The Latin Grammy is an award that prides itself on rewarding artistic merit over commercial success. It’s an approach that has long lent itself to nominations that run the gamut from groundbreaking to controversial.
And this year is no exception.
When the Latin Recording Academy announced its nominations on Sept. 24, Puerto Rican political rap duo Calle 13 received nine nods on the strength of Multi_Viral, an edgy album that has sold just 12,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Meanwhile, 2014’s top Latin seller to date, American singer-songwriter Romeo Santos’ slickly produced Formula, Vol. 2, was left in the lurch. Although it has sold 219,000 copies stateside and connected across all Latin regions, it didn’t receive a single nomination.
In the middle of this broad spectrum, however, there was redemption.
Significant nods went to superstars who have earned limited recognition from the Latin Grammys in the past, including Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony, Prince Royce and Mexican pop band Camila. They may well be among the winners when the awards are broadcast Nov. 20 on Univision from Las Vegas.
The Latin Recording Academy also recognized Panamanian legend Ruben Blades (who released a tango album) and the sophisticated Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler, whose “Al Otro Lado del Rio” (from The Motorcycle Diaries) won the Oscar in 2005 for best original song.
The virtues of the Latin Grammys are not in dispute. These are the only Latin awards that acknowledge stars along with emerging acts, acclaimed musicians with limited commercial appeal and other lesser-known artists from across the Latin continent, Spain and Portugal. More than 10,000 recordings were submitted to the Latin Recording Academy for consideration this year, up from 6,000 in 2011.
There are so many categories that fine albums, even if little known, stand a genuine chance of winning — especially because the nominees in almost one-third of the categories are decided by committees, not a broader vote of academy members.
Three years ago, the academy also expanded its pool of nominees to 10 in top categories, including album, record and song of the year and best new artist. That alone further widens the playing field — or, depending on your perspective, dilutes it.
“We did it to open the possibilities for more artists, not just the heavy hitters,” says Latin Recording Academy president/CEO Gabriel Abaroa. “We’ll decide if we continue or not. But we’re trying to be more inclusive and I think that’s valid.”
It is. But that hoped-for diversity is dashed when one artist dominates while other deserving major acts are left inexplicably without recognition.
Santos was not alone in the zero-nominations category. Alejandro Fernandez got nothing for Confidencias, the album produced by Phil Ramone; Shakira didn’t receive any nods for her Spanish-language singles; and Ricardo Arjona, fresh from playing for more than 200,000 people in Argentina, got only one nomination, in the best singer-songwriter category.
Of course, that’s the maddening reality of any subjective award: What many deem commendable, others criticize. But in the still-fragile Latin music ecosystem, it’s incomprehensible that many of its finest, most successful musicians don’t get the recognition they deserve.
Why was Santos overlooked? While it’s impossible to gauge why academy members vote one way and not another, informal discussions through the years yield different responses. On the one hand, members simply vote for what they like or what they feel sympathy for.
Santos has been ignored so thoroughly through the years, he even mentions it in his song “Si Me Muero” (“If I Die”), a fact that surely wasn’t lost on academy members who might have felt even less inclination to nominate him.
Or many think that if “big” acts get nominated, those stars will overpower the more up-and-coming nominees.
But history shows that’s not the case.
In 2013, the big wins were distributed among Anthony, Robi Rosa and Carlos Vives. In 2012, the first 10-nominee year, Mexican sibling duo Jesse & Joy, already stars but not yet superstars, won both record and song of the year. Album of the year went to longtime Latin Grammy darling Juanes, who has won 20 times since 2001, when he was named best new artist. (This year, he’s tied with Calle 13 for the most nods, with nine.)
This year, if the past is any indicator, Calle 13 is the clear favorite. The stepbrothers won five Latin Grammys in 2009 and a whopping 10 awards in 2011, including record, song and album of the year.
However, it’s hard to fathom that Calle 13’s lesser-known “Respira el Momento” will win record of the year over Iglesias’ “Bailando,” Royce’s “Darte un Beso” or Camila’s “Decidiste Dejarme,” not to mention two Vives tracks.
For album of the year, Calle 13 is up against Anthony’s formidable 3.0 and Raiz, a folk collaboration by three Latin Grammy veterans: Spain’s Nina Pastori, Mexico’s Lila Downs and Argentina’s Soledad. With votes coming in from their three countries, they have a shot.
Calle 13’s elegant “Ojos Color Sol” is among the leading song of the year contenders. But here’s the rub: The single features Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, an open sympathizer of the Communist Party whose presence may alienate voters.
As a result, the smart money is on Iglesias and 2014’s most successful song, “Bailando,” to win.
It will be one time where art and commerce join. And that is an ideal Latin Grammy scenario.