What would a Grammy award mean for your career?
Independent children’s hip-hop artists Alphabet Rockers captured their first Grammy award this year. This is what the award means for their mission and music.
Based in Oakland, California, Alphabet Rockers is unlike other bands that make music primarily for children, and over the last several years, Grammy voters have noticed. The hip-hop collective — which weaves the stories, spirit, and voices of a widely diverse group of young people into their work — has earned a total of four nominations for Best Children’s Album. This year, they took home their first Grammy award.
I spoke with Alphabet Rockers’ Tommy Shepherd and Kaitlin McGaw (my old friend and former bandmate) about the group’s win and what it means for their creativity and careers.
How did it feel to win a Grammy award after multiple nominations?
McGaw: It’s a little bit like stepping into a golden circle. And it was amazing to receive the award from Amanda Gorman, of all people. She’s someone who we are completely aligned with and on the same path with when it comes to creating media for young people that really matters. It felt like a sunbeam found us in the crowd and said, “Yup, we want you, you’re the ones this time.” [Laughs.]
Shepherd: Winning the Grammy award felt beautiful. It’s a validation of the hard work we’ve put in. It’s also a testament to the level of reach we’re attaining with our message. Our fans and community feel like this is their win, too. It is. We built this together, and that’s what I love most about this project.
What advice could you offer to independent artists who want to follow in your footsteps?
Shepherd: Be as talented with your business as you are with your artistic talents. Be artistic with your business. Don’t give up. Focus on building a community not just within your own genre, but across the music industry. Get to know people and create relationships. The industry is vast and there are so many like-minded people and resources out there.
McGaw: I’ve never felt good about the advice “make good music and everything else will just happen.” That guidance can throw you into a space of never knowing what’s good enough and who actually thinks your music is good. So I don’t advise that! What I do advise is knowing your audience, what they really need to hear, and why. That’s just as important as creating from your heart.
I’d also advise indie artists to be clear on who they are, to value themselves as independent creators, not try to copy other people’s careers, and root themselves in the community that listens to their music.
How would you describe the Alphabet Rockers’ community for people who aren’t familiar with your music?
McGaw: For Alphabet Rockers, it’s families who are in the global majority: Black, POC, queer, Indigenous peoples, community activists who are working for justice. We started about seven years ago as resident artists in Zoo Labs in Oakland, where we interviewed families who had all sorts of diverse heritage, and we asked them what they felt they needed to feel safe and whole. That’s where we got clear signals, direct information, and inspiration for our first and second Grammy-nominated albums. For our second album, we also worked with Our Family Coalition in San Francisco, who support LGBTQI+ families — it gave us a framework around gender inclusivity that shaped our music.
You’ve featured many different guest artists of all ages in your recordings and not just yourselves. Why is that?
McGaw: One of the challenges of working with different communities is knowing if their stories are yours to tell or if members of that community need to tell their stories directly. We try to provide funding and opportunities for people to tell their own stories whenever possible, so the music reflects the people it was created with and for.
What does the award mean for your careers?
Shepherd: Winning the award puts us on a platform where there are more eyes, and more people in power, who are looking at us. We’re here for it. We’re here to be exposed and spread our message, so I think the award will really help with that. And people just look at you differently because you won a Grammy. [Laughs.]
McGaw: The music we wrote for the album that won this year is all about a framework for cultural change. Winning the Grammy validates that these concepts — which were developed with children and adults around the world — are valuable and important right now. That opens doors and makes it easier to believe that equity, justice, and a more peaceful culture are possible everywhere and for everyone.
Photo By Sam Popp.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.