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This year's Grammys will recognize a new merit award: best song for social change

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For years, the Grammy Awards have celebrated the best in music in categories like pop...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "​DRIVERS LICENSE")

OLIVIA RODRIGO: (Singing) I guess you didn't mean what you wrote in that song about me.

FADEL: ...Rap...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAMILY TIES")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I'm not a trending topic. I'm a prophet. I answer to Metatron...

FADEL: ...Or country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU SHOULD PROBABLY LEAVE")

CHRIS STAPLETON: (Singing) Yeah, you should probably leave.

FADEL: This year's ceremony will recognize a new award - best song for social change.

MAIMOUNA YOUSSEF: These types of songs - they bring about understanding where there was none.

FADEL: That's singer-songwriter Maimouna Youssef, one of the minds behind this award. After spending years in the music industry, Youssef felt compelled to join the academy.

YOUSSEF: A lot of my peers - they really started talking to me about, hey, look, if you're going to be in the music industry, be in it, be a decision maker. Like, you got to sit at those tables because decisions are being made for you, and you're not in the room. So I joined the academy, and I started - I realized how many artists had never created social justice music, didn't know how to do it and were really afraid of it.

FADEL: Afraid of it?

YOUSSEF: Oh, yeah. They felt like it would cost them their livelihood. If they said something that someone didn't like, they'd be blackballed - and in the spirit of a woman like Billie Holiday, who risked her livelihood to bring awareness to lynchings that were happening predominantly in the Southern states of the United States, where Black bodies could frequently be seen hanging from trees. She decided in the height of this political climate to sing a song called "Strange Fruit" about Black lynchings in the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

YOUSSEF: She was threatened not to sing it. The Feds told her she couldn't sing it - a song. That's the power of music, though, that it brings an awakening where there was none.

FADEL: This special merit award wasn't created overnight. It took over a year and a half to get it approved by the academy.

YOUSSEF: You had some people that were receptive and some people that were not, some people that felt like it's not time - 'cause there're some people that you have to convince that social justice as a concept matters - period...

FADEL: Wow.

YOUSSEF: ...That is something that artists should even be involved with. A lot of people feel like artists should mind their business. They should shut up and sing.

FADEL: Right.

YOUSSEF: And that, for me, is what I was fighting against. So we started reaching out to artists that we know who make this kind of music and explain to them why it's important. Just because someone wins for a song that is socially conscious once every 10 years for some people will justify why this is not necessary. And our sentiment was, it should not only be allowed to happen when there's a trend. It should be the norm.

FADEL: Did you have pushback, though, when you went with your presentation and when you went with your signatures? And...

YOUSSEF: Always. But I'm really happy that the majority was receptive. And I think is important too, again - like, when people don't do this kind of music and they don't - they're not from communities that are under attack all the time. They don't have a real reference point for why it's urgent. Luckily, I was able to speak from that community - you know, from Indigenous community, from an African American community, from an urban community, from a community of underground artists who are underground because we make conscious music and we make a conscious choice that we would rather speak the truth than get a deal.

FADEL: Recently, this new award captured national attention when over a hundred thousand submissions came in for one song. "Baraye," which means for or because of in Persian is by the Iranian composer Shervin Hajipour.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARAYE")

SHERVIN HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian).

FADEL: His song is the anthem of protests across Iran right now. Those mass demonstrations started after a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Zhina Amini, died in police custody, detained for wearing her hijab too loosely. The revolt played out on Twitter, too, with people sharing all the reasons they protest. And those tweets formed the lyrics of Hajipour's song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARAYE")

HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian).

FADEL: For my sister, your sister, our sister, he sings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARAYE")

HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian).

FADEL: For living a simple, ordinary life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARAYE")

HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian).

FADEL: Because of the imprisoned intellectuals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARAYE")

HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian).

YOUSSEF: That a song that gives voice to the voiceless, when it is like a wildfire that you cannot stop - you can arrest the writer, but you can't arrest the song. It's already out there. It's in the hearts of the people. People will chant it. They'll march with it. That's exactly the spirit that we wrote this in, is that you can kill a revolutionary, but you can't kill a revolution. When I see the women singing for freedom, for the students, for our futures, this right to freedom, this right to my humanity, to be valued as a person is so powerful that even with the media blackout, they could not silence the song.

FADEL: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARAYE")

HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian).

YOUSSEF: I really wanted to incentivize young artists who don't feel like they can make a living. If you make conscious, driven music, if you speak about things that are important to you, you have to be authentic. I want you to be authentic. Your story matters.

FADEL: What does having the spotlight mean for an artist behind such a song like Shervin Hajipour's song "Baraye."

YOUSSEF: I'm hoping that - just the heightened awareness. I didn't know this composer before this situation. I saw on the news what had happened to Mahsa Amini, and it really, really - like, it made me cry when I realized like, oh, my God...

FADEL: Yeah.

YOUSSEF: ...This - you know, this song is speaking for her and for so many. For me, this award is just so multifaceted and layered. Me being an artist, being a woman, you know, being a Muslim woman, being in this industry is so layered. And I really think - I think it's important that we - that the song is not an indictment on Islam. It's an indictment on a regime and a take on Islam, how Islam is used in a particular regime.

And he brought all those things to the forefront and just sewed it together in such a beautiful, melodic way that just evoked so much emotion. And I'm really, really praying for the writer of the song, for the artists, and for the family of Mahsa Amini and for all the women that are putting their lives on the line every time they sing that song, every time they march, every time they say, hey, you're not God; you don't get to police me.

FADEL: Maimouna Youssef, thank you so much for talking with us.

YOUSSEF: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: With the media blackouts across Iran, it's hard to know exactly how many people have been killed or detained in protests. But human rights groups estimate more than 200 are dead. And the government announced that 1,000 people will face public trials. Some are already facing the death penalty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BA'DE MA")

HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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