Is the Latin Recording Academy Open to Change?

The past year has been a time of change at the Latin Recording Academy. In May, the Academy’s Board of Trustees announced that it would appoint former COO Manuel Abud as CEO, following the tenure of Gabriel Abaroa, who served the organization since 2003 and oversaw the telecast moving to Univision in 2006 and transitioning from English to Spanish. Abud took the helm in August, just weeks before the 2021 Latin Grammy nominations were announced on September 28th.

He comes into the role amid a pandemic — and at a time in which the Latin Grammys have faced criticism, particularly over the lack of representation of women, Black artists, and musicians in reggaeton and urban categories. When the tallies for this year came in, major recognition came for the Colombian artist Camilo, who received 10 nominations; the Dominican artist Juan Luis Guerra, who received six nominations; and the Spanish artist C. Tangana, who received five nominations. However, the Academy was called out again by reggaeton artists who felt snubbed, and on social media, many fans questioned the implications of nominating artists from Spain in awards titled “Latin.” Additionally, while 11 women received awards across four major categories, the highest number of nominations any woman received was just four, compared to Camilo’s 10.

The Latin Grammys are scheduled to return to MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on November 18th, following 2020’s scaled-back show in Miami. Abud spoke with Rolling Stone about his new role and his goals moving forward, sharing his thoughts on questions of diversity across the board, his plans for the ceremony this year — and his reasons for not wanting to shake things up too much just yet.

You’re following in the footsteps of longtime Latin Grammys CEO Gabriel Abaroa. What are some of your goals coming into the position?
Gabriel was great, and he and the team did an excellent job taking the Academy where it is right now. But I’m super excited … I think it’s the perfect time for some new ideas and some new approaches to the issues we’re facing.

Right now, I’m in the process of really listening. I’ve been going on an intense listening exercise, reaching out to the membership, to the different stakeholders, and making sure their voices are heard before we make any changes. Quite frankly, the current focus has been on execution: We have a major process going on [with the nominations and voting], so I want all the attention on the process. Perhaps at the end of the year, we can regroup and take a look at what people have been saying and what the biggest takeaways are and make appropriate changes. I don’t see any major, radical changes; I think it’s more of an evolution rather than a revolution type of approach.

This year’s Latin Grammy nominations were just announced. There were 11 women nominated in the four major categories, but unfortunately, they are still not among the artists with the most nominations this year. What do you think can be done to see more representation among women and seeing the numbers we’re seeing for male artists and producers?
I have to agree with you. I think the numbers are solid, but there’s always room to grow and to improve. I think if we take a look, for example, at Best New Artist, it’s more balanced than the rest and that’s very encouraging. Our commitment is clear and the intent is real about making sure we are inclusive and we promote as much diversity as possible. At the end of the day, it’s the musical excellence that drives the discussion. Normally, we don’t want to single out a category, but the exception is this one [Best New Artist], because it lays out the future and it’s very encouraging. You have people from Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic — this is very encouraging to see, and that also applies to musical genres. It’s very diverse, and great talent.

This goes back to the representation question, but there continue to be calls for more recognition of artists in reggaeton and urbano genres. In 2020, the Best Reggaeton Performance and Best Rap/Hip-Hop Song categories were added. Do you see progress being made?
Again, there’s always room for improvement. For the last couple of years, we have been very active in making sure that we’re reaching out different communities representing and making sure they participate. At the end of the day, it’s that participation that drives the results. We manage the process and it’s the artist and the artist community are the ones that vote and make their decisions and selections. So, what we have been doing very actively is making sure to reach out to all of them and make sure we have opened a constant dialogue with them and make sure we participate. I think we’re getting there, but to your point, there’s some room for growth.

There were a record-breaking 20,000 submissions received for consideration this year. What does that tell you about the outreach efforts and the direction of the industry?
Our awards department is heroic because they’ve been processing all these submissions with care, and I think it’s super exciting that there’s so much talent and they’re submitting their product — and the product is being evaluated. Now, something that is important to keep an eye on is songs: Songs are really driving the process, but I was also happy to see that even though albums are decreasing, there’s still an interest and the attention paid to the album format. In general, I think it’s encouraging.

There has been an ongoing conversation about whether artists from Spain should fit under the title of “Latin” in the awards. This year, artists from Spain are nominated, like C. Tangana and Pablo Alborán. Has that debate made it into the conversations you’re having, and do you see any changes in the naming conventions of the awards or the process?
At the end of the day, Latin music has been defined by Spanish and Portuguese, as well as other languages, so I think that should be the driver. We can get into an academic discussion about the Latin origins of Spanish, and we can go on with that debate, but I think it’s pointless — at the end of the day, we’re looking for excellence in music in Spanish and Portuguese and languages of indigenous origins spoken in Latin America.

To be clear, do you see it changing or will the rules stay the same?

No. I don’t see why we should exclude any country.

Last year, the pandemic meant a smaller, scaled-back version of the awards ceremony. How are you thinking about this year’s gathering?
This is one of those moments where you hope for the best and you prepare for the worst. The safety of the nominees and the talent and guests are the number one priority. Having said that, we’re hoping for the ability to have a celebration in person. We’ll have very strict protocols around the show. Safety is first and everything from vaccines and daily testing and how things are, we might have to go as far as protecting spaces for different segments for production. It’ll really depend on how things are looking in November. We’ll follow the guidelines from the state of Nevada.

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