This year, all of the nominees in the Grammy Awards' children's music category are musicians of color. They sing about marching for social justice, uplift cultures, and celebrate the diversity of today's family music: jazz, hip hop, reggae, soul, funk, R&B, Latin American rhythms, and music with Indian tones.
It's a very different slate from last year's all-white list. Grammy-nominated reggae artist Aaron Nigel Smith says the Recording Academy's choices were out of touch.
"It was shocking to see that, especially during the year of the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and people standing up for human rights and justice," says Smith. "To see that in this music space there was no representation, no acknowledgment, and so we protested."
In 2020, Smith and several other nominees this year formed the coalition Family Music Forward, to amplify Black voices in children's music. Last year, they challenged the Recording Academy to include more artists of color. And they urged voting members to consider more diverse music for families.
"Children's music isn't an even a genre per se, it's an audience," notes Christina Sanabria, who sings with her husband in the duo 1-2-3 Andrés, another nominee. "More than half of the children in the U.S. are non-white."
Nominee Pierce Freelon gives thanks to three of the five children's music acts last year—Alastair Moock, and the groups Dog on Fleas and the Okee Dokee Brothers—for turning down their 2021 nominations to protest the all-white slate.
"As loud as we were yelling," says Freelon, "it really took a radical act from these three white male allies to pry open the eyelids of their of their peers."
Freelon says that together, they're shifting the paradigm of children's music at the Grammys: "Now we see a slate at the Grammys that is representative of the rich diversity in children's music and not just racial diversity, but sonic diversity. It's a reflection of our brilliance," he says. "So it feels like anybody who wins, everybody wins."
Here are the nominees:
Freelon's album Black to the Future brings a cosmic sound to children's music. He sings about Black history, Afrofuturism and includes the voices of his grandmother Queen Mother Frances Pierce, his 11 year old daughter Stella and his mother, Nnenna Freelon — also nominated this year for a best jazz vocal album. One song he did with fellow children's artist Divinity Roxx, Cootie Shot, teaches children about getting vaccinated against COVID. Another song honors one of his childhood heroes: reading advocate and Star Trek and Roots actor LeVar Burton, who is hosting this year's Grammy Awards pre-telecast.
"I really feel like this is a monumental moment in the children's music community," Freelon says of this year's Grammys nominees. "There's been a radical shift and reckoning with the kind of institutional white privilege that you don't often get to see."
Freelon, 38, lives with his wife and two children in Durham, North Carolina, where he grew up in a creative and famous Black family. Besides his jazz legend mother, his father was the late famous architect Phil Freelon, who designed the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. In 2017, Pierce Freelon ran for mayor of Durham before serving as a city council member. He also founded Blackspace, a digital maker space for young people to learn about music, film and coding. He's taught political science and African American studies at the North Carolina Central University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 2020, he dropped his first children's jazz/hip-hop album, D.A.D. , which included the voice of his father, and songs he sang with Stella, including Daddy Daughter Day — which he also made into a picture book.
Aaron Nigel Smith
Smith's album All One Tribe is a collection of songs by 26 Black musicians, including SaulPaul, Father Goose, and fellow nominee Pierce Freelon.
"On our album, you can find jazz, hip hop, gospel, R&B, pop, folk, all of these vibes represented by Black artists doing music for families," he says. "We were really intent on doing something positive that would uplift and amplify the voices of Black and Brown artists that are doing music for Black and Brown children and the whole world, really. And we wanted to intentionally create music so children can see a musician performing that looks like them."
One song on the album, March Together, which he sings with Shine and the Moonbeams, celebrates youth who marched in the streets during the Black Lives Matter movement for social justice.
Smith has been a musician for the past 15 years, teaching chorus and drumming to youth in Oregon and Washington through organizations such as 1 World Chorus, a nonprofit group he formed with his wife Dierdre. Smith spearheaded the Rox in Sox Children's Music and Book Festival for families in the U.S. and Jamaica. He also organized the One Love Youth Camp for young people from rural and urban Jamaica, and was in the cast of the PBS Kids show Between the Lions.
In his discography are the hit reggae albums In Our America and Celebrating Bob Marley. In 2009, he collaborated with Marley's son Ziggy for the children's record B is for Bob.
In this indie duo, Andrés Salguero sings with his wife Christina Sanabria. Their Grammy-nominated bilingual album Actívate features cumbia, merengue, bossa nova and other Latin American rhythms, and renowned singers such as Panamanian superstar Rubén Blades and Puerto Rican salsero Gilberto Santa Rosa. Other children's musicians are on the album too, including Jazzy Ash and fellow nominee Aaron Nigel Smith.
"We started this album three years ago, and we never would have imagined that the pandemic would have happened," says Sanabria. "For a lot of us, it plopped us in chairs, in front of computer screens and for a lot of kids, that was a reality. So this album is about kind of reawakening, getting outside with your family, whether it's baseball or riding your skateboard or flying a kite or getting on your bike, which are all all of those are things we sing about, or going to the beach, it's about movement."
Salguero grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, where his father taught him to play the guitar. He began recording music at eight years old, and was still young when he won the National Composition Contest in Colombia. There, he started out in a punk rock band, Diamante Eléctrico, before moving to the U.S. to get his doctorate in music.
He met Salguero, a Colombian American who grew up in Kansas, when she was a public school fifth-and-sixth-grade teacher with Teach for America.
Salguero says with children's music he found an incredible connection with audiences unlike those he met playing classical or avant-garde electronic music.
"You are just like food for their growth, their emotional nourishment," he says. "That bond is just bigger than anything. We are just so privileged to to be let into families' homes and schools and be just part of their lives."
1-2-3 Andrés won a Latin Grammy award in 2016 for the album Arriba Abajo. The duo was also nominated for the Latin Grammy awards for their albums ¡Uno, Dos, Tres con Andrés! and Canta Las Letras. They've published children's books that mirror their albums, such as La Luna,
and Actívate. The duo established a scholarship in Cartagena, in partnership with One World Chorus to support an organization that provides music lessons and instruments to children in under resourced parts of Colombia.
Lucky Diaz and The Family Jam Band
Diaz is a Chicano singer who jams with his wife Alisha Gaddis, a former Broadway performer. They're known for whimsical, bilingual songs for children, which they incorporate into their Emmy award-winning PBS television show Lishy Lou and Lucky Too.
"We've been called the B-52's of family music.," Diaz says, adding that their music is rooted in classic Chicano East L.A. Rampart sounds of the 1960s, surf rock, indie pop music and classic American rock. "It's just kind of a melding of a lot of different things, I think. But I think at the end of the day, it just has to be fun."
Their Grammy nominated album Crayon Kids has a song about kids (Generation C) living through the coronavirus pandemic, trying to figure out vaccines, watching Tik Tok and You Tube and other distractions. "Our kids are still processing this," he says. "And that song, I think, truly resonates."
Diaz's parents were farmworkers in California, and his grandfather was a bracero. He grew up in the Los Angeles area and graduated from the Berklee College of Music. He met Gaddis, who graduated from NYU's Tisch School for the Arts, at a comedy club. He was working as a session musician in L.A. and began singing children's music when their first daughter was young.
They've won Latin Grammy awards for two of their children's albums ¡Fantastico! and Buenos Diaz (under the name The Lucky Band). Last year, Harper Collins published the picture book he wrote, Paletero Man, set in the L.A. neighborhood where his father lived when he immigrated from Mexico.
India-born singer-songwriter Falguni Shah performs under the stage name Falu. Her Grammy-nominated album, A Colorful World, showcases her "Indie Hindie" musical style, drawing from Indian classical, alt-rock, pop and electronic music.
"I'm a brown South Asian woman, so I like that I was able to bring the message of unity, inclusiveness and love and positivity and the upliftment through music," she says. "It's a very diverse and a very colorful team that made this colorful album. I feel like we are all like colors, crayons, staying in a box united happily with each other, but also have our own voices and emotions. And that's what a colorful world is all about."
In A Colorful World, she sings a lullaby she wrote for her son Nishaad. She sings about happy images like rainbows, kites and crayons.
One of her earlier albums, Falu's Bazaar, she sang in English, Hindi, and her native language, Gujarati. She featured her husband, singer-songwriter Gaurav Shah, and her mother, classical singer Kishori Dalal.
Falu represents the eleventh generation of a family of Hindustani classical musicians. Growing up in Mumbai, she was trained in the Jaipur Gharana musical tradition. "Indian music has 22 notes, not 12," she says. "We have notes that don't exist in a piano, and those are called micro tones, and these notes are sometimes not easily hear audible. But they have an emotional effect on a listener when you use them. So that's my training."
In 2000, she moved to the U.S. to become the lead vocalist for the band Karyshma. She performed as a soloist with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project and made her debut at Carnegie Hall, where she was appointed its ambassador of Indian music.
Falu has sung for President Obama at the White House, as well as inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. She has collaborated with Wyclef Jean, sung with the ensemble from the film Born Into Brothels, and performed a rendition of the song Jai Ho, from the film Slumdog Millionaire.