New Grammy Award for Best African Music Performance still fails to recognise the wide variety of African music genres

Yusuf Bangura (Nyon, Switzerland): Sierra Leone Telegraph: 16 June 2023:

The decision on 14 June 2023 by the Grammys to add an African category to their yearly awards is an improvement on the grouping of African music under the all-encompassing and nebulous category of Global Music. However, this new category still fails to recognise the rich variety of music genres across Africa.

The Grammys have for decades ignored music genres in non-Western societies by adopting a broad brush categorisation. This lumps all music from such societies into a single category labelled Global Music.

The term Global Music itself is a recent creation. Before 2021, music generated in Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, was categorised as World Music by the Grammys. Criticism of the colonial or exclusionary undertones of ‘world music’ (or music from exotic lands) in the imagination of Western music consumers led to the adoption of the new name Global Music in 2021.

Artists and ethnomusicologists around the world who campaigned for the change, as well as the Recording Academy of the United States that runs the Grammys, believe that the new name is ‘more relevant, modern and inclusive’. One has to stretch credulity to believe that there is a difference in meaning between World Music and Global Music.

African music genres, such as Soukous, Makosa, Afrobeats, Amapiano, Juju, Fuji, Highlife, Hiplife, South African Jazz, Ethio Jazz, Bongo Flava, Kwaito, Township Music, Chimurenga, Mbalax, Isicathamiya, Goombay, Bubu and African folk or traditional music are homogenised and subsumed under Global Music.

If you walked into a music store in Western cities before the emergence of music streaming platforms, which signalled the death of vinyls, cassettes and CDs, World Music had a special corner that distinguished it from the huge spaces occupied by Western music—the only music that was deemed important to be classified into various genres, such as pop, rock, country, classical, soul/R&B, reggae, hip hop, gospel and blues. The Grammys have retained this dichotomy despite the changes that have occurred in its 64 year history.

Established in 1959 as an American music award winning show, the Grammys have evolved as the most important badge of honour in the global music industry. It is an unrivalled reference point for music lovers in the US, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, despite the proliferation of national and regional music awards across the world.

Like the Swedish Nobel Foundation for awarding excellence in various scientific fields, the American Grammys have positioned themselves as a universal body, honouring musicians from different regions of the world. Fourteen musicians from Africa have won a Grammy award, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo of South Africa and Angélique Kidgo from Benin topping the list with five and four awards respectively.

The pull of the US market, which tops the world with 38 percent of global music sales in 2022, accounts for the Grammys’ dominant position as an award granting body in the music industry.

However, the Grammys are still a long way from becoming a truly global institution. They will have to shed their global and regional music categories for categories based solely on music genres in other parts of the world to achieve their goal.

The hollowness of the Global Music category was seriously exposed in the Grammy Awards of 2022. Despite widespread expectations that the Nigerian superstar, Burna Boy, would win the best Global Music Album for his highly popular and well-crafted album Love Damini, he lost out to a Japanese artist, Masa Takuma. Takuma’s Japanese instrumental music was excellent, but so was Burna Boy’s Love Damini.

It is a great disrespect to African and Japanese music to lump together Afrobeats and instrumental Japanese music under World Music.

This kind of brazen anomaly encouraged promoters of African music at the global stage to advocate for a Grammy category that specifically addresses African music. The Nigerian creative industry entrepreneurs, Obi Asika and Adesegun Adeosun (aka Smade), founders of Afro Nation, led the way by getting the American Billboard 100 chart to launch a new billboard chart dedicated solely to Afrobeats in March 2022 , two years after it removed the reggae and dancehall billboard chart.

In making the announcement on 14 June, the Grammys tried to deflect criticism of the regional label (Best African Music Performance) by listing a number of African music genres that could be considered in the new category, including ‘Afrobeat, Afro-fusion, Afro Pop, Afrobeats, Alte, Amapiano, Bongo Flava, Genge, Kizomba, Chimurenga, High Life, Fuji, Kwassa, Ndombolo, Mapouka, Ghanaian Drill, Afro-House, South African Hip-Hop, and Ethio Jazz genres.’

Listing these various genres in the Grammy announcement does not, however, solve the problem. Musicians specialising in any of these genres will still be competing for one slot. The category still homogenises Africa’s complex musical heritage.

Compare this decision with that of 1985 to create a Grammy category for Best Reggae Album. The reggae category was treated as unique; it was not lumped with calypso, soca or chutney—music genres that are popular in Trinidad and the Caribbean generally. And the Grammys have five categories for Latin—chiefly Latin American—music: Best Latin Pop Album, Best Musica Urbana Album, Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album, Best Regional Mexican Music Album (including Tejano) and Best Tropical Latin Album.

The Grammys allocated only two out of their 91 categories in 2022 to non-Western music (or Global Music). These are Best Global Music Performance and Best Global Music Album. The new African category, Best African Music Performance, brings the total number to three.

However, there is no corresponding Best African Music Album. This suggests that African musicians with good albums that seek recognition will still have to compete with musicians from Asia under the category of Best Global Music Album.

It is, surely, not possible to honour all music genres from Africa with separate Grammy categories. However, over the years six or so music genres—soukous, makosa, high life, afrobeat, afrobeats, South African jazz and amapiano—have had cross-border impacts on the continent.

Currently the two most dominant sounds on the continent are afrobeats and amapiano, with afrobeats enjoying unrivalled hegemony. Through artists such as Asake and Davido, afrobeats has incorporated the unique percussion (talking drum) sounds of amapiano, making it difficult to distinguish amapiano from afrobeats.

If the Grammys truly want to be seen as a global institution there is no reason why music from non-Western societies should be homogenised and accorded only three slots.

Even though the introduction of Best African Music Performance represents recognition of the growing influence of African music on the world stage, it still falls well short of what is required for the acceptance of the Grammys as a universal award winning institution.

Africa’s Afrobeats, Soukous, Makosa, Amapiano, Highlife, South African Jazz, Bongo Flava, Kwaito, Township Music, Isicathamiya and a host of other genres should not be buried in the categories of Best African Music Performance and Best Global Music Album.

You can read more about the Grammys categories here:


  1. Thank you Amina Mansaray for your comment. I’m pleased you liked the article. I actually relocated to Sierra Leone in 2013 and taught at FBC until 2014 when the Ebola outbreak forced me to move back to Switzerland. I was then overwhelmed by health issues that required regular monitoring by my doctor and found it dificult to return to SL.

    On the three artists you list, I will place Diana Ross at the top, followed by Tina Turner, and then Donna Summer. I grew up listening to Diana’s Ross’ music as a teenager and continue to rate her highly. However, my Number 1 American female artist is Aretha Franklyn, followed by Diana Ross and Whitney Houston. After Tina Turner’s death I saw a video clip of hers in which she displayed Africa and Africans. She said Africa is boring, Africans are lazy and our food is bad. She seemed to have imbibed the prejudices of Westerners towards Africa and African Americans. I don’t rate her highly anymore. Best wishes

  2. Dr. Yusuf Bangura at his best. Sir you are very impressive in things that many in your pedigree do not venture into. Thank you for always educating us. I enjoyed reading your take on this topic. It is also extremely timely as it takes off our minds to the dooms day articles that have dominated our online papers these days. Once again thank you.
    You did a very brilliant interview in 2012 with Gibril Koroma. That was very educative. I was hoping that the condition would have allowed you to come back home and pay back the debt that you said you owed to mama Salone. But I cannot blame you for not coming back as you promised. One area that you touched on in that interview was the dangers of ethnic divide, which unfortunately has taken over our identity as a nation since your interview. And today it has become so prime that we do not know where it is going to lead us.
    Coming back to your article, thank you Doctor and enjoy your retirement.
    I can’t finish without asking you this question, the late Tina, Turner, Diana Ross and Donna Summer, who would you rate as the best?

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