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The Grammy's newest categories acknowledge a boom for African music and modern jazz

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Grammy Awards recognize all sorts of rising artists, but the Grammys also spotlight styles or subgenres or entire fields of music that are breaking through by forming new award categories. This year two of the new categories acknowledge the boom in African music and in modern jazz. In a minute, we'll hear from NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael. We start off with Nate Chinen from member station WRTI in Philadelphia.

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: I'm here to talk about a new category called Best Alternative Jazz Album.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO'S "OMNIPUSS")

CHINEN: Alternative jazz - what is that, right? It's not a term that you hear out in the real world, but it actually could serve a really useful function at the Grammys this year. Officially, the Recording Academy says that alternative jazz, and I quote, "may be defined as a genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid that mixes jazz with other genres."

(SOUNDBITE OF MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO'S "OMNIPUSS")

CHINEN: A genre beyond genre category. We've actually seen a boom in artists who are mixing jazz with all kinds of other genres and styles. These people don't neatly fit into existing categories. You know, I'm actually reminded of that moment just over 20 years ago when the Grammys introduced the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category. And that was, you know, at a time when neo soul was ascendant, and it felt very much like a response to that movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLEAR WATER")

JUSTIN HICKS: (Singing) Now, if you living in a glass house - say it with me now - don't throw no stones. If you living in a glass house...

CHINEN: The name most familiar here for sure is Meshell Ndegeocello, this singer-songwriter and bass player who's been releasing albums since the early '90s. And actually, she often gets cited as a progenitor of neo soul. Her nominated album this year, "The Omnichord Real Book" - it's a perfect illustration of this category's stated ideal. It comes out of a jazz impulse, and it features a lot of guest artists from the jazz tradition. But the sound of this album - it's a total amalgamation of funk and some folk and Afrobeat and sort of cosmic R&B.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLEAR WATER")

HICKS: (Vocalizing). (Singing) Please take control.

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) I just want to know you.

HICKS: (Singing) Thank you for my...

CHINEN: Along with Meshell, you have Cory Henry for a gospel-infused album called "Live At The Piano"...

(SOUNDBITE OF CORY HENRY SONG, "DOWN THROUGH THE YEARS (LIVE AT THE PIANO)")

CHINEN: ...And SuperBlue, which is a funk band co-led by the singer Kurt Elling and the guitarist Charlie Hunter. Then there's "Love In Exile," a cooperative trio that features Arooj Aftab on vocals, Shahzad Ismaily on bass and synthesizers and Vijay Iyer on piano and keyboards, and, last but not least, Louis Cole, this musical multitasker and mischief-maker, for an album called "Quality Over Opinion."

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS COLE AND SAM GENDEL SONG, "B******")

CHINEN: Louis Cole really combines this kind of otherworldly, extravagant technical facility with a pure irreverence for any kind of decorum. You know, that's a combination that you hear all over his album.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS COLE AND SAM GENDEL SONG, "B******")

CHINEN: I've got to be honest and say that I'm riding hard for Meshell Ndegeocello because that was my favorite album last year. But I think it's also encouraging to see "Love In Exile" in this conversation because that album is all about spontaneous invention without any hangups about genre.

(SOUNDBITE OF AROOJ AFTAB, VIJAY IYER, AND SHAHZAD ISMAILY SONG, "SHADOW FORCES")

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey. I'm Rodney Carmichael, a correspondent for NPR Music. And another new category this year that's really overdue is best African music performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CITY BOYS")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) Girls inna my crib - zero Snapchat, zero Instagram posting.

CARMICHAEL: This is a new category that attempts to do the impossible, and that's collapse an entire continent - 54 countries, 1.4 billion people and over 30 genres of music - under one umbrella called Best African Music Performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CITY BOYS")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) It's nothing o. Chop my gbana.

CARMICHAEL: OK, so the Recording Academy's decision to create this Grammy category is embarrassingly late, but it's also oddly kind of right on time, especially from an industry perspective. I mean, there's been this undeniable explosion in the popularity of music coming from the African continent, especially in recent years. And when I say popular, I mean popular across the globe but especially right here in the U.S. From Afrobeats to amapiano, Nigeria to South Africa, I mean, these sounds and artists have been bubbling up the mainstream Billboard charts here in the U.S. and influencing the sound of hip-hop and R&B just as much as they've been influenced by African American music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CITY BOYS")

BURNA BOY: (Singing in non-English language).

CARMICHAEL: The best-known cat among this year's nominees is probably Burna Boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CITY BOYS")

BURNA BOY: (Singing in non-English language).

CARMICHAEL: He's already a Grammy winner, and with the four nominations that he has this year, he's become the most nominated Nigerian artist in Grammy history. His song "City Boys" is nominated in this category.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CITY BOYS")

BURNA BOY: (Singing) For the streets, e dey give me joy - Lamborghini boy.

CARMICHAEL: OK, so there are some other big names in the category, too. Davido is only second to Burna Boy when it comes to Nigerian artists who contributed to the mainstreaming of Afrobeats. He's nominated here for the song "UNAVAILABLE" featuring Musa Keys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNAVAILABLE")

DAVIDO: (Singing) I'm unavailable, unavailable. Dem no dey see me. Dem no dey see. I'm unavailable.

CARMICHAEL: Then there's Ayra Starr, who's also of Nigeria, and her song "Rush," and South African artist Tyla...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATER")

TYLA: (Singing) Can you blow my mind?

CARMICHAEL: ...Whose song "Water" - it actually made NPR Music's Best Songs of 2023 list.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATER")

TYLA: (Singing) Set off my whole body, whole body. Make me sweat. Make me hotter. Make me lose my breath. Make me water. Make me sweat. Make me hotter. Make me lose my breath. Make me water.

CARMICHAEL: She's definitely a superstar in the making. I'm definitely partial to the song "Amapiano" by Asake and Olamide.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAPIANO")

ASAKE: (Singing) Dem know. Dem know. Dem know.

CARMICHAEL: And the thing about this song is it's a hybrid, right? I mean, it's named for the genre native to South Africa that's really blown up in recent years, especially last year. And you can hear, like, the signature log drums driving that bass-heavy beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAPIANO")

ASAKE: (Singing) Amapiano, eh, Diano, eh, it's a big vibe.

CARMICHAEL: But the song is also heavy on Afrobeats, which is the genre that artists like Asake and Olamide are best known for. I mean, it just shows how blurred the lines can get, and that's really the point 'cause all of these artists and genres and sounds are in constant conversation with each other. It's really a musical conversation that's happening across the African diaspora.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAPIANO")

ASAKE: (Singing) Dem no dey call me Mr. Money for no reason o. As e dey go, eh, amapiano, eh, we go show, eh, we go let them know, eh, na we dey run the town and any show bigger than any woes, stronger than any foe.

CARMICHAEL: The nominees in this inaugural category - they all have one thing in common, and that's basically all of them have deals with U.S.-based companies, whether it's licensing, distribution or straight-up label deals. And all of that helped them cross over the Atlantic literally and break through to American audiences in ways that even the most popular African artists a generation ago never could have dreamed of.

SHAPIRO: That was NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael, and we heard earlier from WRTI's Nate Chinen on two new Grammy Awards categories this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAPIANO")

ASAKE: (Singing) Steadily, heavily, we are getting lit. They see me coming. Dem dey shout, hallelujah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
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