When the Brooklyn-based Pakistani singer-songwriter Arooj Aftab learned last fall she was among the nominees for the best new artist Grammy, it was a shock.
“I didn’t think that something like that could happen,” the 37-year-old told AFP before heading to Las Vegas for Sunday’s gala, before adding: “I felt like it’s something that should happen.”
Aftab will be attending the Grammys for the first time, with two nominations under her belt on the heels of her 2021 album “Vulture Prince.”
The Recording Academy in recent years has made overdue attempts to diversify the genres and backgrounds of artists honored at its annual awards show, now in its 64th edition.
Most notably, they’ve expanded the field in the top four categories – best album, record, song and new artist – from five, then to eight and now 10 nominees, which has resulted in one of the most eclectic new artist crops in recent memory.
“We’re all so cool – the group itself is kind of like a win,” said Aftab, who has been steadily gaining acclaim for her work that fuses ancient Sufi traditions with inflections of folk, jazz and pop.
She said the category this year “feels like it’s the most rightfully representative.”
Aftab joins rapper Baby Keem, country singer Jimmie Allen, British rockers Glass Animals, experimental pop act Japanese Breakfast, Australian rapper The Kid Laroi, British singer Arlo Parks, rapper Saweetie and singer-songwriter Finneas – best known for the creative partnership he shares with his sister, Billie Eilish – in the best new artist running.
Of course, also in the category is Olivia Rodrigo, the overnight pop sensation who shattered streaming records on her ascent to superstardom and is widely tipped as a shoo-in to win the coveted award.
And if the 19-year-old who’s already a household name receives the trophy as expected, whether the Academy is really achieving its goal of promoting diversity in its recognition of the year’s best work remains an open question.
For Tarriona “Tank” Ball of the New Orleans group Tank and the Bangas – which received a new artist nomination for the 2020 gala, when Eilish won the category – just being included “carries weight.”
“I don’t feel like I lost to anyone that night,” Ball told AFP. “We feel like winners.”
‘A big deal’
Darius Van Arman – the founder of Secretly Group, a conglomeration of indie labels whose best new artist nominees include 2012 winner Bon Iver, Phoebe Bridgers and this year’s Japanese Breakfast – warned against letting industry awards “be the definition of success in the music marketplace.”
“There is no ranking of great art; there’s no winner or loser in the game of art. It’s all artists spending their best talents to make extraordinary pieces of expression that make the world better.”
That said, Van Arman added that “awards shows do open doors for some artists though, and create career opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
When she first learned of her group’s nomination in 2019, Ball said the initial reaction was “shock” – a feeling she called common for “underdogs” who perhaps never expected or aspired to such an accolade.
But then it sinks in as “the cameras start coming, and then the news hits you up, and they find you wherever you’re at,” Ball continued.
“And you’re just like, ‘Wait a minute, this is a big deal.’”
Aftab, who also scooped a nod for best global performance for her song “Mohabbat,” said these days “wherever I go... it’s just like, ‘Two-time Grammy nominee, two-time Grammy nominee’!”
“It’s just, like, now attached to my name,” she laughed. “And you know, it is one of the biggest and most coveted, even just nominations... in the world for music.”
“I think it is definitely doing something to my career.”
Van Arman nodded to “strides” he said the Academy has made in recent years to “be more inclusive of artists whether they’re on major labels or independent labels.”
“Our companies have felt that directly with Japanese Breakfast and Phoebe Bridgers and Bon Iver receiving best new artist nods.”
At the end of the day, Aftab said it comes down to a question of aim.
“What is the ethos of the Grammys? Is it to be so fair and to really represent everybody?” she asked. “Or are they just part of industry and ratings... and giving the masses the thing that they want, which is Olivia Rodrigo or Taylor Swift?”
“We just also have to be very realistic about our expectations of them, I think.”
The first-time nominee joked that at this point she’s focused on “not grimacing in pain in heels.”
“I’m looking forward to having a good time, meeting people,” Aftab said. “It’s going to be lit.”