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The 2020 Latin Grammys show lets its hair down in socially distanced, global telecast

J Balvin performs at the 2020 Latin Grammy Awards
J Balvin, after boycotting last year’s Latin Grammy Awards, performs in his bleeding-heart suit at the 2020 ceremony.
(Alexander Tamargo / Getty Images)

Nearly a year since it was first detected, COVID-19 maintains its deadly surge across nations the world over. This summer’s wave of international protests against racism continue to drive discourse in global politics and entertainment. Hurricanes Eta and Iota ravaged Central America within the last two weeks alone. Family separation and other documented abuses of migrants detained across the U.S. continue uninterrupted. And at this year’s Latin Grammys, it was all laid bare for viewers to contend with.

Broadcast live from Miami’s American Airlines Arena on Thursday night, this year’s socially distanced Latin Grammys ceremony may have been a pared-down, diet red carpet affair, but it was a testament to Latin America’s innovation amid hard times. Despite a year as turbulent as this one, the tagline “La música nos humaniza,” (Music makes us human) united the vast region in its boundless creativity.

Hosting Latin music’s biggest night were Oscar-nominated “Roma” actress Yalitza Aparicio, telenovela star Ana Brenda and salsa singer Víctor Manuelle (replacing Mexico’s Carlos Rivera, who had to pull out after a member of his team tested positive for the coronavirus). The Latin Recording Academy boasted a “reimagined telecast,” which broadcast performers and nominees from their respective cities all over the world: Madrid, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Guadalajara and San Juan.

Leslie Grace and Prince Royce paid tribute to Juan Luis Guerra during the 2020 Latin Grammy Awards.
Leslie Grace and Prince Royce perform a tribute to Juan Luis Guerra during the 2020 Latin Grammy Awards in Miami.
(Alexander Tamargo / Getty Images)
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Even before the coronavirus put a damper on most awards shows in 2020, this year’s Latin Grammy Awards were already bound to make a course correction. Earlier this year, the Latin Recording Academy announced a sweeping overhaul of its award categories, which included new honors for reggaeton, rap and hip-hop, as well as the inclusion of the genres’ artists in its mainstream categories.

Leading in nominations was reggaeton evangelist J Balvin, who famously boycotted last year’s event for what he argued was a lack of opportunity for urbano artists. This year, Balvin received 13 nominations, including two for album of the year and two for record of the year, setting a Guinness World Record for most Latin Grammy nominations in a year.

“I hope others in the world can see the colors in this moment,” said Balvin upon winning the urban album Grammy for his 2020 LP, “Colores.” Decked out in a white suit splashed with a bleeding heart — blood-red paint emanating from a painted heart — he performed his song “Rojo” beneath clips from this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests along with a gospel choir.

Rappers loomed large at the event: Beamed in from Puerto Rico was trickster Bad Bunny, who performed “Bichiyal” in the midst of a drag race on the streets of San Juan, then dialed it down with an all-woman band for “Si Veo a Tu Mamá.” Cuban American MC Pitbull appeared with a live band of frontline workers — including police officers on guitar and drums, plus nurses, paramedics and firefighters on backup vocals — who helped transform his stadium-size jock jam, “I Believe That We Will Win,” into a rap-rock thriller.

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Colombian reggae pop singer and best new artist winner Mike Bahía shut out the Latin trap Brat Pack comprised of Cazzu, Rauw Alejandro, and even genre patriarch Anuel AA, who boasted seven nominations this year. Anuel delivered a club-worthy performance live in Miami; as did his fiancée, Karol G, who brought Venusian charm to the stage with her Latin Grammy-nominated reggaeton-pop hit, “Tusa,” sans her co-star Nicki Minaj.

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Regional Mexican acts Christian Nodal and Alejandro Fernández made a standout, cross-generational performance from a lush stage in Guadalajara. Meanwhile, norteño outlaws Los Tigres del Norte ramped up the political discourse with their 1988 song detailing the plight of Central American migrants, “Tres Veces Mojado” (Three Times a Wetback). Host Ana Brenda, a Tejana from McAllen, Texas, introduced Los Tigres with a compassionate plea “for the families unjustly separated, for the Dreamers who remain hopeful.”

The biggest upsets of the night were only upsets in that they predictably went to decorated Latin Grammy veterans. Just a year after he last took home record of the year for his song with Camila Cabello, “Mi Persona Favorita,” Spanish singer-songwriter and 2017 person of the year Alejandro Sanz scored his eighth record of the year award for the song “Contigo.” (Said the artist last year: “I feel like a thief!”)

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The now-14-time Latin Grammy winner Natalia Lafourcade scored album of the year for her 2020 paean to the Mexican folk tradition, “Un Canto por México Vol. 1.” She is the second woman in a row to win the category, after Rosalía broke the boys club’s 13-year winning streak in 2019 with “El Mal Querer.”

Homebound in San Juan, Puerto Rican rapper Residente virtually accepted the Latin Grammy for song of the year — his 26th Latin Grammy award — for his single “Rene,” an eight-minute meditation on his lifelong struggles with mental health. As always, he delivered some intra-industry criticism under the guise of a victory speech. “Art wasn’t made to make history or set records,” he quipped. “Art is made to reflect everything that affects us, to make us feel free and say what we feel without fear. I see a lot of talent, but I see a lot of fear.”

When Residente cites fear, he’s referring to artists who eschew risk taking in favor of hit making. Yet, a similar trepidation seems to emanate from the voting body of the Latin Recording Academy: an aversion to new blood in the mainstream categories.

Although it’s a far cry from a conspiracy against the young — lest we forget that strapping young lads Camilo and Pedro Capó still won best pop song for their 2019 earworm, “Tutu” — such a discrepancy reflects poorly on the current pool of voters, who regularly favor tried-and-true household names over emerging icons who help shape the culture and find inventive ways to exponentially grow Latin music’s revenue.

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This begs for a mass voter recruitment initiative that could diversify the racial and generational makeup of the voting pool, and encourage more participation among millennial and Gen Z members of the Latin music industry.

It’s not a matter of vote or die; but rather vote or remain unsung for years to come.


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