Twenty years ago, the first Latin Grammy Awards were aired as a space to highlight the achievements of Latin musicians. Now, as Latin artists are finding a seat at the table of the music industry at large, perhaps it’s time to do away with the Latin Grammys and incorporate these categories into the Grammy Awards. Along with a broader question of just who is actually being represented by the umbrella term “Latin” (and the ways it can be used to treat the music as a foreign entity), the line between what’s considered Latin and pop music is increasingly blurred, as exemplified with Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny hitting number two on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart this year. As today’s stars are singing and rapping in Spanish—and finding success equal to those doing it in English—there’s no point in treating them as a separate world of music anymore.
The first Latin Grammy Awards aired on September 13, 2000, and the 21st annual ceremony will be held next week. Prior to the inception of these awards, the Grammys included a few Latin-focused prizes, like Best Mexican-American Album. (That’s how late Tex-Mex queen Selena won a Grammy in 1994 for her Selena Live! album.) Those categories, however, didn’t capture the diversity of genres in the Latin music scene. As a result, the Latin Recording Academy that was established in 1997 launched the Latin Grammys. For the first time, Latin music was recognized in 40 categories that included genres like pop, rock, jazz, and regional Mexican music.
The Latin Grammys have represented Latin music for more than 20 ceremonies, but the awards have been criticized throughout the years over questions of who, exactly, they’re representing. The term “Latin,” originally used to describe music recorded in Spanish or Portuguese, has been fraught with controversy. For many Latinx, or people living in Latin America or of Latin American descent in the U.S, it’s ruffled feathers for this catch-all term to also encompass artists from Spain and beyond. Despite the creation of this category with an obvious Latinx connotation, the term’s application to popular Spanish artists arguably leads to them benefiting and profiting more off of the “Latin” label than artists actually from Latin America. At last year’s Latin Grammy Awards, the most-nominated act was Spanish singer-songwriter Alejandro Sanz, who has a career 24 Latin Grammy Awards. On top of that, it’s already a battle in itself to get mainstream media to give “Latin” music the time of day, as the term creates an instant other-ing of any musician categorized as such, giving the impression they are somehow separate from “regular” music coverage.
Re-examination of the term “Latin” to describe Spanish artists was reignited with the success of Rosalía, who won Album of the Year last year—only the second woman to win that award, after Colombian pop star Shakira in 2006. (That’s been another kind of representation battle.) “Latin” is also a label the media bestowed upon Spanish superstar Enrique Iglesias in his rise to the top. Last year, Billboard doubled down in classifying music recorded in Spanish as “Latin music” when it came to Rosalía. “Even though Rosalía wasn’t born in a Latin country, her music is under that great umbrella of what we call Latin Music,” said Leila Cobo, the director of Latin content for Billboard.
Over the past few years, reggaetón has put Latin music on a global stage in terms of recognition and success. At last year’s Latin Grammy Awards, it was noted that artists like pioneer Daddy Yankee, J Balvin, Bad Bunny, and Ozuna were shut out of the major categories like Song, Record, and Album of the Year. After Yankee led the social media protest “Sin Reggaetón, No Hay Latin Grammys” (“Without Reggaéton, There Is No Latin Grammys”), the Latin Recording Academy invited those artists to “get involved with the [voting] process.” This year, reggaetón—a genre that has been looked down upon for its street roots by the very Latin music industry that it’s helping support—dominated the major categories, and J Balvin broke the record for the most nominations in a single year with 13 nominations.
With the anti-Blackness of the music industry coming to light amid the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the Grammy Awards dropped the use of the word “urban” this year from its categories for its racist connotations. The Best Urban Contemporary Album category was updated to Best Progressive R&B Album. At the Latin Grammy Awards, the word “urbano” (used to lump together genres like reggaetón and Latin trap) is still very present in the categories. That’s something that needs to change. As expansive as the Latin Grammy categories are, they still fail to acknowledge genres that are reflected over at the Grammys, such as EDM. In February, Mexican DJ Broz Rodriguez and Colombian producer Sinego led the “100 Latin Producers” song project to highlight the EDM talent in places like Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. Also, there’s been an emerging R&B movement in Latin music with Mexican artists like Girl Ultra and Georgel leading the way. If these awards are going to carry on, the Latin Recording Academy needs to be mindful of all types of music being produced in Spanish.
In talking about his recent album, Agüita, which includes a few songs in Spanish, New York City-based singer-songwriter Gabriel Garzón-Montano touched on the issues of having separate Grammy Awards for Latin music artists. “You have the Grammys [and] the Latin Grammys,” he told NPR. “You have, as an American, pop records and then you have ‘world music,’ which is just literally saying, like, us and them. It’s very standoffish.” Following the worldwide breakthrough of Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” in 2017, artists like J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Ozuna, and Maluma have been helping maintain Latin music’s momentum. Their names are among the most-streamed globally on Spotify, next to pop stars like Drake, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Justin Bieber. In 2019, Latin music was the fourth-most-streamed genre in the U.S., placing ahead of EDM and country music. In on-demand video streaming, the genre moved into third place, ahead of rock music. As music has become more readily available on streaming platforms, the numbers are showing the undeniable power of Latin music in the grand scheme of the music industry.
Bad Bunny broke the record for this year for the highest-charting fully Spanish album on the Billboard 200 chart with YHLQMDLG. He peaked at No. 2 and his follow-up, a mixtape of unreleased tracks titled Las Que No Iban A Salir, reached No. 7 a few months later. It will be interesting to see if the Grammy Awards take into consideration his album’s historic feat in the nominations for the 2021 ceremony. As Latin music breaks down language barriers and settles comfortably into pop music, there’s no longer any need to draw a distinction between the two labels. The Grammy Awards should absorb the Latin Grammy Awards categories, so that music in Spanish gets the respect it deserves and is no longer treated like a second-class citizen in the industry at large. The Latin Grammys’ Album, Record, and Song of the Year can and should be re-introduced as Latin categories, but really, the Grammy general categories should be more reflective of Latin music’s impact. “Music’s Biggest Night” surely has room to fully honor the diversity of Latin music in the mix.