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The Grammys finally dropped the problematic "World Music" category

In the aftermath of widespread protests against racial injustice this summer, companies contorted themselves to atone for past mistakes. The music industry and the Recording Academy gave it their best shot, purging the “urban contemporary” label from most places where it prominently appeared. Some onlookers wondered why the Grammys altered these categories while preserving the murky “world music” designation. But now, the Recording Academy has renamed the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album to Best Global Music Album.

Here’s the Academy’s statement on the decision to strip the awards of a term that carries “connotations of colonialism”:

As we continue to embrace a truly global mindset, we update our language to reflect a more appropriate categorization that seeks to engage and celebrate the current scope of music from around the world.
Over the summer we held discussions with artists, ethnomusicologists, and linguists from around the world who determined that there was an opportunity to update the best world music album category toward a more relevant, modern, and inclusive term… The change symbolizes a departure from the connotations of colonialism, folk, and “non-American” that the former term embodied while adapting to current listening trends and cultural evolution among the diverse communities it may represent.

The case of “world music” has been a contentious point for the Grammys long before this summer. Although calls to abolish the Western-centric dog whistle of a genre trace back decades, it’s gained heightened steam in recent years, with consensus building that it’s “flawed and problematic.” In a 1999 New York Times op-ed headlined “I Hate World Music,” David Byrne described that the term has a way of othering any non-white, non-Western music as separate from the sort of music that usually contends for major Grammy Awards. “In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one's own life,” Byrne wrote. “It's a way of relegating this ''thing'' into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute.”

At a time when Western pop music charts are largely populated by non-Western artists, the distinction feels even more out-of-step with where things are. Angélique Kidjo won the 2020 Grammy for Best World Music Album, shouting out Burna Boy — a bona fide international star — in her acceptance speech. Changing the category is definitely a move in the right direction — but with an organization that managed to add the term "urban" to another category this summer with “Latin Pop or Urban Album" — there’s always more work to be done.