The Latin Grammys Put Reggaeton’s Progress on Life Support

5301

On September 25th, one day after the Latin Recording Academy announced the latest round of Grammy nominations, J Balvin donned a “no days off” T-shirt, took a seat in a plush red armchair and stared down a camera. He spoke softly and measured his words, but he was on the attack, coolly drawing attention to the Academy’s longstanding bias against reggaeton

“There is a history that dates back many years where our genre has been denigrated,” Balvin explained. “I don’t agree with [the Academy] using us for ratings,” he added. “And then [us] not going home with what we deserve.”

Fellow superstar and frequent collaborator Bad Bunny echoed Balvin’s words in the press room following Thursday’s Grammys ceremony. “There are people who [must] accept that reggaeton is a genre that has been going for more than two decades,” Bad Bunny said pointedly. “Whether you like it or not … we are [the ones] representing Latinos worldwide.”

A number of artists shared this sentiment and chose to stay home on Thursday. Daddy Yankee, Anuel AA, and Natti Natasha were no-shows. Ezequiel Rivera, who has produced songs for Bad Bunny and Anuel AA, tells Rolling Stone, “a lot of major artists didn’t come out here.” None more major than Balvin, who passed up the chance to perform his Latin Grammy-winning Rosalia collaboration, “Con Altura” — and to debut his new single “Blanco,” which he released at midnight, as if to say to the Academy, “look at what we could have had.”

The international diffusion of Spanish-language music in the last five years has been extensively cataloged. But an elite group of reggaeton performers have been the public face of this expansion. The top three songs on the YouTube chart this week all feature reggaeton acts, as do 10 of the top 25. On Spotify, reggaeton artists account for 11 of the Top 50, and those are the only Spanish songs on the Global chart — the only songs introducing listeners in Germany and South Africa and India to Latin music. 

At the 20th Latin Grammys ceremony, the artists spearheading this charge were allowed to perform. But they were not really allowed to compete. Ozuna took the stage twice, as did Bad Bunny. Yet neither of them were considered worthy for nomination in the coveted cross-genre categories: Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Album of the Year. None of Ozuna and Bad Bunny’s peers were acknowledged in those categories, either. 

This is not unusual — as Balvin pointed out in his September video, the Latin Grammys have never been kind to reggaeton. “It’s always been like that since we started,” Rivera says. “Always, the old-school guys didn’t want this music to come in.”

“We should make sure that there are some people inside the Latin Grammys that know about urban music,” adds Andrés Castro, a Latin Grammy voter and acclaimed songwriter-producer who has worked with everyone from Ricky Martin to Shakira to Daddy Yankee. “There’s some distance between that music and the people who are in the Grammys. It’s important that people investigate more and learn about the great talent writing [and] structuring the songs.”

View this post on Instagram

Frente a los Latin Grammy

A post shared by J Balvin (@jbalvin) on

When reggaeton acts like J Balvin and Nicky Jam managed to make it into major Latin Grammy categories in 2017 and 2018, it appeared that there was finally some progress, however miniscule. But this year, the event seemed to backslide — or to demonstrate that the previous two years were the exception that proves the ceremony’s unwritten “no-reggaeton” rule. 

The Latin Recording Academy argued in September that reggaeton leaders were not participating in the organization’s voting process, which naturally prevented the genre from being adequately represented in the nominations. “We invite the leaders of the urban community to get involved with the Academy, to get involved with the process, and to get involved with discussions that improve the Academy,” the organization said in a statement. “At its core, The Latin Recording Academy belongs to its members, from all genres, and our doors are always open.”

The failures of the Grammys, whether Anglo or Latin, are numbingly consistent year after year. It’s easy to draw parallels between the Latin Grammys’ perennial unwillingness to recognize reggaeton artists and the Anglo Grammys’ reluctance to hand high honors to rappers and R&B singers. Even genre-specific award shows, which have a narrower purview and thus an easier task, struggle with representation problems — female performers protested their lack of equal treatment on Wednesday at the Country Music Association awards, with Jennifer Nettles wearing a cape that read “play our f-ckin’ records.”

The Latin Recording Academy actually has a tougher job than its Anglo counterpart. The Academy must parse and categorize and evaluate the music of over 20 countries, some of which exist an ocean apart, and translate between Spanish and Portuguese. And they answer to an even larger constituency: The total population of native Spanish speakers easily outstrips that of English speakers. 

To expect greatness, or even accuracy, to emerge from this arrangement — or really, from any music industry award show — is to guarantee your own disappointment. How do you measure banda from Mexico against baile funk from Brazil against flamenco from Spain?

But the fact remains that reggaeton performs exceptionally well in almost all the territories covered by the Latin Recording Academy. (Consult Spotify’s country by country charts.) And yet this performance is given only the most backhanded recognition: If reggaeton artists show up to the Latin Grammys, they are exploited for eyeballs — the Grammys saved Bad Bunny’s performance for last, acknowledging that he is their most commercially potent star — and then stuffed back into the “urban” category.  

Meanwhile, the nominations in the general categories this year went overwhelmingly to musicians over the age of 45: Juanes, Juan Luis Guerra, Alejandro Sanz, Marc Anthony. All of them are legends, but their influence and inventiveness are waning. “Sometimes there is a great artist who doesn’t have a good record this year,” Castro says. “The names are strong, but [voters] are not really focused on the quality of music.” Sanz’s Record of the Year victory for “Mi Persona Favorita,” a treacly duet with an absent Camila Cabello, was particularly dispiriting, a triumph of toothlessness.

With all the frustration floating around social media, it would have been fair to expect some sparks at the Grammys on Thursday. But the show was surprisingly tepid. Ozuna did not mention his genre’s unfair treatment during his multiple trips to the stage. Residente acknowledged the Recording Academy’s small-mindedness on video in September, but when he hit Las Vegas, he focused on performing his new collaboration with Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny. The ceremony would have benefitted from more friction, more tension — or, at the very least, a suit like the one worn by Nettles.

Surprisingly, several reggaeton artists appeared to take part of the blame for their unfair treatment. “[Reggaeton artists] gotta present a more united front next year, so we can really take over,” said nominee De La Ghetto.

Even Bad Bunny was partially deflated in the press room after the show. “I think [reggaeton] is turning a little monotonous — and perhaps the passion has been lost,” he mused. “Some people are making music just for numbers and views … How lost it is! I think that passion is needed to break up the competition.”

But this feels almost like musical Stockholm Syndrome. Over the last two decades, the Latin Grammys have shown that no matter how much passion is put into reggaeton, voters will ignore it anyway.

Additional reporting and translation by Suzy Exposito

Bad Bunny performs at the 20th Latin Grammy Awards, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas
on November 14th, 2019.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock