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The Zomba Prison Project Earns Malawi’s First Grammy Nomination

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Usually, caring about the Grammys is a one-way ticket to disappointment—we feel for you, Kendrick—but it was a pleasant surprise, then, to find so much Afropop worth celebrating on this year’s newly released list of nominees. Not only is Kendrick Lamar back with an astounding 11 nominations, several Afropop favorites, both new and old, round out the list.

The award for “most exciting nomination,” though, might belong to The Zomba Prison Project, whose album I Have No Everything Here is up for “Best World Music Album.” It’s a remarkable piece of work for a number of reasons: True to the group’s name, all of the musicians are prisoners at Zomba Central Prison, a maximum-security facility in Malawi. Ian Brennan, who has produced albums by the likes of Tinariwen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and TV on the Radio, traveled to the prison last January to document the music made by men and women, most of whom are serving life sentences in the overcrowded prison.

This is the first Grammy nomination given to a musical act from the landlocked southern African country, and it’s up against well-known Afropop favorites like Gilberto Gil, Angelique Kidjo, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as well as the Indian artist Anoushka Shankar—“World Music” is still a weird catch-all of a category. Regardless of who takes home the award, it’s great to see such a unique and humanistic project get attention, to say nothing of the Zomba Prison Project’s music, which is about as gentle and heartbreaking as music gets.

African musicians are making themselves heard outside of the World Music corner this year as well. Veteran reggae and roots rocker Rocky Dawuni’s Branches of the Same Tree is the first Ghanaian recording to be nominated for the Best Reggae Album award, up against an impressively old-school lineup of Jah Cure, Barrington Levy, Luciano and Morgan Heritage.

And that once-ubiquitous summer hit “Classic Man,” by Nigerian-American singer Jidenna, is up for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration alongside heavy hitters like Big Sean, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and, of course, the unstoppable Kendrick Lamar.

Well, he seems unstoppable now, but, you know, it is still the Grammys. There will be plenty of time and reason to shake our heads in disappointment after the ceremony on Feb. 15, 2016. But we’ll always have a list of nominees.

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