Marlon Fuentes was born in Mexico City, Mexico, but his family moved to the US when he was just a toddler. Born into a highly musical family, he grew up listening to a diverse range of music from different regions of the world. But his dad had a thing for African music, as a favorite.
Meet Marlon Fuentes, the former head of global music at the Grammys who effected change that won Wizkid and Burna Boy Grammys [Pulse Interview]
He speaks about selfish gatekeepers, expectations vs. reality for people who used to handle the Global Music category, how he effected change for Afrobeats and more.
“African music is built around percussion and lots of rhythm. It’s not much of a distance from LatinX or Hispanic music. It’s then understandable that me or my dad can relate with it on a higher level. Some Mexican, Brazilian, Cuban or Colombian genres have heavy roots in African music,” Fuentes tells Pulse. “My father played Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Fela Kuti, Angelique Kidjo, Mariam Makeba and more in our house as a kid. I grew up with them and I connected with them.”
Fuentes grew up and so did his love for music. Beyond the Folkloric music that his family nurtured him with, he discovered Hip-Hip, R&B, Rock, Afrobeats and more. He then became a DJ and a collector of music.
In the 2000s, he was part of a small community of people who loved African pop music - although, he would never easily openly refer to himself as an “early adopter” for obvious reasons.
He calls himself, “an opportuned person who only played a role in the music industry.” He also calls his early love for music a privilege and remains keen to reiterate that he loves music of all kinds, from which African music happens to be one.
On close examination, he speaks with a child-like passion about African Pop music, and the victorious ‘I told you so’ smile of an early adopter, who told his fellow Americans to pay attention to Afrobeats, which he’s always called “champion sound.” He probably doesn’t even realize that the passion shows, whenever he speaks about African music.
“2018 was a really pivotal time for African music in the US. You can argue that the music started growing from around 2010 or 2012, but immigrants in small communities and ‘hip’ [laughs] white people were the ones playing that music,” he said. “We would play Oskido, Kwaito, Makossa music in the 2000s and 2010s. But the market wasn’t too big for those sounds.”
Fuentes reflects that these days, it’s astounding to see DJs or street parties randomly play African music as part of pop music sets. As a DJ, Fuentes recalls playing African music to random parties in the 2000s to high appreciation, but little stickiness.
“I think it’s a thing of expectation or lack thereof,” Fuentes said in July 2021. “At the time, the states had incorporated Dancehall, Reggae and the earliest days of K-Pop, but that Champion Sound [Afrobeats or African Pop Music] was too raw for the average white person, who had a ready-made expectation of African music as traditional or folksy, with pictures of bamboos and half-naked dance routines. It was a stereotypical thing - people couldn’t reconcile the attraction of contemporary Champion sound with their expectations and it resulted in a lack of connection.”
Fuentes joins the Grammys
In 2018, Fuentes’ reputation as a DJ, cultural curator, trained musicologist from UCLA and a staunch music lover with limitless palette and consumption habit was burgeoning, and it led to an incredible encounter. A friend spotted an opportunity and nudged Fuentes to apply as a curator.
As an outsider looking in, Fuentes had reservations about the perception of international music at the Grammys and he was keen to make changes. He then rose to become the Manager of Global Music, where his work truly began.
Under his leadership, the category became a better representation of contemporary music consumption in international markets - especially Africa, more Africans became voting members of the recording Academy, ‘World Music’ became ‘Global Music’ and Global Music got a new category for songs.
But getting here required quite the journey, and it was quite arduous.
Problems with the Grammys
“Man, before I joined the Academy, I always wondered why nominees in the ‘World Music’ category had parallels: the music was always centred around ‘concepts’ or socio-political issues, and it was usually traditional or folkloric [laughs]. It used to astound me,” he jokes. “When I joined the Academy, I would play them Diamond or Davido or Fally Ipupa, but they couldn’t reconcile the reality with their expectations.”
“They would say stuff like, ‘But I don’t hear ‘the African or World Music’ in there.’ [laughs],” the Looking Glass Factory boss adds. “The people in charge of World [now Global] Music were older white people, who couldn’t see that the soundscape in Africa and in those smaller hubs had changed from what they knew.”
“Their idea of World Music had to be this abstract concept or music that wasn’t as commercially viable. Explaining to them that Diamond or Burna Boy or Wizkid was also World [now Global] music worthy of a nomination, despite the bling and good life, instead of half-naked dancers wearing palm fronds in their music videos was quite tough [laughs],” he continues. “They always tried to push the more contemporary [African] artists into other categories like Pop or R&B, where they were going to lose or get drowned out by bigger American records.”
Fuentes understands that some records made by contemporary African artists like Wizkid, Burna Boy, Davido, Diamond, Sarkodie and so forth can pass for the R&B, Pop or Rap categories, but he wanted to celebrate international artists and international music with World [now Global] music category, however small the platform might seem.
For a start, he wanted to use that category to feed contemporary international music to the American audience. If these international songs then get big enough to become strong contenders in other categories, then he would be happy with that.
But in 2018 or 2019, he felt like international music from smaller markets like Africa needed a launchpad like the World Music category to showcase and celebrate them, and their importance to their continent or their country of origin, in a way that reflects the popular consumption patterns in those continents or countries.
“Look at BTS, they were never nominated in the World Music category. Now, they will get nominated in the pop categories and that’s good,” Fuentes enthuses. “But two years ago, a nod in the World Music category would have been sufficient to celebrate them. Yet it never happened because they were contemporary. Moreover, K-Pop was and is still bigger than African music in the states. Celebrating African music with that category is much better than touting them for bigger categories, where they would be beset by similar problems of expectations of the average white person of what African music should, rather than what it is.”
“Cool international Pop music can be cool to Americans as well, and we had to implement that narrative,” he adds.
To implement his cause, Fuentes set out to reeducate the voting members of the Academy that the Grammys shouldn’t just be an “abstract concept” that simply rewards high musicality, to the exclusion of commercial success or popularity. As a musicologist, he remains keen to celebrate high-calibre musicality, even if it comes attached with commercial success and contemporary mainstream appeal or acceptance.
“Getting them to see the high-calibre musicality of African Contemporary Pop music was tough. High-calibre musicality shouldn’t be limited to the more Folkloric sounds, with grandiose messaging,” he enthuses. “It can also be Pop music. Moreover, African music - for example - can have different variations or subgenres, just like Rap has BoomBap, Crunk, Trap, Drill or Grime. And they can all produce high-calibre musicality.”
Fuentes and his category also had to combat selfish gatekeepers. Part of those who fought back against him were purists, who wanted to keep the status quo, from which they are beneficiaries.
“As much as these guys are purists, who definitely believe that traditional or folkloric music possesses higher musicality than pop music, some of them are beneficiaries of that system,” he confesses. “They only got themselves familiar with makers of traditional African music - for example - and a new alliance with newer, more popular acts is detrimental to their bag.”
Fuentes namechecks someone like Ian Brennan, an American music producer, lecturer and author of Silenced by Sound: The Music Meritocracy Myth.
He is the producer of Tinariwen's Tassili, 2011 album which won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album and Zomba Prison Project, a nominated album,
Other albums produced by Brennan, like Ramblin' Jack Elliott's I Stand Alone (2006) and Peter Case's Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John (2007) were nominated for Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Solving the problems
With the help of other like-minded individuals within the Academy, Fuentes realized that he couldn’t fight the battle alone. First, he made sure that more people from international markets, typically attractive to the World Music category became members of the Academy.
“I knew it was imperative to get more people - especially Africans - into the Academy to go f*ck sh*t up. So we encouraged more of them - mostly artists and producers - to become members of the Academy,” he confesses. “As much as I recognize the possibility of sentimental votes because a Grammy is prestigious, I also operated on the knowledge that game recognizes game.”
“Artists know music and they recognize greatness, talent, effort and work ethic in each other,” he adds. “Some will vote with sentiment, but most will vote with appreciation in mind.”
Second, he changed ‘World Music’ to ‘Global Music.’ Then third, he created the ‘Global Music Performance’ category, which increases the avenues to celebrate and showcase international music. And he was very particular about Afrobeats.
World music vs. Global Music and Global Performance
Fuentes draws parallels between ‘World Music’ and ‘Urban Music’ as euphemistic, elitist expressions in American music. He had problems with that tag ‘World Music,’ and even more problems with its definition. As much as he was tempted to simply redefine the tag for broader representation, he also sought to change the name of the category entirely.
“What exactly is World Music, Motolani? I get the reason behind it. I also understand that it was meant to celebrate music from outside the states. People also think that the tag ‘World Music’ is seperatist and elitist, but the perception and use of the category is more separatist than the tag itself. A tag can be whatever you want it to be.” he enthuses. “Even though ‘World Music’ might not be naturally offensive in its ordinary state, it had grown to have a separatist and elitist perception. You simply can’t redefine the category for broader effect without changing its tag.”
As much as Fuentes recognizes that ‘World’ and ‘Global’ can be interchangeables that represent semantics to certain people, he was keen to explain that they mean different things.
“In ordinary parlance, ‘World’ in the Grammy context takes ‘America’ out, but ‘Global’ is more inclusive and it showcases unity,” he says. “Moreover, the idea of difference comes from what you project, and that category needed some form of change.”
In their 2020 announcement, the Recording Academy said that ‘Global Music,’ “Recognizes excellence in albums of world music, including recordings of international non-Western classical music, international non-American and non-British traditional folk music, international cross-cultural music based on the previously mentioned genres as well as international recordings of world beat, world jazz (with a higher percentage of world than jazz music), world pop and cross-cultural music.
"Albums of reggae, Latin or European pop music aren't eligible in this category and should be entered in other categories as appropriate."
On March 14, 2021, the Grammys announced another Fuentes baby, the Global Music Performance category.
Burna Boy’s win
Some of these changes and the redefinition led to Burna Boy’s win.
ALSO READ: Burna Boy: Road To Grammy for 'Twice As Tall
“In previous years, a Burna Boy win would have been unlikely, even though his music had the widest consumption in that category. And this would have been due to its pop state,” Fuentes adds. “But it was nice to see him win that category and it was deserved. The category needed an ice breaker, and it was nice to see that others saw the need as well.”
While Fuentes notes that it’s likely to happen sooner rather than later, he also notes that it will take pitching and lobbying.
“Harvey Mason wouldn’t just wake up one day and add an Afrobeats category. He responds to pitches and lobbying. At the start of every year, people need to pitch for that category. Let’s see what can happen," he adds.
Fuentes has since resigned his job at the Recording Academy and moved from the West Coast to the East Coast, where he runs his company, Looking Glass Factory - a hologram technology company. He is reluctant to see a return to the Recording Academy, but he doesn’t completely close the door on it either.
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