In 2007, Calle 13’s Residente o Visitante became the first winner of the Grammys’ then-new best Latin urban album category. Previously mishmashed with Latin rock and alternative, the breakout category was a long-awaited acknowledgement of the early-2000s reggaetón explosion that had transformed the sound of Latin music.
Excitement about that change was shortlived. By 2009, the genre was lumped back in with Latin rock and alternative, where it has remained for the past 12 years. Since then, only three urbano (reggaetón, hip-hop, trap) artists have won the category. In 2018 — arguably the height of urbano’s recent renaissance thanks to the global success of artists like J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Ozuna — not a single reggaetón album was nominated. Even at the 2019 Latin Grammys, reggaetón artists were excluded from the main award categories.
The next Grammy ceremony could be a turning point, however. Urbano acts will now compete in the newly renamed best Latin pop or urban album category, a shift that could underline the fact that their music is now essentially pop. “Our goal is to always try to make sure that the Grammy Awards are a direct reflection of an ever-evolving music environment,” Harvey Mason Jr., chairman and interim president/CEO of the Recording Academy, told Billboard in June when the change was announced. (The Latin Grammys, independently, will add best reggaetón performance and best rap/hip-hop song awards to their ceremony in November.)
To some, the change comes as a relief. “I never understood why urban was thrown in the bucket with rock and alternative in the first place,” says Diana Rodríguez, CEO of management agency Criteria Entertainment, whose clients include Grammy-winning rocker Draco Rosa. “There is no genre more popular right now in the Latin market, so it makes more sense.” As Cosmica Management + Records founder Gil Gastelum notes, pairing urban and pop “feels like more of a reflection of what is happening on the radio, [at digital service providers] and overall.”
Still, with a wide range of potential nominees in the category — including Jesse & Joy and crooner Ricardo Arjona on the pop side, and reggaetoneros Bad Bunny and Balvin and trap superstar Anuel in urban — urbano artists could still end up sidelined. And some industry leaders see the genres as polar opposites that don’t belong together.
“Sure, people can say urban is the new pop,” says Grammy- and Latin Grammy-winning songwriter-producer Edgar Barrera. “But Latin urban became pop because it’s popular, not because it shares the same rhythms as traditional pop. There are major differences, including lyrics, melody and structure.” Recording artist and Grammy-nominated producer Maffio insists, “It makes no sense, and it doesn’t look good. Urban should have its moment. We’ve worked hard to make sure it gets played on the radio, to globalize it.”
Nine out of the top 10 artists on Billboard’s 2019 year-end Latin charts were urban, and out of the 14 songs that reached No. 1 on Latin Pop Airplay that year, 11 included an urban act. Bad Bunny and Ozuna are 2020’s two most popular Latin artists by music consumption, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data’s U.S. Midyear Report.
“The only one who loses is the urban artist because for the academy, pop rules over anything else,” says Calle 13 alum Residente. “They also need members that can differentiate the two genres because there are urban songs that walk that fine line between pop and urban, but that’s not to say that all urban songs do.” (The academy states that within the awards process, “we have committees, which are made up of music professionals and creators who are working within that field.”)
Whoever the nominees may be, the Latin community will be closely watching on Grammy night. “Just because we have the Latin Grammys doesn’t mean we will just sit back and not demand respect from the academy,” says veteran publicist Mayna Nevarez, who works with diverse acts including Daddy Yankee, Carlos Vives and Natti Natasha. “Both pop and urban artists are deserving of their own categories. You simply can’t compare the two.”