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The VMAs Made Strides with Latinx Representation—But Ultimately Fell Short

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Bad Bunny and J Balvin perform onstage during the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards.  (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

“Shout-out to the Latino gang out here,” said Colombian superstar J. Balvin as he and Spanish singer Rosalía accepted their VMA for their summer hit, “Con Altura.” “This is beautiful because this is my first time singing in Spanish right now for this audience.”

In 2019, Latinx artists continue to have a major impact on U.S. Billboard charts, and it’s evident that MTV is cashing in on the momentum, nominating Spanish-language songs in mainstream categories as well as Best Latin. Spanish-speaking heavy hitters stacked the nominations and performances at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. First-time nominees included Boricua superstar Bad Bunny, pan-Latino boy band CNCO and power duo Karol G and Anuel AA.

While last night’s award ceremony showed that MTV is making strides in amplifying Latinx voices, the media giant can do a better job of reflecting the diversity of the diaspora—particularly in amplifying Afro-Latinx artists, who are (and have historically been) crucial to the development of reggaeton and urbano.

In one of the most elaborate performances of the night, second only to Missy Elliott‘s, Bad Bunny and J. Balvin repped Puerto Rico and Colombia on the televised stage. Their psychedelic performance of “Que Pretendes” felt like looking at the world through VR goggles. Amid technicolor cacti, emojis and whimsical animal characters, the duo coaxed us into their magical-realist world with a stretch of their comically inflated fingers. Shouting out their Latino Gang at the top of the performance to hordes of adoring fans, the duo’s live show proved to be a joyful highlight, and underscored the importance of the unprecedented Latinx representation at this year’s awards.

Sensing the gravity of this opportunity, J. Balvin used his screen time wisely. In an unscripted moment midway through his acceptance speech for the Best Latin award, he drew attention to the raging blaze in the Amazon that has devastated millions of acres of forest and displaced indigenous tribes.

Yet, despite significantly increasing Latinx representation, the VMAs sometimes lacked nuance, as Rosalía, who is from Spain and not Latin America, was the co-recipient of the Best Latin title. A big part of Rosalía’s appeal relies on her singing over Afro-Caribbean beats and referencing the diaspora’s aesthetics, like elaborate acrylic nails and laid edges. Although she’s undeniably talented and belonged at the VMAs, her win in the Latin category reveals how quickly the mainstream moves to privilege white artists over Afro-Latinx ones. Indeed, fellow chart-topper Ozuna, who is Puerto Rican and Dominican, only got a minute of screen time during Rosalía’s performance.  

MTV’s shortcomings when it comes to allyship aren’t surprising when one examines the bigger picture: VMA sponsor Taco Bell’s TACO PAC supported President Trump’s virulently anti-immigrant 2016 campaign.

While no one expects the VMAs to solve the world’s problems, MTV has the power to define the cultural narrative. As mainstream U.S. audiences finally begin to appreciate urbano and Latin trap, it’s critical consumers pay attention to which artists get recognition for these traditionally Afro-Latinx art forms. Although a move in the right direction, MTV’s attempts at representation fell short.

Still, for now, the simple fact that multiple artists performed in Spanish at the VMAs was a hopeful indicator that MTV is embracing Latinx artists. The opportunity to be themselves without translating their music sent a powerful message that the Latinx community deserves a seat at the table, and has for a long time.


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