the grammys

The Grammys Still Don’t Get It

As we collectively examine our lexicon for prejudice, the inherently loaded nature of calling something urban has prompted action. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Earlier today, the Grammys proudly announced some changes to its upcoming 63rd annual program. With the eligibility period due to end in less than three months’ time on August 31, the embattled organization behind the most visible music awards show in the world has rejiggered some of its existing categories while renaming others. Amid nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, an ongoing civil-disobedience movement that has concurrently prompted a wider conversation about accountability and allyship from those who benefit from black culture, the most symbolic of these “approved rule amendments” from the Recording Academy now comes in the form of removing one problematic word from a popular category. As we collectively examine our lexicon for prejudice, the inherently loaded nature of calling something urban has prompted action.

Now rechristened “Best Progressive R&B Album,” the Grammy grouping previously known as Best Urban Contemporary Album originated in 2013 in an attempt to capture and reward a surging musical trend in a long-standing genre. The new title came from Ivan Barias, a multiple Grammy nominee who currently serves as one of the Recording Academy’s trustees and founded the category, who says he sees it as a way to move past a contentious word toward a more inclusive understanding going forward. Though now signified by the likes of award winners Lizzo, Frank Ocean, and the Weeknd, as well as notable nominees like Khalid and Georgia Anne Muldrow, the initial terminology dates back to a radio format dating back to the 1970s, one that grouped what was often previously dubbed “black music” by the industry at a time when funk, soul, and jazz were huge mainstream styles. Though inelegant by today’s standards, it served a need at the time. Now, even Republic Records is vowing to rid itself of the word internally as well as externally.

The Grammys’ seemingly good-faith gesture on the R&B front dramatically falls apart in the Latin-music space, where it blithely continues to group the popular sounds of reggaeton and Spanish-language hip-hop under the urban umbrella. Many in the industry, including publicists and managers behind some of the biggest reggaeton stars, have long urged to give these prevailing styles their own category or otherwise decouple them from the comparatively less salable alternative-music bracket to which they had been tethered since 2009. Instead, the newly Frankensteined award for Best Latin Pop or Urban Album reveals just how wrong the Recording Academy remains in its handling of these issues.

The obvious inconsistency of striking a term from one award name only to retain it in another should be clear to anyone. After all, there has long been a nebulousness to many of the Grammy categories that often manifests in ways that inadvertently tipped off the public about apparent cultural and racial biases endemic to the process. (Rapper Post Malone’s nomination for Best Pop Solo Performance — in a year where black artists weren’t — immediately springs to mind.) By interim director Harvey Mason Jr.’s own admission, vocal criticism during and around this year’s ceremony by Sean Combs and Tyler, the Creator informed the organization’s decision-making. (Backstage after winning Best Rap Album this past January, the latter referred to the term urban as “a politically correct way to say the N-word to me.”) The failure to apply that same restorative logic to the Latin categories speaks to a shortsightedness that persists there, and brings into question whether the Grammys seek to do more than placate a few celebrity critics in exchange for a return to so-called normalcy.

To see just how extensive the failings are, it’s important to have context. The Grammys essentially shunned reggaeton, a genre inspired by and pioneered by black artists, until 2008 when it introduced the Best Latin Urban Album award. The category proved short-lived, abandoned after three instances — two of which were won by Latin alternative act Calle 13 — and rolled into the dubious abomination of Best Latin Rock, Urban, or Alternative Album. (Calle 13 won it that first year too.)

Meanwhile, the Latin Grammys haven’t fared much better. Since 2000, this parallel awards-granting program within the Recording Academy, with its own televised ceremony, has gone above and beyond just mirroring its all-genre counterpart’s blind spots. Though it launched the Best Urban Music Album category in 2001, it only introduced the Best Urban Song prize in 2009, five years after Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” charted on the Billboard Hot 100. In doing so, however, the Latin Grammys have largely relegated reggaeton to these categories, leaving them out of consideration for the general prizes in spite of ever-growing popularity. In the 20 years of these ceremonies, a reggaetonero has not won a single Album of the Year award. It took 18 years, and the inevitability of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s smash “Despacito,” before one won a Record of the Year prize, and 19 years before Karol G became the first to snag Best New Artist.

At the height of a mainstream boom fueled by Bad Bunny and J Balvin, among others, last fall’s Latin Grammys nominations so egregiously excluded reggaeton and Latin trap artists from the non-genre brackets that a vocal plurality of them boycotted the ceremony. Though the Recording Academy and its surrogates played it down to these acts and their teams not submitting paperwork on time or otherwise not participating in the process, the visible absence of superstars eventually prompted the organization to add two new categories as penance: Best Reggaeton Performance and Best Rap/Hip Hop Song. Given the history of snubs, the changes offer cold comfort.

Regardless of genre or language, if we’re going to do away with the term urban, we actually have to do away with it. But rectifying these long-standing and persistent issues requires much more than switching a few words around, and thinking deeper than semantics. Considering the tremendous domestic popularity of reggaeton and Latin trap right now, thanks in no small part to leading BIPOC artists like Ozuna and Sech, it’s simply absurd to lump this music in with a pop Grammy category that historically favors white or white-presenting acts like Rosalía, and largely legacy names like Juanes and Alejandro Sanz. There seems no logical reason to do so either, as none of the Latin music awards make it to the main broadcast, instead stuffed in a preshow ballroom blitz with prizes hastily handed out for bluegrass, classical, and — if you can believe it in the year 2020 — world music albums. Until the Recording Academy takes stock of its house, the Grammys will remain a holistically damaged and toxic institution.

The Grammys Still Don’t Get It