Grammy Winner Joanie Leeds Shares Her Top 10 Children’s Songs That Will Change the World

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“In March 2021, I accepted the GRAMMY Award for my family-friendly, female empowerment album, All the Ladies. In my acceptance speech, I offered some words to my fellow children’s musicians in gratitude and reflection: ‘We may be a small genre but we are really powerful. Let’s be the change that we want to see.’

“I conceptualized my all-female album during the 2018 GRAMMY Award ceremony at Madison Square Garden, right from my seat. Only one female won that year during the televised ceremony (Alessia Cara for Best New Artist) and the lack of females honored for music’s biggest night was nothing short of noticeable. A few months later, I read the findings from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a scientific report with alarming data about the lack of female representation in the music industry. Within the children’s genre, however, only 22% of artists who had received a GRAMMY nomination over the past decade were female.

“I began writing.

“Children’s songwriters are in a unique position when deciding what to create for our audiences. Yes, we make silly, wacky, funny music solely to entertain as well as calming lullaby songs to help relax children (and parents) at bedtime. We write educational music for homeschooling parents and teachers to use in the classroom just as easily as we write movement music to get kids up and dancing when they need exercise or a brain-break. Subject matter for children is endless and comes in every musical flavor (jazz, rock, pop, folk hip-hop, punk). There is a massive slate of talented independent artists making music for kids—or, as we say on the inside, Kindie Music.

“More and more, however, children’s musicians are using their voices and talents to write songs about change and progress, a direct response to America’s many systemic issues and the reckoning within. The uptick of consciously creating quality change-making tunes by today’s music-makers is noticeable as the political pendulum swings toward progress creating a palpable revolution supporting inclusiveness, conservation, and diversity.

“I am excited to highlight some of the best music from the children’s genre doing just that, in many styles, guaranteed to change the world one family at a time!”

–Joanie Leeds

1) Lucy Kalantari and the Jazz Cats, featuring SaulPaul

Song: “What Kind of World”
Album: What Kind of World

Lucy Kalantari is a 2-time GRAMMY-winning Producer, Engineer, Arranger, and Jazz Cats frontwoman who creates uplifting originals in both English and Spanish. What Kind of World is a musical masterpiece as she infuses an intricate orchestration with strings and a massive chorus of both adult and kids voices chanting, “We can build a world that we want to see.” (My daughter and I are in there somewhere!) Lucy features Kindie Hip Hop artist and change-maker SaulPaul who adds a seemingly effortless rap to her Tori Amos-like, piano-driven vibe. It all comes together perfectly, blending genres with a masterful arch and message. 

2) Pierce Freelon featuring Divinity Roxx

Song: “Cootie Shot”
Album: Black to the Future

This year, Pierce Freelon is nominated for a GRAMMY for his second children’s album, Black to the Future. His album incorporates elements of Afrofuturism and Black history featuring archival voices of four generations of his family. One of the album’s songs that best captures the zeitgeist is “Cootie Shot.” You know that old playground rhyme, “Circle, circle, dot, dot. Now I’ve got my cootie shot?”

Pierce brilliantly repurposed it for his original tune while bringing awareness to families about the importance of vaccines and overcoming their fears of shots during the global pandemic. On his website, Pierce says he “hopes to help move the needle on this racial disparity in healthcare by encouraging families to go dancing to the doctor’s office.” The song features Beyoncé’s musical director and bassist, Divinity Roxx, who is also a top-notch children’s performer, songwriter, and picture book author as well. 

3) Sonia De Los Santos

Song: “This Land is Also Mine”
Album: Esperanza

Originally from Monterrey, Mexico, Latin GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter Sonia De Los Santos shines with her new release, Esperanza. It’s a bilingual collection of songs about hope and togetherness featuring a beautifully written folk song entitled, “This Land is Also Mine.” Just like Woody Guthrie’s classic, This Land is Your Land, Sonia’s song presents a deeper message about immigrants arriving in America- not always feeling particularly welcome in their new home. Sonia was compelled to write this deeply personal song story after reading some hateful words on one of her social media platforms. Her beautifully touching lyrics invite listeners to welcome and support immigrants to America as their fellow neighbors as “this is OUR home.” 


4) Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer

Song: “I Belong to a Family”
Album: Dancin’ in the Kitchen

Two-time GRAMMY Award winners, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer are master musicians and instrumentalists with a career spanning over 35 years. The duo has been creating songs to change the world long before everyone else on this list. They have truly paved the way. Cathy and Marcy’s 44th release in 2015 celebrates diverse families, including one-parent and two-parent households, grandparents raising their grandchildren, gay and lesbian parents, extended and blended families, mixed-race families, and LGBT children. Their songs reflect the growing diversity of family structures in America, and around the world, and highlight the reality that families are bound by love.

5) 1 Tribe Collective

Song: “One Tribe”
Album: All One Tribe 

Five months after the nationwide protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the GRAMMY nominations were announced. All five of the nominees voted for Best Children’s Album were white, four of which were white men. As a result, many conversations were sparked about the lack of representation in the family music space, specifically BIPOC artists. Shawana Kemp, Aaron Nigel Smith, and Amelia Robinson joined forces to bring Black artists together for the genre’s first-ever Black collaborative family music album, All One Tribe.  

1 Tribe Collective was nominated this year for a GRAMMY award along with four other nominees from the BIPOC community, a much-desired change within our genre and beyond. The album includes 26 Black family musical artists collaborating on the incredible first track, One Tribe, and then each contributing their own song on the following tracks, addressing topics such as family, Black history, vaccines, and the beauty of differences.

The artists include Alphabet Rockers,  Fyütch, Divinity Roxx, Ms. Niki, Rissi Palmer, Bryan Owens, SaulPaul, The Magic Jones, Uncle Jumbo, Shine & The Moonbeams, Roy Moye III, Kymberly Stewart, Pierce Freelon, Culture Queen, Melanie DeMore, Nanny Nikki, Aaron Nigel Smith, Shine & the Moonbeams, Robbi K,  Uncle Devin,  DJ WILLY WOW!, The Wise Channel, Jessica DeShong, Groovy Nate, Ms. Janis, Jabali Afrika, Ahadi, SNOOKNUK. 

6) Fyütch

Song: “Pick it Up”
Album: Family Tree

One of my favorite albums of 2021 is by social justice artist, educator, producer, and performer, Fyütch (pronounced like the front half of future.) As a whole, the album is a nod to his ancestors, a lesson in Black History in America filled with stories he hopes to pass down to his daughter and future generations to come. Every song on the album is a hit and while many songs on Family Tree fall under the “world-changing” description, his eco-friendly Pick It Up celebrates sustainable living and proclaims that Earth Day is every day, something we all need to hear again and again. And AGAIN. The music video and choreographed dance for the song are so much fun, I recommend checking it out as well as all of Fyütch’s other viral sensations! 

7) Ants on a Log

Song: “They’re My Best Friend”
Single: They’re My Best Friend

It’s more important than ever for children’s music makers to create songs for all audiences so all children can be represented and feel accepted. Ants on a Log are leading the way in making fabulous music especially for Trans and Non-Binary kids, allies, and the whole community. Music therapist Julie Be (they/them) and Elementary school teacher Anya Rose (she/her) are Ants on a Log, the duo responsible for writing silly, harmony-filled folk ditties advocating for social justice, positivity, and creating awareness.

In 2020, they curated a Trans and Non-Binary Kids Mix “with artists all over the genre map, as well as allies, celebrating life and offering trans/nonbinary youth a reflection of their world.” The album is available on Bandcamp and all donations benefit Camp Aranu’tiq, a summer camp for trans/nonbinary youth. The song they contributed for the 21-song compilation is They’re My Best Friend, an adorable tune about acceptance using pronouns they/them throughout. “Their name is Alex like Alexander or Alexandra except without the ander or andra at the end. Yea there’s no ander or andra at the end. They’re just Alex, and they’re my best friend.” 

8) Chana Rothman

Song: “Rainbow Train”
Album: Rainbow Train

Another album promoting gender freedom and expression is Chana Rothman’s album, Rainbow train. After having children and having thoughts about her own gender identity, she wanted to create a resource for her kids and the many families she spoke with who don’t fit into traditional gender roles. The whole album is a spectacular look at positivity outside of gender norms and how to break away from these gender rules created by society.

The song “Rainbow Train” is guaranteed to make you smile and want to hop on board on the “next stop.” The song’s lyrics, “We are not all the same. We are the change. We are the Rainbow Train” encapsulate the whole album’s vibe, sung in many different styles from folk, hip hop, funk & disco, and will surely create a musical opportunity for children to feel free to express themselves.

9) Formidable Vegetable

Song: “No Such Thing as Waste”
Album: Garbage Guts

For the people in the back, I’ll say it a little louder… We need to take climate change seriously. With all of the important social issues our country must overcome, our planet’s sustainability should be at the forefront if we want our children and our children’s children to have a planet in which to reside. This is a global issue and there is no one better than the Australian band Formidable Vegetable to send this crucial message. 

Their album is dedicated to scavengers, upcyclers, and dumpster-divers and brings environmentally friendly tunes such as “No Such Thing as Waste” to families in a digestible way. The band is led by ecological troubadour Charlie Mgee who “grew up in an off-grid mud-brick shack among trees, chickens and a veggie garden, later graduating to a waste vegetable oil-powered fire truck he converted to a tiny house.”

Along with his bandmates Mal Webb and Kylie Morrigan, they created their latest album Garbage Guts as a next-level “commitment to making the world a better, kinder, and healthier place through funky, family-friendly tunes for raising awareness and grassroots action around ecological & social issues.” Their music will certainly raise awareness and hopefully help us all get back to being in balance with the natural world.

10) Alphabet Rockers

Song: “Not Alone”
Album: The Love

Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Soulati Shepherd’s entire mission with their inter-generational hop-hop project, Alphabet Rockers, is “making music that makes change.” When describing their music, they say, “Our families need content that is healing, that reflects who we are and empowers us—that embraces Black liberation, Queer liberation, Indigenous rights, immigrant rights, and intersectionality.”

In addition to offering an anti-racism course through their website and receiving two GRAMMY nominations for their albums, they just released their first picture book (You Are Not Alone) based on my favorite song of theirs, “Not Alone,” from their album, The Love. Both the song and the picture book empowers and encourages kids to love themselves and stand up to hate always having each others’ backs.

While many artists in the genre write a song or an album about changing the world, the Alphabet Rockers have set themselves apart ever since their 2016 release and announcement that their group’s mission is change-making music.

We are all here for it!

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