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5 artists of color to celebrate in kids music after Grammys controversy

Minneapolis Star Tribune logo Minneapolis Star Tribune 1/25/2021 Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune

Pierce Freelon said he got "a pretty good foreshadow" of this year's Grammy Award nominations debacle from a family event staged in the Twin Cities last summer.

"It was inexcusably all-white," the Durham, N.C.-based singer/rapper said of the 11-act kids-music lineup of St. Louis Park's Common Sound Festival, staged virtually in June.

So when the Grammy nominations were announced in November, Freelon was unsurprised to see nothing but white artists listed in the category for best children's music album.

Also disappointed were the Okee Dokee Brothers, who were nominated. The Twin Cities folk duo had joined the conversation with Freelon over the summer to add diversity to that local festival and knew of their genre's troubles with inclusivity.

"There are unseen advantages for white folk and rock musicians in the category," said the Okee Dokees' Joe Mailander, whose group won the Grammy in 2013.

Out of protest, the Okee Dokees became one of three acts (out of five) to make headlines in Rolling Stone and newspapers nationwide by asking Grammy organizers to remove their name from the 2021 ballot for best children's album. The list also included only one female artist.

Freelon and the Okee Dokees agree the problem is an industrywide issue in the children's music world, where folky acoustic-guitar strummers like genre pioneer Raffi (who's actually of Egyptian descent), Laurie Berkner and, yep, the Okee Dokees have long been seen as the genre's standard.

"It's an extension of white privilege," Freelon said. "There's still a tendency to have white artists — particularly white men — take up all the space."

Said Mailander, "There needs to be more people on the [nominating] committee who understand hip-hop and R&B production, not to mention cultural sensitivities."

Of course, a lack of diversity has also been an issue in the major pop Grammy categories — like when the #GrammysSoWhite backlash arose in 2017. But these children's music makers think it is a more pressing issue in their category.

"Kids deserve to see a more true reflection of our society's makeup," said Mailander.

Since the controversy arose in November, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Science hosted a Zoom meeting with the category's nominees and the organization Family Music Forward to change policies in that category.

"We are confident that together our industry can keep moving forward," said the recording academy's Valeisha Butterfield Jones.

Freelon agreed things are progressing: "This is definitely making a big difference."

It's too late, though, to bring change to this year's Grammy Awards, scheduled March 31. The Okee Dokees and the other two white acts wanted to withdraw had their wishes granted, leaving just two names on the ballot: Joanie Leeds and ex-Minneapolitan Justin Roberts.

The other Okee Dokee, Justin Lansing, said, "I can't imagine next year there won't be artists of color in the category, but even when that happens, there will still be a lot more work to be done."

In the meantime, to raise awareness for diverse family music, the Okees and Freelon offered this list of artists of color they think should've been nominated in recent years. (The Okee Dokees and many others in the genre cited Freelon himself as perhaps the most snubbed entrant this year.)

Elena Moon ParkA classically trained violinist and singer originally from Tennessee, Park stitched together many influences — including her East and Southeast Asian roots and her time in ex-Del Fuegos rocker Dan Zanes' popular kids-music band — into a fascinating album last year titled "Unhurried Journey" (available at elenamoonpark.com).

"It sounds like Americana meets traditional Asian folk tunes," Mailander said. "You hear banjo, stand-up bass and fiddle combined with traditional Asian instruments and melodies and a few different languages. It's a great musical collaboration between cultures."

Added Lansing, "It's also unique because it's a very beautiful and calming record, unlike a lot of kids music that's up-tempo and high-energy."

SaulPaulRaised in the same Houston hip-hop scene that gave us (gulp!) the Geto Boys and UGK, this singer/songwriter/rapper flipped those influences and his own troubled youth into forceful songs of hope and respect on last year's album "Be the Change" (saulpaul.com).

"Who'd have ever thought you'd have someone with his background and sound making music like this?" Freelon raved. "It's like UGK for kids. The music is great, and I think he's an incredibly important voice right now."

Mailander: "Rarely do you get to hear that kind of raw, unadulterated truth in children's music. He really pushes the boundaries of kids music."

Sonia De Los SantosHailing from Monterrey, Mexico, De Los Santos was also a member of Zanes' troupe who stepped out with her 2018 album "Alegría," a blend of ranchero, mariachi and traditional Mexican folk influences in both Spanish and English.

"She has great songwriting, lots of energy and really authentic instrumentation," said Mailander, who plans to team with her at the Ordway in St. Paul on June 3. The Okee Dokees also toured schools with her in California pre-pandemic.

Lansing added, "She pairs really well with us, having that folky connection but adding the bilingual element."

The Alphabet RockersThe multiracial Bay Area duo of Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd comes off more like a giant hip-hop dance party on records such as 2019's "The Love," incorporating kid singers and other guests (alphabetrockers.com). In their songs and especially onstage, they preach inclusivity, pride and self-love in powerful ways.

"Their music tackles racism head-on," Mailander said. "They are very direct with anti-racism messages, as well as pro-LGBTQ themes."

Pierce FreelonAlso in the hip-hop/jazz band the Beast and a new Durham City Council member, Freelon comes from a fascinating family: His mom, Nnenna Freelon, is a well-known jazz singer, and his architect dad, Phil Freelon, designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, Phil died in 2019, which — along with his own experiences raising two children — inspired the bravely personal and moving songs on Pierce's hip-hop and reggae-infused album "D.A.D." (piercefreelon.com).

"I wanted to make a record that celebrated my dad and being a dad," Freelon explained. "I and nearly every one of my Black friends had awesome dads. Too often we only hear the narrative of the single Black mother in popular culture."

Mailander said, "He took a risk in musical form, including snippets of everyday life, his own personal stories, and weaving that into his own unique brand of hip-hop. It's an innovative album in any musical category."

As for not making the cut in the Grammys' children's music category, Freelon said, "The reaction to the record has been so profound, with people appreciating my own family's story, that's been rewarding enough."

More recommendations: Lucky Diaz, Jazzy Ash, 123 Andrés, Aaron Nigel Smith, C.J. Pizarro (Mista Cookie Jar), José-Luis Orozco, Flor Bromley-Mass, Uncle Jumbo, Wendy & DB, Kimya Dawson, Claudia Eliaza-Zanes, Ziggy Marley, Culture Queen, Nathalia, Lucy Kalantari, Shine & the Moonbeams, Uncle Devin, Asheba, Little Miss Ann, Father Goose, Inez Barlatier, Big Don, Rissi Palmer, Nanny Nikki, Suni Paz, Sol y Canto, Twinkle Time, Wunmi, Alina Celeste & Mi Amigo Hamlet, and the Twin Cities' own Siama Matuzungidi.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • @ChrisRstrib

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