Grammy Protest Fights the Elimination of Cultural Categories

By Refugio Mata

Did a small minority of industry insiders just eliminate "ethnic" music from the Grammys? It was a week filled with momentous coincidences. There was the death of Whitney Houston, who started out as a Gospel singer, an award category that got condensed. Then internationally known Mexican ranchero singer Vicente Fernandez announced his retirement. In 2010, Fernandez won a Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Album, a category that was also crunched this year. The category is now referred to as 'Best Regional Mexican or Tejano Album.' In Grammy speak, 'Regional Mexican' often refers to ranchera, banda, mariachi, and norteña music. Why the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) thinks that ranchera, banda, mariachi, norteña, and Tejano music all belong in the same category is beyond the understanding of most music connoisseurs.

For the record, ranchera is a style of music that dates back to the Mexican Revolution and is often associated with the rural populist classes of Mexico. Ranchera music was immortalized by Mexican cinema legends Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, and Javier Solís, who often sang in the films they starred in. Then there is mariachi music, which tends to be more folkloric and even more emblematic of Mexican identity, particularly abroad. On the other hand, Tejano or Tex-Mex music tends to refer to modern styles often associated with the late and great singer Selena and music group La Mafia. Although there are some similarities in the aforementioned genres-- both Tejano and ranchera music sharw a common ancestry in European waltzes and polkas--this does not mean they belong in the same category. But I guess this doesn't matter to NARAS. Maybe to the Academy "ethnic" people's music all sounds the same.

Latin jazz, Hawaiian, polka, Native American and Cajun/Zydeco are other categories that were eliminated. According to and, two organizations that joined forces to spearhead a rapid response to the elimination of these categories, NARAS made the decision to cut these categories without input from the organization's 21,000 members or their elected representatives. By so doing, NARAS failed to apply the eligibility criteria in a non-discriminatory manner, violating its own bylaws and procedures. Activists point to Grammy President Neil Portnow and his small minority of industry insiders for imposing their discriminatory practices onto the music of the people.   

On the day of the actual Grammys, dozens of protesters staged a rapid flash-style rally outside the LA Staples Center, where the award show took place. The protesters were not alone, as over 23,000 people signed a petition demanding NARAS to reverse its decision. "We've received nominations before and have worldwide recognition," said Edoal, a Native American musician that protested Sunday. "I just don't understand why the Grammys targeted a whole group of indigenous people in such a capricious way." Jeffrey Brick, who wore a Guy Fawkes mask, said, "I'm here to support our cultural heritage. I'm wearing this mask in the spirit of protest. It appears that respecting culture, ethnicity, and populism now runs counter to the current mood of the Grammys."

Refugio Mata is a Public Relations specialist and founder of Project Economic Refugee. He graduated from CSU Northridge and has been an organizer for immigrant rights, economic and environmental justice issues ever since.