Latin Grammys have a hard time awarding urban music, even after 20 years

Reggaeton, once an underground music genre, went mainstream and the Latin Grammys still can't find a place for it in its top three awards.
Image: J Balvin
J Balvin accepts the Latin Grammy for Best Urban Music Album for "Vibras" in Las Vegas in November.David Becker / Getty Images file

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By Nicole Acevedo

As the Latin music industry gets ready to celebrate 20 years of the Latin Grammys on Thursday, some high-profile artists have been questioning the Latin Recording Academy’s ability to award their work — especially since these performers continuously sell out prominent concert venues and leverage streaming platforms to revive an industry that had not been doing so well for several years.

No urban or reggaeton artist was nominated this year for any of the three main Latin Grammy categories, which include Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year, even though they dominate the Latin music industry in terms of consumer demand and revenue.

Global Latin urban music star Maluma read a fan’s handmade sign during a recent sold-out concert in New York City’s Madison Square Garden saying: “Look around you, this is your real Grammy.”

The fan’s comment came in response to a message Maluma posted on social media, saying he was disappointed for not having a single Latin Grammy nomination for his album "11:11."

"The best album of my life, Madonna singing in Spanish, hits like HP, 11 PM, salsa produced by the greatest Sergio George,” he wrote on Instagram. “One is definitely left feeling confused and without knowing what to think.”

Overlooking the reggaeton generation?

The Latin Grammys are expected to be bigger than ever as pop icon Ricky Martin returns to the Latin Grammys stage to host the show. Martin had already broken barriers in the mainstream music scene after winning his first Grammy for Best Latin Pop Performance with hit "Vuelve" in 1998 and debuting at the Grammy stage in 1999 with the World Cup theme song "La Copa De La Vida." This performance cemented him as the face of the so-called “Latin Pop Explosion” and a year later, the first Latin Grammys were televised in 2000.

Celia Cruz, from left, Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan performing during the opening moments of the first annual Latin Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 13, 2000.Kevork Djansezian / AP file

Now, a new generation of artists is breaking barriers as Spanish-language songs go head to head with English-language songs across all music charts, fueling the newest Latin music boom. But these artists, many across urban genres such as reggaeton and others, are not necessarily getting recognized at a Ricky Martin level.

Daddy Yankee, one of reggaeton’s biggest stars, was among the first to call out the Latin Grammys for continuously underplaying his genre's contributions.

After the nominations were announced two months ago, he posted an image of a crossed out Latin Grammy trophy on Instagram, captioned in Spanish saying: “There is no Latin Grammy without reggaeton."

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“Even though I’m nominated, I don’t agree with the way in which my genre and some of my colleagues were treated,” Yankee, whose hit “Con Calma” has a nomination for Best Urban Fusion or Performance, wrote in the social media post.

Other artists such as Colombian reggaeton artists J Balvin and Karol G as well as reggaeton pioneer Nicky Jam and singer Natti Natasha followed Yankee’s lead by spreading the message on social media.

“The fact that I don’t agree with the way in which reggaeton is being judged, doesn’t mean that I’m against other genres and the artists that are shining in those categories,” Balvin, who is nominated for two collaborations with other artists, said in Spanish in an Instagram video.

Responding to the outcry, the Latin Recording Academy put out a statement saying: "We hear the frustration and discontent. We invite the leaders of the urban community to get involved with the Academy...At its core, The Latin Recording Academy belongs to its members, from all genres."

The Academy draws its membership from music professionals from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries in Latin America as well as Spain, Portugal and the United States.

So why hasn't the Academy shown much fondness for reggaeton? Leila Cobo, vice president of Latin content and programming for Billboard, has said that a number of members don't consider the genre to be "real" music.

Some musicians, such as Mexico's Aleks Syntek, have publicly criticized the urban genre, saying it's repetitive, sexual and escapist. Two years ago, Syntek was criticized for being racist for saying “reggaeton comes from apes." Most recently, he defended the Academy for snubbing reggaeton and having "their criteria set."

Santos found out a day after performing in front of 60,000 fans at MetLife Stadium — a record for any artist in any genre — that his album "Utopía," which debuted No.1 in April on the Top Latin Albums Chart, was not nominated for any Latin Grammys.

Ozuna’s hit "Baila Baila Baila" landed a Best urban Song nomination but his album "Aura," the top-selling Latin album of the year, did not garner a single nomination.

Both performers have not criticized the Latin Grammys publicly.

Acclaimed Puerto Rican Latin trap and reggaeton singer Bad Bunny landed two nominations for his debut album, titled “X100PRE.”

Paving the way to success

Urban music has fueled Latin music’s significant and steady growth in the U.S.

Daddy Yankee is among the first reggaeton artists to win a Latin Grammy. After the Best Rap or Hip-Hop Album category was renamed to Best Urban Music Album in 2005, he won a Latin Grammy in that category for “Barrio Fino,” the album known for the smash hit, “Gasolina.” He didn’t land another win until more than a decade later with the record-breaking hit “Despacito,” a blend with Latin pop singer Luis Fonsi.

J Balvin, in a recent sold-out Madison Square Garden concert, made a point to recognize some of the “reggaetoneros” who came before him and helped make the underground genre mainstream, including Yankee’s “Gasolina.”

Reggaeton’s mainstream rise coincided with the surge of streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, YouTube and others. Music streaming accounts for 95 percent of the Latin music market’s revenues, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, known as RIAA.

Such growth is in lockstep with the rise of consumer demand for Latin music, mainly driven by urban artists such as Ozuna, Bad Bunny, Yankee, Jam, Maluma and Balvin, who are among the most streamed artists.

“It's just a mobile-first world,” Ian Drew, consumer editorial director at Billboard, told NBC News in April. “Music is actually coming at you at the speed of social media. Artists used to take a long time to record an album. Now, they can record a song in 20 minutes. So, one of the arguments is: Does that change the quality of music?”

One thing is clear — listeners like it. Latin music finished 2018 with $413 million in revenues, up from $243 million in 2017 and $178 million in 2016. In the first half of 2019, the industry racked $232 million in revenues, keeping up with overall growth trends.

Kany Garcia performs during The Emerging Latina Music Recognition Program on Oct. 29, 2019 in Miami.John Parra / Getty Images for The Recording Academy file

Veteran singer and songwriter Kany García landed nominations in this year's Latin Grammys for Song Of The Year and Best Singer-Songwriter Album. Regardless of the questions surrounding nominations and categories, García brought it back to music's essence — the artistic process.

"Sometimes we're at the top and sometimes we're at the bottom, that’s the kind of profession we chose as musicians," García told NBC News in Spanish. "There's always going to be a song or an album that you thought was 'it' but it didn't work out. That’s why it's important to create music from my heart."

"But beyond just making music to entertain others," she added, "there's a need for music to show our realities because it affects big masses of people. And that legacy for me, is extremely important."

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