#NotLatinEnough: English Lyrics Disqualify Tony Succar’s Michael Jackson Tribute From Latin Grammys

Salsa’s got nothing to do with it: to be considered for a Latin Grammy, what matters most is language. That’s what Peruvian-born, Miami-bred producer Tony Succar was told when he questioned the exclusion of his album, Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson, from this year’s pool. The Latin Recording Academy disqualified the work based on the prevalence of English lyrics — effectively dubbing it “not Latin enough,” he says.

Plenty of other people seem to think Unity is a Latin album, though – Succar’s fans, of course, but also PBS. A live performance of the album, which features contributions from a slew of well-known Latin artists, is slated to air October 9, directly before the annual Hispanic Heritage Awards.

Among the collaborators on Unity‘s salsified versions of Jackson classics are Obie Bermúdez, Jennifer Peña, Jon Secada, Tito Nieves, Michael Stuart, La India, and Kevin Ceballo. Tracks like “I Want You Back,” “Thriller,” “You Are Not Alone,” and several others are sung in English — but the arrangements crafted by Succar, the producer and general project ringleader, are borne of decidedly Latin rhythms. And there are a few tracks in Spanish, too.

“Usually, people feel orgulloso de la música que hago…because I truly am devoted to Latin tropical music,” he assures. “I’m not here producing pushing buttons with a focus to be number one making reggaeton or dance (four-on-the-floor) with Spanish lyrics. I’m here recording music where there are true Latin instruments, cultura musical, where the rhythms have a historic importance, which started as Afro-Cuban music, son montuno, then became salsa in New York.”

It’s more than just a paradox that a salsa album with “unity” in its title has been deemed ineligible. When the Latin Recording Academy denied Tony Succar consideration his work, they inadvertently called into question their entire ruling system.

“For some reason, LARAS [the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] is illogically making these absurd rules in terms of language and basically discriminating against Latin people who like to do bilingual music,” Succar says. “It’s funny though, because every time I’ve received an email response from them, even though I wrote to them in Spanish, they would respond to me in English.”

The Latin Recording Academy holds that 51 percent or more of a work’s lyrics must be in Spanish or Portuguese in order to qualify. Unity was clocked at 75, though Succar’s own tabulations totaled 50.6. He explained this an email to the Academy; he also told them there was “a serious flaw in the way recordings are being handled.” Their response? According to Succar, all he received was a terse reply: “We are too far along in the Awards process to be able to consider this matter further.”

He’s not the only one who’s contested the decision. David Davis, Vice President of Television Production at Oregon Public Broadcasting, the station owner of the Unity special, echoed Succar’s complaints in an August 25 email.

Numbers aside, the current system, as Succar points out, allows for styles rooted in other cultures to essentially be dubbed Latin. But what if there are no vocals? How is the level of Latinidad gauged then?

Succar believes some of this year’s nominations are “questionable,” pointing to jazz pianist Chick Corea’s Trilogy in particular. It’s in the running for Best Instrumental Album.

“I’m a superfan of Chick Corea, of course. I mean, who isn’t, right? But may someone please explain to me what genre of Latin music does this recording fall into? Other than one song, ‘Spain,’ his classic standard, and perhaps ‘Armando’s Rhumba,’ this is clearly a jazz record,” he says. “I don’t understand how Unity is not Latin enough, but a straight ahead jazz album is.”

The Latin Grammy Awards’ online manual provides these qualifications for Best Instrumental Albums: “For albums containing 51% or more playing time of INSTRUMENTAL tracks. Includes all genres of Latin instrumental recordings.”

By those standards, Chick Corea’s work hardly fits. And this isn’t the only category with murky regulations. There’s no reference to language in the Music Video fields — which is what made it possible for the video for “She Bangs,” Ricky Martin’s 100-percent English-language jam, to take the Short Form title in 2001.

Naturally, Succar is confused and frustrated. He posted a video response to the ruling on his Facebook page, offering up the hashtag #NotLatinEnough, which many of his fans have since employed in support. The discussion on that thread has inspired Succar to start a petition targeted not at remedying his own situation, but at re-evaluating the rules in general.

“I have to do something about this, and it’s much more deep than just a word count complaint,” he says. “This goes beyond; it’s not even about me, it’s more about [The Latin Recording Academy] committing to what their mission statement is supposed to represent.”

Right now, Succar’s too tied up prepping for a Unity viewing party and other related events to officially launch the petition. Still, support seems to be growing — his Facebook posts since that initial rallying cry are rife with comments in solidarity. One can only assume that he’ll see a surge in allies after the performance airs.

“It’s very sad that LARAS is acting this way,” Succar laments. “It only shows the world that they don’t care about the integrity of the music, and rather they are stopping Latin music from evolving, rather than progressing with it and truly honoring the excellence in Latin music productions.”