There is a long tradition of Spanish artists in Latin music, a genre that (at least within the music industry) has been defined as music recorded in the Spanish language. Since the first Latin Grammys telecast in 2000, the Latin Recording Academy — headquartered in Miami — has recognized Spanish (and Portuguese) musicians.
Honorees have included legendary Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, his son Enrique Iglesias and Alejandro Sanz, a Spanish pop veteran. Sanz was the most nominated artist at this year’s ceremony, which aired on Univision.
Rosalía picked up five nods, making her the most nominated female artist for the second consecutive year. She won in four of those categories, including best urban song for “Con Altura,” an energetic ode to living life at full blast, featuring Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin and Spanish musician El Guincho, who co-produced “El Mal Querer.”
There has been increasing debate about whether Spanish artists should win awards for Latin music, particularly when it comes to urban genres. The discussion went full-volume in September after the MTV Video Music Awards, where Rosalía performed “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi,” a reggaeton duet with Puerto Rican breakout star Ozuna. “Con Altura” won the Best Latin award at the event.
“I’m super proud of being Latino right now,” J Balvin said as he and Rosalía accepted the award. “Thank you, because it’s such an incredible honor,” Rosalía told the audience. “I come from Barcelona. I’m so happy to be here representing where I come from and representing my culture.”
While Rosalía’s VMA performance — a medley of songs including “A Ningún Hombre,” her album’s stunning final track — earned praise, the Best Latin win raised eyebrows. The harshest assessments played out on social media, where critics weren’t shy about pointing to Spain’s brutal colonization of Latin America as the awkward elephant in the room.
It’s a particularly complex discussion when it comes to reggaeton, which is rooted in black music including reggae, dancehall and hip-hop and was so heavily policed in Puerto Rico (cited, along with Panama, as a formative place for the genre) that it was forced underground in its early years. Artists such as Tego Calderon, Don Omar and Daddy Yankee — whose 2004 hit “Gasolina” became the first reggaeton song to be nominated for the Latin Grammy Award for record of the year — helped usher reggaeton into the mainstream pop stratosphere.
But as the genre became more widely popular, “there’s an argument that reggaeton has shifted and has become whitened,” said Petra Rivera-Rideau, an assistant professor of American Studies at Wellesley College who explored the rise of reggaeton amid evolving racial identities in her 2015 book, “Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico.” Fonsi, she noted, was not known for making reggaeton before “Despacito,” which featured Daddy Yankee and spawned a massively popular remix featuring Canadian pop star Justin Bieber.
While some fans (and media outlets) pointed out the fraught dynamic, the Rosalía backlash seems more prominent. “I think what made Rosalía so surprising to some people is that she’s from Spain,” Rivera-Rideau said.
Rosalía has clearly been embraced by reggaeton’s biggest stars, but it’s tough to overlook the fact that several heavy hitters were absent from Thursday’s telecast. J Balvin and Daddy Yankee were among the artists protesting this year’s Latin Grammy nominations, which relegated reggaeton stars to so-called urban genres even as they dominated Latin pop charts and racked up billions of views on YouTube. The dissonance was particularly felt during two standout performances from Ozuna and Sech, a rising Afro-Panamanian singer who cracked the Billboard 100 chart with his lovesick reggaeton ballad “Otro Trago.”
It’s also hard to ignore Rosalía’s evolving aesthetic, which has included razor-sharp nails, slicked-down baby hair and — most recently — a chrome-colored mouth grill, which the singer wore in the music video for her gritty new single “A Palé.” Fans of her crossover success, meanwhile, point to her intensive musical training. And her music projects an appreciation for multiple genres — she name-checks both salsa legend Hector Lavoe and her favorite flamenco singer, Cameron de la Isla, in “Con Altura."
The 26-year-old phenom’s breakout has been elevated by showstopping performances at tour stops across the United States, Latin America and Europe. Her growing number of fans include stalwarts of Latin music.
“I think she’s the only artist who can be compared to Beyoncé in the Latin world,” Colombian rocker Juanes recently told the New York Times magazine.
In the same article, the singer — who was named Person of the Year by the Latin Recording Academy ahead of Thursday’s telecast — recalled seeing Rosalía sing for the first time two years ago.
“I wanted to die,” Juanes said. “I mean, I had never felt something so strong with someone singing in front of me like what I felt that day, and on top of everything else she was such a young woman, you know? For me it was like seeing Carlos Gardel or Edith Piaf or someone like that sing.”