DJ Willy Wow is Atlanta’s Grammy underdog

Black entertainer is nominated for best children’s music album, a category known for its lack of diversity.
DJ Willy Wow spins dance tunes at Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Contributed by Fernbank Museum of Natural History



DJ Willy Wow spins dance tunes at Fernbank Museum of Natural History. Contributed by Fernbank Museum of Natural History

When the Recording Academy announces the winners for the 66th Grammy Awards, it’s likely Atlanta will come home with hardware. Janelle Monáe has a legitimate shot at walking away with album of the year, and the odds are ever in the city’s favor in the best rap album category with three out of five nominees coming from Atlanta. DJ Willy Wow hopes to hear his name called in a category that won’t be televised.

The DJ producer and rapper nominated is for best children’s music album. His album, “Hip Hope For Kids,” is one of three nominees from Black artists, a first for the Recording Academy. The Morehouse College alum calls Atlanta home and has for the past 30 years. He hopes to be the city’s first to lay claim to the award as a solo artist.

To do that, Wow will compete in a category that historically does not recognize people of color. He’s overcoming previous rejection from the Recording Academy and continuing to push for diversity in children’s entertainment.

“We’ve all broken down barriers in our own ways to make it more acceptable and more visible for Black artists to be a part of this market,” he said. “We still have a long way to go, but myself and many others who’ve been doing this for 10 years or more, we’ve seen a lot of of doors get closed.”

‘A dirty word’

Born William March, the Baltimore native moved to Atlanta in 1993 to enroll at Morehouse College early. His arrival came before the release of OutKast’s iconic debut, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.” The son of a mortician, his playlists at the time included heavy rotations of A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Redman, Eric Sermon, KRS-One and Nas. His move further below the Mason-Dixon Line sparked a love for Memphis rappers 8Ball and MJG.

Wow who studied finance and marketing, was known for throwing parties. He was also a regular at open mic nights at local music institutions such as Ying Yang Café and Ethiopian Vibration, where brushing shoulders with members of Dungeon Family was a regular occurrence.

After graduation, he contemplated going back to Maryland to join the family mortuary business. Instead, he stayed in Atlanta, kept his toes in music, deejaying weekends and working full-time during the week. He eventually landed a job at Johnson and Johnson that paid well enough for him to start investing more in music. It’s also there that he got the initial push to go into children’s entertainment.

Wow wrote a jingle for a product the company’s marketing team was promoting. Having two kids of his own, an executive reached out, encouraging Wow to make more content for kids. Ironically enough, the two men were hanging out at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where the idea for Wow’s next career move took shape. “He was like, ‘Man, you could write stuff way better than what I’m hearing out here at Disney World. You need to write some songs, some kids songs. They need some good music’.”

After the conversation Wow sent over three songs to the executive, including “First Time on a Plane,” an ode to a kid’s first flight. He performed the song via a mascot he dubbed Little Beat the #1 Chinchilla. Inspired by his Disney muse, Wow continued to research the industry. Its lack of representation was a motivator.

“I was looking at the children’s entertainment companies, and I realized they had it broken down as far as race,” he said. “I can’t remember the numbers exactly, but as far as Black ownership in children’s music and children’s entertainment, which is a multibillion-dollar entity, we had less than 1% ownership.”

At the time in 2004, Sirius XM Radio was a major player in children’s music, and “First Time on a Plane” spent 12 weeks in rotation on the platform. From there, Wow was getting booked at birthday parties, grand openings for family-friendly businesses, Zoo Atlanta, Fernbank Museum, and Home Depot. He’d show up to gigs wearing his then-signature propellor hat, armed with toys, bright colors, two turntables, and a microphone. ”A lot of these kids can’t afford to go to Disney World, so I’m going to bring Disney World to them,” he said.

Success in children’s entertainment led Wow to quit his day-job and fully commit to the craft. He looked for bookings outside of Atlanta, pitching a kid-friendly programming package to President George Bush to take part in the White House Easter egg roll. Though the Bush administration passed on his offer, former first lady Michelle Obama’s team asked Wow to take part. After only four years of children’s music, the artist was sharing a stage with “Sesame Street” characters, the cast of “Glee” and “Yo Gabba Gabba” and opening for Justin Bieber. He would go on to work with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign through 2013, penning the song “Let’s Move” to promote healthy habits for children.

That he did it with music influenced by hip-hop culture and rap made it even more unlikely. He writes original material and flips old classics.

“Hip-hop was a dirty word in children’s music back in 2006 when I was doing it,” he said. “I didn’t even tell people I was doing hip-hop. That was another thing that helped push me to do the music that I do, because I wanted to show people that you can do hip-hop in a clean, fun way through storytelling and giving positive messages.”

Peaks, valleys and a muse

“Hip Hope for Kids” is undoubtedly a hip-hop album, one seeped in elements of southern rap production past and present — think 808s, bouncy keyboard riffs, vocoders — and spirit. The album took two years to make, and came at a time when Wow was grappling with career momentum slowed by the up and downs of the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 put the world in pajamas and Zoom calls, Wow thought he had reached his peak. In Atlanta, he was working with V-103 on all of their family-friendly programming. He was also releasing music, including a single celebrating the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with legendary Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. He submitted the song — “M.L.K. That Way” — for consideration by the Recording Academy, and it was rejected.

With nowhere to go, literally, he took his sets online with a virtual dance channel for kids, which drew praise from Parade Magazine for some of the best pandemic content online.

A few months later in November 2020, three white nominees in the best children’s music album category withdrew their names in protest of the lack of diversity on the ballot.

The controversy led Family Music Forward — a collective supporting Black musicians — to work with the Recording Academy in addressing the issue. At the time, in 2021, Aaron Nigel Smith, a founding member of Family Music Forward, told Billboard there was a much bigger issue at play. “More than 50% of children in the U.S. are POC, yet in previous years, only 12% of the nominees in the children’s music space represented people of color,” Smith said.

With more than 20 years in the industry, =Wow says he and other artists of color’s experiences speak to evidence of Smith’s claim. “We got together and started making noise,” he said. “The Grammys just didn’t reflect Black representation in children’s entertainment and music.”

That noise came in the form “All One Tribe” a compilation comprised of more than 20 Black family artists, dubbed the 1 Tribe Collective. The Grammy-nominated Tuff Gong release features Willy Wow’s single “Nothing Wrong with the Black Crayon,” which was updated for his new album.

If there is a common thread of Wow’s Grammy-nominated solo effort, it’s hope. He says it’s something he thought a lot about over the course of the pandemic and the controversy that took place while creating this project. Making the album, getting back in front of audiences again, he felt like a kid all over again.

On the album, you can hear it.

The trap bounce of “Mr. Uno (Let’s Play Some Uno!)” sounds familiar, and “Cinderella’s First Dance” is what it might sound like if Kilo Ali was tasked with giving a G-rated account of the classic fairytale. In Wow’s version, the lyrics speak to helping kids overcoming bullying. It’s a 45-minute record full of uplifting messages and catchy hooks, in addition to interludes from Maryland Governor Wes Moore, music executive Shanti Das and Wow’s father.

He hopes that his inclusion, alongside Pierce and Nnenna Freelon (“Ancestars”) and Uncle Jumbo (”Taste the Sky”), speaks to positive changes.

“It’s more awareness out there now, and things are changing,” he said. “I attribute that to us working together as a collective to make some changes as far as what we do and the work we’ve put in. We’ve made some progress. It’s evident.”