November’s 2022 Grammy Award nominations made history: For the first time, all five nominated acts for Best Children’s Music Album are led or co-led by artists of color. Not only that, two nominees—123 Andrés and Pierce Freelon—are CMN members, and so are several artists on the extraordinary compilation All One Tribe: Nanny Nikki (Nikki Rung), Uncle Devin (Devin Walker), Ms. Niki (Nicole Addison), SaulPaul, Kymberly Stewart, and Groovy Nate (Elnathan Starnes).
This slate is a world apart from last year’s Grammy roundup of all-white artists, which provoked outrage as the family music community demanded transparency from the industry’s most distinguished awards organization. Three of the five acts refused their nominations in protest. The controversy kicked off a year of activism and advocacy, seeking to bring more attention to the impact of systemic racism on children’s music and riding the wave of widespread cultural reckoning brought on by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
This year’s vastly different Grammy nomination outcomes were not an accident but a direct result of that advocacy. This is the story of two overlapping groups of artist-changemakers who are on the forefront of the movement to transform the family music industry and amplify the Black and Brown voices that need to be heard.
The first group is Family Music Forward (FMF). Founded in July 2020, FMF’s mission is to transform family music by supporting Black artists, children, and communities and dismantling individual, institutional, and systemic racial bias within the industry. The founding members have met virtually across four U.S. time zones, sharing concerns about the impact of white supremacy on children’s music and working collectively to transform it.
CMN member Devin Walker, known to the children’s music world as Uncle Devin, is one of FMF’s founders. He says FMF started with a conversation on the Kindiecomm Facebook group and eventually grew to a collective of thirteen Black, Brown, and white artists who wanted to address the industry’s lack of representation. Lolita Walker, Devin’s wife and another cofounder, adds that FMF tries to be the voice for both the artists and the children who don’t see themselves reflected in family music.
“For the past 300 years, the majority of content presented to or about Black children has been racist,” notes Devin, “children’s music included. And there’s also the problem of adultification, where children are exposed to music that isn’t appropriate for them.”
Lolita says, “Family music is still male dominated. FMF is supplying a place for women, especially the Black and Brown artists who struggle to get press. We’re creating a more equitable playing field.”
To that end, some FMF cofounders, working independently outside of FMF, began to conceive of the idea of producing an album. Under the moniker 1 Tribe Collective, this group came together with the purpose of creating music to help reprogram society’s perception of Black youth and giving young people and families permission to live out loud and celebrate their uniqueness. (While aligned with the same goals as FMF, it is a separate project.)
“That’s the solution. Let’s not complain, let’s do something. Let’s make some art and put it out into the world,” comments Aaron Nigel Smith on the impetus to create the album All One Tribe. Aaron, who is also an FMF cofounder, was the album’s executive producer, working alongside coproducers Shawana “Shine” Kemp and another FMF cofounder, Amelia Robinson. He adds that last year’s all-white Grammy nominations spurred them on. “That brought the project from a simmer to a boil. We went heavy into production at the start of 2021.”
The fruit of their labors presents twenty-five tracks by twenty-six Black artists from across the country, spanning musical genres and addressing topics from STEM and vaccinations to Black history and the beauty of differences. There are joyful songs like Kymberly Stewart’s “Beautiful Brown Babies,” and then there is “Say Their Names,” Ms. Janis’s somber tribute to Black victims of police violence. The project celebrates the excellence of these diverse children’s songwriters and helps to remind the world that Black artists and Black families do not represent a monolith. Aya World Productions released All One Tribe on Juneteenth, June 19, 2021.
“Pride. So much pride,” says CMN member Nikki Rung, aka Nanny Nikki, when asked what All One Tribe means to her. Nikki’s song “Playground Day” is featured on the album. “Pride in representation so beautiful and rich. To have this celebration of Black culture and all these artists—pride, all the way into my bones.”
As for the fallout from last year’s Grammy nominations, responding to the outrage fell squarely in FMF’s wheelhouse. The group quickly determined the need to reach out to the Recording Academy with their concerns. They drafted a letter to the Academy and then formed a committee that listed the changes they wanted to see in the nomination process. They had the opportunity to present that list when the Academy agreed to a meeting.
Another meeting occurred after the three nominees—including one cofounder of FMF, Alastair Moock—declined. As a result of FMF’s advocacy, the Academy discontinued the use of the Nominations Review Committee (essentially an invitation-only committee of a handful of individuals) and, instead, now allows each voting member’s voice to be heard. The impact of the change, which ensures greater diversity and inclusivity among voters, can clearly be seen in this year’s nominations of artists of color.
“We’re so proud of what the entire family music community did to make this change,” says Lolita. “And we’re so grateful to the Recording Academy for taking time to listen and taking action.” Aaron adds, “Being part of that movement has been some of the most significant work I’ve done as a family music artist.”
As for the Grammy-nominated 1 Tribe Collective, the announcement in November brought incredible joy and welcome recognition to the many contributors. Nikki reports that her career has gone “wildfire” since she was featured in a segment that her local news did on the album’s nomination. “It’s helped me to carve out a space in a national market. I’m also developing a relationship with a local private school of majority Black and Brown students, building a performing arts program there.”
“The 1 Tribe Collective and this album are historic. This project represents the dreams and hopes of our people. It’s an incredible honor to work with so many voices representing the rich diversity of Black and Brown artists,” says Aaron. “This music speaks to families today, and recognition from the Recording Academy demonstrates a step in the direction for equity in the family music space,” adds coproducer Shawana.
Multiple people interviewed for this article spoke of the importance of white allies in the work of FMF and the production of All One Tribe. They lauded the sacrifices made by Alastair Moock, Dog on Fleas, and the Okee Dokee brothers, who declined their nominations, as well as the dedication of coproducer Amelia Robinson. Nikki credits Amelia for bringing her aboard the album and praises her networking skills and initiative. “She takes allyship to the next level.”
As for what’s ahead, FMF is currently hard at work on other initiatives to support the children’s music community. Meanwhile, FMF cofounders continue dreaming up other like-minded projects that, while not FMF initiatives per se, will further FMF’s goals. For example, capitalizing on the spotlight that the Grammy nominations have provided, Devin says there are big plans afoot to launch the Black Children’s Network, a multimedia platform, hosting movies, shows, and music. In addition, another album may be on the horizon for 1 Tribe Collective.
Lolita emphasizes the critical importance of uplifting these voices: “The suicide rate is two times higher for Black children than for white. We’re looking to build self-esteem, to let them know they are enough; they’re more than worthy—they’re valued.”
Devin encourages all CMN members supportive of this work to continue seeking change. Aaron thinks that the children’s music community has turned a corner this year and that CMN has been moving in a positive direction: “I would love to see us continue down this path, continue to see organizations like CMN that are leaders in the industry and that have the bandwidth to evangelize on our behalf. I think it’s imperative that CMN continues to take the lead, to bring the world closer together.”
Learn more about Family Music Forward at familymusicforward.org.
Listen to All One Tribe at ingroov.es/all-one-tribe.