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Reggaeton rules Latinx music, but not at the Latin Grammys

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last week the Latin Recording Academy announced its nominations for this year's Latin Grammys, and the controversy began.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MI GENTE")

J BALVIN: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: That's J Balvin with his song "Mi Gente." He's one of the biggest names in reggaeton. And after the announcement of the nominations, he said, the Grammys don't value us, but they need us. Reggaeton artists are often asked to perform at the ceremony, but there is only one award specifically dedicated to the genre. J Balvin urged reggaeton acts to boycott the Latin Grammys, and Julyssa Lopez of Rolling Stone and Felix Contreras of NPR Music are following the controversy that ensued. Welcome to you both.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

JULYSSA LOPEZ: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: OK. So J Balvin calls out the Latin Academy, and then it kind of blows up. Julyssa, will you summarize what happened next?

LOPEZ: Yes. So this comment by J Balvin to boycott the Latin Grammys really rubbed a lot of artists the wrong way, especially Residente, who is half of the duo Calle Trece. And he was really not happy with this. He kind of tears apart the idea of a boycott. And, you know, it's funny coming from Residente because he actually has the most Latin Grammys in history. He points out that there are actually a lot of artists this year who are nominated, like Myke Towers, Rauw Alejandro and Bad Bunny. And then he compares J Balvin's music to a hot dog cart and tells him that if he would like some nominations, he should look into making a better hot dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RESIDENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Yeah. He's like, it's complaining you didn't get a Michelin star when you're running a hot dog cart. So, Felix, do you think that J Balvin actually has a point here? Like, is reggaeton undervalued in the awards?

CONTRERAS: Yes and no, OK? I think that it took a while for the academy to catch up to what was going on with reggaeton and give it the kind of recognition and respect that it deserved as it became part of the phenomena within Latin music. There have been, you know, some high-profile award nominations and awards within, you know, the main categories in the Latin Grammys as they go along. Now, does it dominate the Latin Grammys in the nominations as it does almost in Latin music? Probably not. But I can see Residente's point in a way.

SHAPIRO: Julyssa, what do you think? Is this just, like, sour grapes from J Balvin? Or is this a larger issue that the academy ought to address?

LOPEZ: I think it's tough. I think coming from J Balvin in particular, it can sound a little like complaining. You know, I think the last time I checked, J Balvin has something like 30 nominations and five awards at the Latin Grammys. But there is kind of a history here. When the Latin Grammys launched, there wasn't even a hip-hop category. That came much later. And then it wasn't until...

SHAPIRO: I don't even know. When was that? Like, what year are we talking about here?

LOPEZ: 2000. Yeah. When they first launched, they launched on CBS in English, actually.

SHAPIRO: And so not recognizing hip-hop in the year 2000 is a little bit out of step with the times.

LOPEZ: Kind of weird, right? Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Kind of weird.

LOPEZ: And then I think in 2004 is when they put together the best urban category. And that's when, I think, a lot of people feel that reggaeton is sort of siloed off there and doesn't frequently make it into the bigger categories until it starts to kind of fuse with pop music. And then once you have this pop style of reggaeton, that's when you start seeing kind of more artists, you know, spread along and kind of the J Balvins of the world getting awards.

SHAPIRO: We got to acknowledge that there is a racial element to this. You're talking about reggaeton getting siloed off into sort of an urban category. Typically, urban is code word for Black, people of color. And yet J Balvin is white. So...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Given that reggaeton originated with Afro Latino artists, like - I mean, here's a track from El General called "Te Ves Buena."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TE VES BUENA")

EL GENERAL: (Rapping in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Given that Afro Latino artists were the source of this genre, what do you make of the fact that J Balvin, a white Latino guy, is the one leading the charge of anti-reggaeton discrimination here?

LOPEZ: Exactly. I mean, I think that's kind of the big elephant in the room. Balvin is not talking about race. But, you know, the commercial sound that he's known for is the sound of Medellín, and that tends to be a much more whitewashed sound with whiter artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN DA GHETTO")

J BALVIN: (Rapping in Spanish).

LOPEZ: Reggaeton is a style of music that's rooted in Black communities in Panama and Puerto Rico, and the pioneers of the genre have had a really hard time getting recognized at the Latin Grammys. You have someone like Tego Calderon, who's a Puerto Rican pioneer - you know, has seven nominations and only one win.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAYASO")

TEGO CALDERON: (Rapping in Spanish).

LOPEZ: And then somebody like Ivy Queen, who's a, you know, massive reggaeton pioneer and one of the few women in the genre - she only has three nominations and zero wins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIERO BAILAR")

IVY QUEEN: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Felix, jump in here.

CONTRERAS: Taking a step back and looking at the larger picture of this, you know, there is a parallel to the early days of rock 'n' roll, when, you know, you had all these African American artists basically creating the genre. And then somebody like Elvis comes along. While he acknowledged some of that, you know, he took off with it. He got all the record sales. He got all this stuff. So there is a little bit of that. You know, fast-forward...

SHAPIRO: Are you saying J Balvin is the Elvis of reggaeton?

CONTRERAS: No, I didn't say that.

(LAUGHTER)

CONTRERAS: Not going there, bro.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Julyssa, you spoke to the CEO of the Latin Recording Academy. What do they say about this?

LOPEZ: So the Latin Recording Academy just got a new CEO, Manuel Abud, who started in August. He says there's room for improvement. And he says that they've been working to reach out to different communities and get more submissions. But there's really no call for any big, major changes. He says he doesn't see any radical changes, though, you know, it's a question if things are going to look any different.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, when you've got a genre as big as reggaeton, as successful, as popular, as influential that is spinning off massive hits like - I don't know - Bad Bunny's "Dakiti"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAKITI")

BAD BUNNY: (Singing in Spanish).

SHAPIRO: ...Does it matter whether it gets recognized by the Latin Recording Academy? What's actually at stake here?

CONTRERAS: I think it does matter. I think that in the early days, when it did not recognize - when it didn't even recognize hip-hop, you know, I think that it does matter that it is recognized because it shows that the academy is keeping up with what's going on - right? - because you don't want to seem like you're out of touch.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying it matters for the academy more than maybe it matters for reggaeton.

CONTRERAS: For reggaeton, you know, it's hard to say because they're racking up these massive views on YouTube, the streams. You know, it's almost like they don't need it, but they would like the recognition.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

CONTRERAS: That's my interpretation.

LOPEZ: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, it probably doesn't make a huge difference in terms of - reggaeton artists are going to continue to be very, very popular and very commercially successful. But I think the visibility matters, right? I think it's important to see artists from all types of traditions being recognized as excellent by the academy. I think to some people, it's not going to matter. To others, it's really important.

SHAPIRO: Julyssa Lopez is a writer with Rolling Stone magazine, and Felix Contreras hosts the NPR podcast Alt.Latino, where the conversation about Latin music continues. Thank you both for joining us.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, Ari.

LOPEZ: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TU ME DEJASTE DE QUERER")

C TANGANA: (Speaking Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.