LOS ANGELES - The 46th Annual GRAMMY Awards will be presented by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) at the Staples Center on Feb. 8. The GRAMMYs present a "Best Native American Music Album (Vocal or Instrumental)" award, which comes under "Folk Music." This year's nominees are Tom Bee's gospel album "Reveal His Glory," R. Carlos Nakai's solo flute album "Sanctuary," and the drum group albums "Flying Free" by Black Eagle, "Brotherhood" by Black Lodge Singers, and "Still Rezin'" by Northern Cree. Nakai and Northern Cree are on Canyon Records; the other nominees are on Sound of America Records (SOAR).
While most see the award as a step in the right direction in helping to get Native music recognized, there is controversy over both the category and the definition of "Native American Music." The GRAMMYs interpretation is that if an album is predominantly based on music associated with "traditional" Native American music, it can be nominated in the category. However if a Native American artist releases an album that is rock, the blues, or any other genre, it is not eligible, but could be judged in the rock, blues, or whatever the appropriate category. The definition of "traditional" seems to be open to interpretation, as both new age and gospel albums have been eligible for the category. The GRAMMYs define "Native American Music" as a genre of music, so even non-Native Americans who perform music that is predominately "Native American" could conceivably be nominated.
NARAS Senior Vice-President of Awards, Diane Theriot, spoke with Indian Country Today about the Native American category. According to Theriot, people in the Native American music industry petitioned NARAS for over half a decade before academy allowed the category. "We were not receiving enough of the recordings in our entry process from the Native American community, so we could never quite justify having a category," Theriot said. "We finally noticed that there were a significant number of these recordings being entered into our process and we received another proposal and it passed. This is the fourth year of the category."
The concept that "Native American Music" is a genre goes back to the academy's policy that none of their categories are based on race. "Our awards committees wanted the category to have a qualifying criteria, which means they would have to have Native American blood and be able to prove it, and we said 'Absolutely not, never,'" Theriot said. "None of our categories are based on race; it is all about the recordings. Anyone who makes a legitimate recording in any genre is eligible in that category. Their background does not matter."
In an interview with Tom Bee last year with ICT, Bee himself noted the controversy over his fine Christian album being considered "traditional Native American." In a more recent interview, R. Carlos Nakai noted that he wants his albums to compete in the new age category, but he keeps ending up in the Native American Music category. "Through our screening committee it was determined that these particular recordings are predominately Native American music," Theriot said. "If it has more of a traditional Native American instrumentation, the lyrics, the language, the music itself, it will stay in that category. We have various representatives from labels on the screening committee, we have a musicologist in Native American music and we have several producers and engineers. The category is defined as being 'Traditional Native American Music,' predominantly. If there are elements of contemporary music, it is allowed to stay."
According to Theriot the many Latin categories in the awards are differentiated because they are in a different language, whereas there would be no discernable difference between Native American rock and mainstream rock. It is possible to add more categories to the Native American category, such as differentiating between flute music and drum music, but there are so few Native American entries, only 40, compared to 300 in some other categories, that the academy cannot justify adding more. If a category gets less than 25 entries in a year it is up for review, and while the Native American category is not in danger at the moment, the number of entries is low.
NARAS Vice-President of Member Services, Angelia Bibbs-Sanders, oversees the department in charge of recruiting. "I have been principally involved in actually going out to pow wows, being on the road, going to New Mexico and Arizona. I have been working very closely with this community and the members really drive this process," Bibbs-Sanders said. "I'll be honest with you, I've been working on this for four years now, and the community is not supporting the category with membership."
According to Bibbs-Sanders the Native American membership in the academy only numbers in the hundreds. "What happens is that people join one year and then they don't renew. There are various reasons, sometimes it's economic, sometimes it's lack of effort, and sometimes people are just busy. I'm sorry to say that it's really hard to keep this community active and involved. If there is any underlying message to this it's let's get active, let's participate, and let's get involved so we can add categories and we can make change, so that this category is something that this entire community can embrace, and so that it's a true and accurate representation of this genre." Musicians only have to have appeared on three commercial recordings and pay a small fee to become members of the academy.
The GRAMMYs have never been the last word in music. Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Chuck Berry, and Jimi Hendrix never won GRAMMYs during their classic periods, and Milli Vanilli won an award for a song they didn't even sing on (they made them give it back). However, the awards do offer a world-wide forum that can promote the Native music industry, which in turn can benefit all Native American music. For more information, visit grammy.com.