Can Songs Sung in Spanish Win The Big Music Awards At The Grammys?

Leonard Pitts, in the Tampa Bay Times, cites Seren Sensei, a panelist on an internet series on African-American issues, to argue that many Americans prefer to listen to black music from a nonblack face. And to prove her point, she brings to the picture Bruno Mars for winning song and album of the year at the 60th Grammy Awards in 2018 – an honor that the late Prince never achieved because of the color of his skin. (March 15th).

You see, Bruno’s father is half Puerto Rican and half Ashkenazi Jewish descent, while his mother is of Filipina and some Spanish ancestry. Although he’s multiracial, his music style is a mixture of hip-hop, soul, rock and R&B.  To Leonard and Seren, Bruno’s race and ethnicity are more important than his music!

I have to acknowledge that I’m not a fan of Leonard Pitts’ editorials – as the majority of them have a myopic view of race and racism in our country.  To bring a case that is on point, Leonard is totally wrong in his assertions in the previous paragraph.  Seren Sensei is also just as wrong. 

Americans have a long history – at least recent history – of recognizing musicians strictly for their talents – without paying any attention to their race. Michael Jackson won twenty-two Grammys during his career, and Ray Charles won thirty-one.

But when it comes to recognizing Hispanic musicians at the Grammys, we get a different tune.  Most Americans prefer to listen to Hispanic music with English lyrics and from a singer with a non-Hispanic name.

This year’s song and album of the year should have gone to “Despacito.” The song topped the charts of 47 countries and reached the top 10 of ten others. It became the most streamed song of all time, and the music video became the most viewed video in YouTube history. It tied the longest-reigning number one on the Billboard Hot 100 with 16 weeks. Despacito captured the collective imagination of people worldwide. [To listen to “Despacito,” click here.]

So, why didn’t Despacito receive its deserved accolades at the 2018 Grammys?

After all, Bruno Mars has a Puerto Rican father, which makes him part Hispanic. But Bruno Mars has an English-sounding name, and the lyrics to his songs are in English.

On the other hand, a Panamanian (Erika Ender) composed Despacito with mostly Spanish lyrics, and a Puerto Rican with a Hispanic-sounding name (Luis Fonsi) made it famous. Unfortunately, these two factors gave the song two strikes against it (even with another Hispanic collaborator with an English-sounding name, Daddy Yankee) and made it impossible to win the most sought-after prizes.

Some people will point to the fact that “Despacito” was properly recognized at the 18th Latin Grammy Awards in 2017. It won “song of the year,” “record of the year,” “best short form music video” and “best urban fusion/performance.” Four awards! So, some will ask, what more do Hispanics want?!!!

I don’t have a problem with having a separate ceremony to honor the achievements of Latin musicians because it increases the number of awards given.  But by the same token, when you have a mega-hit like Despacito break all kinds of records in a single year, the overarching Grammy Awards cannot turn its back.  By the end of 2017, Despacito had received a total of 1.322 billion on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music. By every measure that you want to use, Despacito was the world’s biggest song in 2017.

So, to answer the question of “what more do Hispanics want?” I respond that what they want and deserve is recognition by Grammy judges for achieving what is obvious to world audiences.

To those who object to having a separate awards ceremony for Latin performers, I point out that the exclusion of the world’s biggest song in 2017 from the Grammy Awards made a mockery of their goal to recognize only talent. Many in this camp argue their case by claiming that music is really a universal language that knows no borders, but their actions speak louder than their words.

Still others argue that the Grammys must recognize the musical accomplishments of performers who showcase their talents only in the English language.  But many are still unaware of the fact that the United States has no official national language.  This being the case, it would be un-American to ignore the musical talents of the second largest minority group in the U.S. population (per the 2020 U.S. Census) – as well as disregard the fact that the U.S. is home to the second largest community of Spanish-speaking people in the world.

Similarly, the great Andrea Bocelli has been nominated five times for a Grammy, but is still is waiting to win one. He’s been nominated seven times in the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo and won all seven times. World audiences understand well that music represents the language of the world.

We are all made up of the same essence, we feel similar emotions which we communicate to others via different languages. For example, although I don’t speak Portuguese, I get transported to another galaxy when I listen to a Jobim bossa nova. Music allows us to feel and understand our emotions.  It’s not interested in putting words to them.

As long as most Americans stay hung up on past and current prejudices when judging the arts and music, they will not be casting their votes based on merit.  Instead, they will be moving the country further away from its motto “out of many one.” A Balkanized America does not represent the best that our country has to offer to the free world.

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