It was admittedly a bizarre sight. Thousands of elegantly attired people, including some of Latin music’s biggest stars, sitting at an arena in Las Vegas on Nov. 20 for what was supposed to be the 15th annual Latin Grammy awards.
Instead, they were watching President Barack Obama’s speech detailing his new immigration policy.
By the time he was done some 15 minutes later, the tenor of the Latin Grammys had changed from merely entertaining and competitive to thought-provoking and intriguing. As in, who’s going to say what next?
Enrique Iglesias got right down to it in the very first acceptance speech, remotely broadcast from Paris.
“Tonight is not only an historic night for all Latino artists, but for all Latinos who live in the United States,” Iglesias said.
Immediately after, Calle 13 opened the show with their subversive “El Aguante” (“We put up with capitalism, communism, socialism, feudalism we even put up with stupidism. We put up with the guilty when he pretends to be innocent, we put up every year with our f— president,” rapped Rene Perez.
Midway through the song, he took off his jacket to reveal a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Ayotzinapa, 43 missing,” an allusion to the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, who have disappeared and are presumed killed.
“We are all Ayotzinapa, we can’t allow this to go on today,” Perez said after his performance.
Much later, when Calle 13 spoke to media backstage, Perez said “the channel” — meaning broadcaster Univision — had asked him not to get too political, as he is wont to do.
“But I don’t have to be a politician to speak out and have an opinion,” Perez said. “Part of our jobs as artists is to speak out.”
The irony is that Univision chose to air Obama’s speech. The same went with NBC, CBS and ABC. It was a risky move that ended up helping achieve a ratings success. Nearly 10 million viewers tuned in to the broadcast, according to Nielsen, representing double-digit growth among adults 18-49 compared to 2013.
Having political chatter as a result was inevitable. And that political chatter is good. With few exceptions (Calle 13 obviously among them) Latin acts tend to be very non-committal when it comes to making political statements or taking controversial stances. On Latin Grammy night, few acts actively commented on politics on the air (those who did included Carlos Vives dedicated one of his two Latin Grammys to Obama and Lila Downs, and she dedicated hers to the missing students).
But it was enough to get the conversation going. Backstage in the press room it was practically all journalists were asking about, to the point that an Academy rep asked them to stop that line of questioning.
That didn’t happen. Instead, by the end of the night, virtually every act that went backstage commented on immigration or on Mexico or both.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say music took second place to politics. But politics, for once, was as entertaining as the music.