J Balvin, the Colombian reggaeton star, was nominated for more awards than any other artist at the Latin Grammys on Thursday. In two separate categories, Record of the Year and Best Urban Song, he was even nominated multiple times. He deserves the attention: Behind Ozuna, he’s the second most-watched singer on the planet (thanks to his mind-bogglingly large audience on YouTube), with an intuitive grasp of melody and an already-long list of eminently hummable hooks; his Vibras album was handsome and tightly knit, but also strong enough on a song-by-song basis that it will likely spawn two or three more good singles.
On top of that, Balvin maintains an admirable interest in elevating other Latin musical styles in addition to his own reggaeton. That means making trap with Chris Jeday or collaborating with the Mexican singer-songwriter Carla Morrison — as he did again at the Latin Grammys last night — and the Spanish Flamenco singer Rosalía.
But Balvin was almost uniformly dismissed by the Latin Recording Academy on Thursday night. Album of the Year went to the veteran Mexican pop singer Luis Miguel, who was not even present to collect his award. Record of the Year went to another veteran, the Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, who has already won once and been nominated two other times. Balvin’s “Mi Gente” was so irresistible that Beyonce added a verse to a remix, in Spanish no less, but the Latin Recording Academy picked Rosalía as the winner in the Best Urban Fusion/Performance category. And even in the Best Urban Song category, where Balvin literally had a 60% chance of winning — three out of the five nominations were his — the Recording Academy chose Daddy Yankee’s “Dura.”
It’s not that Drexler and Rosalía were unworthy of their awards. (“Dura,” though, was arguably the most boring single nominated in the Best Urban Song category.) And Miguel’s win was ultimately in character for the Latin Recording Academy. This organization likes its aging stars, usually men, working in traditional forms — previous Album of the Year winners include Rubén Blades, Juan Gabriel, Juan Luis Guerra, Paco de Lucía and Draco Rosa, all of whom started their recording careers before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But taken against the backdrop of reggaeton’s wild eruption of popularity, which has brought Latin music to unprecedented levels of global visibility in the last three years, and the fact that Balvin was the only artist from the “urban” genre nominated in the general categories, it’s hard not to see his blanket rejection as a pointed statement from the Latin Recording Academy. (A representative for Balvin did not respond to requests for comment.) It’s also easy for English-speaking viewers to draw connections to the American Grammys, which have shown a similar frustrating tendency to relegate stars like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar to the Urban section and keep them away from winning general awards.
Speaking last month, Tomas Cookman, president of the Latin indie label Nacional Records, cautioned against comparing the American and Latin Grammy ceremonies. “The Latin Grammys have the advantage, or perhaps the disadvantage, of covering lots of different markets and lots of different stories,” he explained. “The Grammys are basically focused on what’s happening here in the U.S. [instead of the entire Spanish-speaking diaspora, which spans continents and hemispheres]. The Latin Grammys have nominees that maybe you haven’t heard of, but somewhere in the Latin market they’re big as fuck and everybody’s heard of them. So I give the Latin Grammys a little more leeway. And if there’s even an artist that I’ve never heard of, that means I have something to learn.”
“That said, what the Latin Grammys show is about at the end of the day is getting their ratings,” Cookman continued. “They want Carlos Vives to be singing with Bad Bunny to be dancing with Jennifer Lopez. They’re after eyeballs and they don’t make any qualms about that.”
It’s that naked ambition for as large an audience as possible that made the Latin Recording Academy’s hypocrisy glaringly obvious on Thursday night. They relied largely on reggaeton and trap stars to bring in said eyeballs: J Balvin, Ozuna and Nicky Jam each performed two songs (Balvin re-joined Jam for a third) and Bad Bunny performed four tracks, in addition to opening the show with Marc Anthony and Will Smith. These are the artists with the international hits, many of them, so their heavy presence on stage makes sense.
But cruelly, they were barely nominated for awards, and when they were, they didn’t win. Ozuna, the most-viewed singer on the planet, had just one opportunity to take a home a trophy, and he lost Best Urban album to Balvin. (The Latin Recording Academy probably got that wrong, too: Ozuna’s album is overflowing with hits, but they had to give Balvin at least one award.) Bad Bunny, a once-in-a-generation star, was only nominated as a featured guest on Balvin’s earworm “Sensualidad,” which fell to “Dura.” Jam’s fate was also tied to Balvin’s — see the sublime “X” — so he went home empty-handed as well. (A representative for Jam did not respond to requests for comment.)
By the time Bad Bunny took the stage late in the evening to play four songs, more than any other performer all night, this dissonance was overwhelming. “Urban” music was being treated as window-dressing — used to bring in viewers, especially young people, and then summarily dismissed when it came to handing out actual hardware.
The final award of the night was for Record of the Year. Balvin was nominated twice, for “Mi Gente” and “X,” which are both the sort of perfect, knee-buckling hits you pray for every morning when you wake up. The singer lost to Drexler, who had a pretty entry from the Seventies George Harrison school, “Telefonía.”
Oddly, but to his credit, it was Drexler, speaking in the media room after the awards ceremony, who offered the night’s kindest words for reggaeton and urban music. “Reggaeton is not an evil rhythm; it’s an African rhythm,” he told reporters. “This whole world is divided enough. Let’s [welcome it] with open arms!”
The Latin Recording Academy should listen.