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African Women at the Grammys: Invisibility even in Diversity

Demilade Phillips makes a strong case for the several notable and talented African women who have been neglected at the Grammy Awards over the years.

In 1992, the first-ever “Grammy Award for Best Global Album” went to a white, American man. Shocking.

As the nominations for the 64th Grammy Awards swept across the world, one category of talented artists were once again overlooked. Worse yet, the token “World” category, offered to those who don't fit into the classic Caucasian-fueled genres, still had something missing: African women.

As black women generally have been ignored since time immemorial, African women are almost invisible, despite contributing to several groundbreaking movements in music, not only in their respective home countries, but abroad. One woman who proudly waves the African flag high, and is revered for it is Angélique Kidjo. Unfortunately, one cannot help but notice her recurring nominations with each project dropped, disregarding both the impact of the album and the acclaim. The legend, nicknamed “Africa's premier Diva” by TIME in 2007 has been at the forefront of Afrofusion long before. Her remarkable wit, charm and musicality has set her on a pedestal, earning her four Grammy awards amidst numerous nominations. While she is a truly deserving artist, one cannot help but wonder if Africa's premier diva is Africa's ONLY diva... at least to the very white men who head the voting committee.

There is only one other African woman to receive this prestigious award, and the ones nominated can be counted on one hand. In 2004, Cesária Évora, the Cape-Verdean icon, known for her stellar performances while barefoot took home the Grammy Award for “Voz d'Amor”. The award, which was for “Best Contemporary World Music Album” was later merged with the “Best Traditional World Music Album” to re-introduce the “Global Music Album”. Clearly, multiple awards highlighting indigenous sounds outside of the American and European purview is pushing it with the committee. While her win set the hopes of many in motion, as she had been nominated without winning several times before, the Grammys returned to their basic formulae of ignoring the African woman, and Angélique took on the next wins, starting in 2008.

The fact remains that even in diversity, African women still grab the short end of the stick. Taking into account the numerous celebrated women who have brought eyes and ears to the music of their hometowns, it's so unfortunate the apparent disregard for these women as deserving recipients. Take the likes of Onyeka Onwenu. While it would be considered overly expectant to believe that the Grammys would consider a Nigerian woman in their first years of establishing the Award for Best Global Music Album, Onyeka definitely deserved a nod. After making waves in the late 80s, and scoring a global hit with “One Love”, her 1992 album “Onyeka!” was a thriving masterclass of elegant euphony. This was a woman who had performed for great names around the world and even had her own BBC documentary, but she didn’t get even as little as a name drop the following year when her work was eligible for nominations.

People want to believe there is a credible mechanism for recognizing the best music. But the public’s faith has been shaken.”

— Rob Kenner, former Academy voting member in a discussion with Rolling Stone.

For the Africans who cherish and respect their female artists, there has never really been any form of trust in the credibility of the Grammys.

Another solid case for the ultimate snub would be the energetic and flamboyant Brenda Fassie, the 'Queen of African Pop', whose 1997 smash dance-hit “Vlunidlela” permeated borders faster than any Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade ship could. The singer, who stood for everything good was a testament to the greatness of the African woman, even being regarded as an LGBT and human rights champion. She was awarded the “South African Song of the Decade”, receiving rave reviews from all around the world. Yet, this didn’t translate to the ever so “inclusive” Grammys round table of “clear” music geniuses.

The argument for the modern African woman also stands. Aṣa, a French-Nigerian singer and songwriter, who is heralded as one of Nigeria's foremost musicians is a quintessential example of the calm in the midst of the storm. Think Adele music in the midst of Beyoncé and Rihanna. Aṣa had a voice, a clear message and sometimes, only a guitar to back her emotive vocals, and yet, she managed to sweep across a nation of people who sought musical pleasure in the fastest of BPMs. Her 2007 eponymous debut album, “Aṣa” made it to the French, Swiss and Belgian charts, and peaked at number 3 on, believe it or not, the Billboard World Albums chart. However, once again, an African woman with superb quality music, was left out of the Grammy discussion, proving yet again, that the Grammys are content with not only a token category, but not widening their grasp to accommodate African women and their talent.

The list goes on and on. From Nigerian political musician Nneka, to Afro-Cuban twins Ibeyi, to ethnomusicologist Alsarah and The Nubatones, to the legendary Lijadu Sisters, to French-Malian singer Aya Nakamura, to Zulani Mahola, lead vocalist of Freshlyground, a popular and renowned South-African band and so many other African women. “Overlooked” seems to be an understatement in this regard. Not only were these phenomenal women doing everything right, the public and critics alike agreed with the immense greatness they possess. So the question remains: why are they treated like they don’t exist? I mean, we know why, but why is this not a trending topic yet?

I guess we know the answer to that as well.



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