The Latin Grammys' Reggaeton Problem & How to Solve It: Analysis

J Balvin
David Becker/Getty Images for LARAS

J Balvin accepts Best Urban Music Album for 'Vibras' onstage during the 19th annual Latin GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Nov. 15, 2018 in Las Vegas.

On Saturday, Romeo Santos played for more than 60,000 fans at MetLife Stadium -- a record for any artist, in any genre.

On Tuesday, he woke up to the knowledge that his Latin Grammy-eligible album, Utopía, did not receive a single nomination. 

He wasn’t alone. Ozuna’s Aura, an urban tour de force and the top-selling Latin album of the year, did not garner a single nomination (though Ozuna’s “Baila Baila” is up for a best urban song award). Karol G, who last year won the best new artist Latin Grammy, didn’t get a single nomination. Neither did Becky G or Natti Natasha. Daddy Yankee got only one (in best urban fusion performance for “Con Calma,” featuring Snow), and Bad Bunny two.

In fact, with the exception of Rosalía (and Greeicy and Paulo Londra in the best new artist category), any artist that could even remotely be labeled “urban,” much less reggaeton, is absent from the main categories in the Latin Grammy nominations. This, despite the fact that since 2012 the number of nominees in each of the Big Four categories at the Latin Grammys expanded from five to 10.

The Latin Academy has never shown much fondness for reggaeton as a genre. Yes, there is an urban category (which has existed since 2004), but nominations in the main slots are doled out to what many in private call “real” music: singer/songwriters, legacy acts or the occasional artist like Rosalía who garners widespread critical acclaim. With the exception of last year, when J Balvin garnered album and record of the year nominations, reggaeton has never made it.

The reggaeton industry has voiced its discontent before, but never as loudly as this year.

Late on Tuesday, Daddy Yankee posted what amounts to a manifesto on his Instagram account, accompanied by a Latin Grammy logo with a red X over it and the caption: "Sin reggaeton no hay Latin Grammy (There is no Latin Grammy without reggaeton)."

“Although I’m nominated, I don’t agree with the manner in which the genre and many of my colleagues were treated. This goes beyond an award. This is culture, credibility, persistence and RESPECT,” he wrote.

The post has been liked by more than 1 million Instagram users, and the same graphic has been posted by the likes of J Balvin and Nicky Jam.

In turn, the Academy issued a statement that reads in part: “The Latin Recording Academy has followed a strict voting process for the past 20 years. The members, through their votes, select what they believe merits a nomination. The Academy has never influenced their decisions, have always honored, and respected their elections, even if there are people who do not agree with the results.

"Nevertheless, we hear the frustration and discontent," the statement continues. "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.”

It is no secret that, at a time when urban beats utterly dominate the Latin musical landscape, many in the industry would like to develop a bigger diversity of genres. The Latin Grammys' work in this regard is laudable; for many artists, there is no other opportunity to shine. But completely shunning one genre in order to prop others up is not a solution.

Beyond its popularity, and the fact that it has been the motor that is taking Latin music around the world, reggaeton in particular has stepped up to the plate in the past year. Albums like Ozuna’s Aura, Karol G’s Ocean and Bad Bunny’s XSiempre have not just moved the needle in unprecedented ways, but they have elevated the quality of urban music with fearless innovation and a deep appreciation for song craft. If there was ever a time to recognize reggaeton, it was now.

“It looks skewed. I don’t know what the Latin Grammys are trying to accomplish,” said one record executive. “Is there an editorial angle to the Latin Grammys?” he said. “Let me clarify: I’m not hung up on winning. But I do care about culture, and I do care about representation, and I do care about artists that go the extra mile.” 

Like everyone else I spoke to, this executive refused to go on the record. That’s because the Latin Grammys have prestige; they mean something to artists. Getting a nomination is precious.

Which is why the apparent capriciousness is so confounding. How does one get a Latin Grammy nomination? Commercial success definitely is not the marker. Impact either. It’s supposed to be quality, but who gets to decide that all reggaeton is lacking in quality, at least relative to other Latin genres?

On the other hand, some say the genre itself needs to take some responsibility. Many of reggaeton’s biggest names, speaking privately, admitted they’re not registered Latin Grammy voters. Many independent labels and producers have no notion of the process of submitting product and becoming a voting member, much less rallying the troops to support and vote for it.

To this point, creating a Latin Grammy reggaeton task force, akin to what the Grammys did last year to foster diversity, would be a step in the right direction, and one that has precedent. The mainstream Grammys were slow to embrace hip-hop or, a generation before that, rock.

“It’s not just about throwing your hands in the air and saying 'boycott,'” said one executive.  

In the meantime, it would do everybody well to remember that music as an art form does not exist in a bubble. Music is like water, like air. It leaves its maker and it goes to the world and touches and affects people in unexpected and amazing ways. To deny the impact that artists like Ozuna and Bad Bunny have on millions is, as another executive put it, “shocking in so many ways.”