Op-Ed: J Balvin Accepting Afro-Latino Artist of the Year Award Is Not Just Hurtful… It’s Erasure

J Balvin accepts award for 'Artista Más Compartido' onstage during the 2020 Spotify Awards at the Auditorio Nacional on March 05, 2020 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Victor Chavez/Getty Images for Spotify

Afro-Latinidad within the Latin music industry is making headlines — but not for the right reasons, yet again.

The latest controversy unfolded when the African Entertainment Awards USA (AEAUSA) announced its 2021 winners earlier this week. Swift backlash came when the organization revealed that the winner for the category of “Best Afro-Latino Artist” was J Balvin. The music artist walked away not only getting nominated but also chosen for the award. Outraged by the selection, confused fans and Afro-Latines took to social media to speak out against the nomination. Like so many of them, I asked myself the same question: How was this allowed to happen? 

But honestly, I was not surprised. 

It is no secret that J Balvin has built a career cosplaying Blackness; as Twitter user Nina Vázquez put it, “JBalvin won an award on Blackness by using Black Caribbean music, dialect, rhythms, and wardrobe.” He has a history of asserting his white privilege and vocalizing anti-Black sentiments. He called himself the “Prince of Reggaeton” in a genre created and spearheaded by Afro-Latine artists. A few months ago, Balvin implied that Tego Calderon’s Blackness precluded Tego from being Latino. His and Tokischa’s music video for “Perra ” was removed from YouTube after he faced backlash for Afro-Latinas being made to look like animals in the music video while being walked like dogs with leashes by Balvin. These are just a few of many.

It’s important to recognize that Balvin is only one part of the problem. The music industry is a multi-billion dollar machine rooted in racial prejudice. Therefore, this machine is not only designed to weaponize its white cisgender artists, but it also systematically minimizes the contribution of Afro-Latines to genres and represses the existence of Afro-Latines entirely. Yet, Blackness becomes acceptable when cosplayed by artists like J Balvin, Rosalia, Nathy Peluso, and more — these artists becoming a prototype. But then Afro-Latine artists are denied the right to demand recognition. Their lived experiences are invalidated as our communities turn to mestizaje, which makes non-Black Latines feel they have the same adversities as Black Latines because of their “ancestry.” 

Following Balvin’s win for AEAUSA, Dominic Tamin, President of the African Entertainment Awards USA, attempted to clear up the confusion. “I wanted to address the Afro-Latino category and why we came up with this category. These are the people who contributed to Afro-culture. It’s not based on your race. It’s based on the contribution to African culture. Some folks have said that one of the nominations was not Black, and there was major concern.” Tamin stated. “Yes, you can be Black Latino and be nominated, and you can also be white Latino and be nominated, just like we have Black and white Africans. That’s how we see it.” With Black artists in Latin music celebrating their roots, speaking out on their experiences, and much more within the industry — is J Balvin really the inaugural artist to receive a first-time award for “contributing to African culture” when he has only thrived off of it?

That’s not all. As a result of the backlash, AEAUSA changed the category’s name to “Best Latin Artist.” This response only further perpetuates the erasure of Afro-Latine talent. It was on the organization that celebrates Africa to use this category to celebrate Afro-Latine talent doing the work in an industry that has failed to support them. What is notable about this decision is that the outrage was not about the category itself, but the nominees.This was a moment to celebrate artists like Sech, Ozuna, ChocQuibTown, among many more. Why not use this platform to finally give them the recognition they deserve?

Calling it “Best Latin Artist” does not include Black people; it ostracizes us. Changing the name of the award enables the invisibility of an entire community. It keeps individuals like J Balvin and Dominic Tamin from explaining themselves or taking ownership of the damage created. J Balvin could’ve used this opportunity to turn down the nomination and speak out on why he shouldn’t have received it and highlight race within Latinidad. AEAUSA could’ve retracted the win, kept the category’s name, and decided that the category would be dedicated to solely Afro-Latine artists in the future. 

The lack of investment in our community directly correlates to the whitewashing of genres. For this reason, It isn’t enough to delete a post, apologize, or change a name. This also isn’t a call to cancel any artist or organization but a call to take a seat and actually learn. There should be no reason these controversial instances are becoming standard, in which Black communities are then expected to educate others. It is time for industry organizations and events to become highly intentional about creating spaces for Afro-Latine artists. It’s also time for non-Black artists in Latin music to give contemporary Afro-Latine artists and the trailblazers before them the flowers they deserve. 

It is time for industry organizations and events to become highly intentional about creating spaces for Afro-Latine artists.

In 2022, let’s try to make Afro-Latinidad making headlines being ones that celebrate all the talent within. As long as the industry and its archetypes are allowed to control the narrative, people will continue to disinvest in Afro-Latine artists because they will make these companies believe that their Blackness is a liability when Blackness is exactly what is ingrained in the consciousness of genres in Latin music.