wynton Marsalis). Guess who is not going to win? It's like having a mariachi CD competing against a salsa CD competing against a merengue CD. Completely different genres all competing against each other in one category. The kicker is, if you were dreaming about Eddie Palmieri ever getting on the main telecast, you can now totally forget about it.


You may be asking at this point: "How could they do this without asking the membership?" NARAS' answer? They formed a secret sub-committee right after Herbie Hancock won in 2008. That committee met for 18 months in order to form a plan to downsize the Grammys. Nice of them not to tell the membership!


Who was on this ultra secret sub-committee of twelve? NARAS refuses to say despite the fact that, according to the Academy's By Laws, they have to disclose this information upon the request of any NARAS member. But, of course, if they did it wouldn't be secret anymore.


What NARAS has done is initiate the largest act of cultural insensitivity in the history of arts organizations. They have, in fact, erased us, silenced us, from the Awards.


Since April 6th there has been an upheaval of protest led by committed members of the Latin jazz community on both coasts like John Santos, Bobby Matos, Sandy Cressman, Wayne Wallace, Clay Leander, yours truly and many others. Press conferences have been held in San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles. Major artists like Carlos Santana (the first to speak out), Eddie Palmieri, Paul Simon, Bill Cosby, Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss, Herbie Hancock, Larry Harlow, Ruben Blades, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D'Rivera, and others have publicly protested this outrageous ill-advised action by NARAS and asked, in solidarity, for the return of all the 31 cut categories, not just the Latin Jazz category.


What did our President do? As reported by Rolling Stone magazine, he actually reached out to industry lobbyist Stoute to have a discussion about diversity and better representation of Hip Hop in the Grammys. Nice guy. It would have been nicer if he reached out to us to discuss the reinstatement of the categories.


What has been the NARAS response? On June 15 at the Academy's New York offices, President Portnow told long time NARAS member, Grammy-winning pianist Arturo O'Farill, NARAS Latin Music committee President Elvira Franco, BMI Latin Music Head and newly-elected New York. Chapter Governor Porfirio Pi�a, and others, after a four hour meeting, that he admits they made a mistake but they will not re-instate the categories. Oh, but maybe we'll consider it for next year. Nice guy. In a simultaneous meeting held in San Francisco over which NARAS Vice President of Awards, Bill Friemuth presided and that was attended by several Board of Trustees members (including new Trustee Sheila E.), he told John Santos, Wayne Wallace, Sandy Cressman, Pete Escovedo and others present the exact same thing. Another nice guy.


What are the consequences of this infamnia?


First, the entire mission of the Grammys has been compromised because the 31 categories that were cut represent the most marginalized communities and music. In effect, they will never be recognized and exposed to larger audiences. You will never see an Indie artist like Esperanza Spalding or Arcade Fire (they record for a small Mom & Pop label in North Carolina and won the Best Record of the Year at the last Grammys) win a Grammy ever again.


Second, the major record labels have, in effect, attained a monopoly on the Grammys. This is the case since they have eliminated all of the competition.


Third, the lives of thousands of musicians who have spent thousands of dollars on recordings, and the small record labels they either own or record for, in the hope of getting a Grammy nomination and possibly a win, are now destroyed since they can't enter an appropriate category.


Fourth? The Grammys have sent a clear message to the entire world: WE DON'T CARE ABOUT CULTURAL DIVERSITY.


What is even more insulting to Latinos is that our category, Latin jazz, was installed after a long, hard struggle. Musicians like Eddie Palmieri and John Santos as well as noted jazz writers, historians, ethnomusicologists, and consultants began fighting for it many years ago. The roots of it go back to 1975 when Salsa (the Tropical Music category in the Grammys) was finally installed through the efforts of legendary pianist Larry Harlow when he was a New York Chapter Governor. Finally in 1994, after 19 years of asking and campaigning, we finally got the Latin Jazz category. The following year, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval was the first winner of this coveted and respected prize. On April 6, 2011 they summarily took it away, I repeat, without warning, without a heads up or a legitimate excuse.


Portnow and company state that the cut categories were not getting the minimum number of submissions, which is 25. When I asked Vice President of Awards Friedmuth at the April 11th meeting how many submissions Latin jazz was getting, he replied, "The average number of submissions for the Latin jazz category each year for the last five years has been 31." So, what gives? We met the criteria.


NARAS has also instituted a new rule stating that now any category that only receives between 25 and 39 submissions will only get three nominations. Forty and over will get the full five as was the case with previous rule. We still have made the criteria and yet the category was cut! So, what gives? We met the criteria!


Even if low submissions were indeed the case in any category, it is the duty of NARAS to let representatives in all these categories become aware of the problem so that it can be rectified. That's if there is one.


Remember, their mission is not only to celebrate excellence but to propagate, nurture, and educate. During previous NARAS administrations, outreach was done and all categories were healthy with submissions. In this regard, the current administration has dropped the ball and just took out the hatchet without warning. Nice guys.


A curious fact that no one seems to be addressing is that NARAS will save between half a million to a million dollars by cutting these categories. Those trophies, the medals (you get a gold medal from Tiffany & Co. when you get nominated plus an engraved certificate), the six screeners that are assigned to each category that listen to all submitted recordings in each category and are placed in a first class hotel for three days with all expenses paid, the two tickets every nominee gets, the mailings, press, etc, etc., etc., all that costs money.


Add to that the purchase, instead of leasing, of a new office building to house the administrative offices, while rent of over half a million dollars yearly is still being paid on the building that used to house the old Grammy offices. Top this off with 7,000 members who have left the organization (a full quarter of the membership) as well as rumblings about certain Grammy chapter offices in various cities being closed, and one can see what may be the real reason these categories were cut. How quaint that the money is being saved by cutting out cultural diversity. I repeat, over 70 percent of the cut categories are ethnic and race based.


What does all of this have to do with you, the reader, and why you should be afraid?


Because it's yet another example of how we are being wiped off the face of the earth as far as recognition is concerned. It is another sign of the homogenization and corporatization of culture going on at all levels in our society. Welcome to today's new form of racism. It even has a politically correct name, "cultural insensitivity." In other words, even though you've been invited to the party, no one will speak to you because in their minds you don't even exist. First we get Ken Burns ignoring us in baseball, then in the Civil War, then in WW II, and finally in Jazz.


Looks like the Grammys have followed suit.


Want to help? Go to and sign the growing petition to reinstate the 31 cut categories. You can write directly to Grammy President/CEO Neil Portnow at and give him your thoughts.


Bobby Sanabria is a noted drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, bandleader, educator and a four-time Grammy nominee. He is a professor at the Manhattan School of Music and an Associate Professor at the New School University. He is a 1979 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, where he was the first Puerto Rican to attend the school. He has performed and recorded with such legendary figures as Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Chico O'Farrill, Ray Barretto, Paquito D'Rivera, Larry Harlow, Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauz�. His newest CD is entitled Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!! He was recently named by The Jazz Journalists Association as Percussionist of the Year for 2011. He is a long time member of NARAS. His website is and he can be reached at