Grammys' Good Intentions Don't Go Far Enough in Latin Categories

Grammy Trophies

Grammy trophies sit in the press room during the 60th Annual Grammy Awards on Jan. 28, 2018, in New York City.

Urban Latin dominates the charts, but is still not getting the respect it deserves.

As part of its recently announced rules changes, the Recording Academy announced on Wednesday that the Grammy Awards' very problematic Latin rock, urban or alternative album category is no more. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the academy’s well-intentioned solution continues to not reflect the reality of Latin music in the U.S. market.

Specifically, the academy took a category that has been widely criticized for years because it lumped music from vastly different genres together and shifted things around in a way that now gives Latin rock and alternative music its place and due as a stand-alone category. But in so doing, the term “urban" (which was dropped from the now-best progressive R&B album category, but not in the Latin categories) that encompasses reggaeton, rap, hip-hop and trap, and is by far the dominant force in Latin music today, got scuttled together with pop. And that move in no way benefits either genre or movement.

In the past four years, urban Latin music has thoroughly dominated Latin charts. On Billboard’s 2019 year-end charts, for example, nine out of the top 10 Latin artists were urban, with Bad Bunny at No. 1. And eight out of the top 10 Latin albums of the year were also urban, led again by Bad Bunny. This year alone, Bad Bunny made history when his YHLQMDLG debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, marking the highest ever debut on the chart for a Spanish-language album.

And just last month, Anuel AA’s Emmanuel debuted at No. 8 on the chart. Never before had two Spanish albums debuted in the top 10 of the chart within six months of each other.

So, why did a stand alone category go to Latin rock or alternative instead of Latin urban? (Can anyone remember the last commercially impactful Latin rock album they heard since Maná’s 2015 Cama Incendiada?) Why couldn’t the academy simply add a Latin urban or Latin rhythm or another category to represent the most-consumed genre of Latin music in the world?

The Grammys very rarely add categories. In 2011, the show dropped from 109 categories to 78 and has since added six categories, but has held the line at 84 categories for the past five years.

“Any proposals to create a new category requires a 2/3 supermajority vote of both the awards & nominations committee and the board of trustees to pass,” according to the Grammy rule book.

In a statement provided to Billboard, Recording Academy chair and interim president/CEO Harvey Mason, Jr. said: “Our goal is to always try to make sure that the Grammy Awards are a direct reflection of an ever-evolving music environment. The process to ensure this is driven by music makers and experts who offer proposals to amend our rules based on the specific needs of their music communities. The Academy depends on this engagement from a diverse group of music makers.”

Those music makers include New York Chapter member and producer/engineer Enrique Gonzalez Müller, an associate professor at Berklee College of Music who in another statement provided to Billboard said: “In recent years the ever-developing Latin urban genre has started to blur its aesthetic and musical lines with Latin pop. I’m really happy to see the consolidation of these two intertwined genres into a single category, giving great aesthetic and musical cohesion to each, and all Latin categories as a result.”

But, the fact that Latin pop often fuses with urban beats, or that Latin urban music is sometimes deemed the “New Latin pop,” is not the same as saying they are one and the same.

That is particularly true right now, when there is a new wave of Latin pop artists, including Mau y Ricky, Camilo, Lali and Becky G, who are churning out their contemporary vision of Latin pop at a steady and successful rate. Sure, Reik had a hit with Ozuna and Enrique Iglesias had a hit with Bad Bunny. But neither Reik or Iglesias self-identify as reggeaton acts (nor would anybody deem them as such).

As for artists like Camilo, Pablo Alborán and Jesse & Joy -- how exactly do they land in the same box as Anuel AA or Bryant Myers? That’s akin to having Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish competing against 21 Savage and Meek Mill.

Sources inside the Grammy committees say part of the problem is there are not enough urban submissions to merit a Latin urban category.

The Grammys require that each category have at least 40 distinct entries. If the number falls below 25, the category then goes on hiatus.

If there are indeed not enough urban releases to meet the 40-entry threshold, the academy should reach out to the long list of reggaeton and trap artists on the charts, their labels and their managers, and invite them to have a seat on the table. Ask them why they don’t submit their product. And listen.