Reggaeton and Race: exploring the changing status of reggaeton

Jul 25, 2018 Comments Off on Reggaeton and Race: exploring the changing status of reggaeton by

By Lauren Chalk

‘Journalists in Europe say that real news in the Old World boils down to matters of class, while important news in the New World boils down to matters of race.’

– Guardiola-Rivera 2010


A hybrid of reggae and rap, reggaeton has been referred to as the “weapon” of the disenfranchised of Latin America – a place where, like many others, race and class identities follow the same contours. Often, it was (and still is) a vehicle for expression of racial and class identity – with themes and lyrics engaging with the context of the barrios or caserios of Latin America. For the most part, those outside of this experience were disapproving of these stories (it was temporarily banned in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba) – dismissing the message of reggaeton as one which reflected badly on Latin America as a whole. Despite the outrage expressed by the so-called gatekeepers and tastemakers of Latin American culture, there is no doubt that, when it first emerged, reggaeton shed light on the Latin American and Hispanic Caribbean experience in all its social and cultural complexity – telling the stories and articulating the values of the inner-city, working-class and non-white “underclass” (Gamez Torres 2012).

As reggaeton enters the mainstream (read: English-speaking market ), it is given its own distinct label as “hurban” (Hispanic-Urban), keeping it in a separate sphere from mainstream US hip-hop which is predominantly the remit of African-American culture. The implications are far-reaching, but ultimately impede on a sense of Afro-Latin American identity. Using internationally-acclaimed reggaeton hits “Gasolina” and “Despacito” as bookends, how much has reggaeton changed during this time? (1)

Reggaeton – qué hubo pues?

There is not much academic literature focusing on reggaeton, however there are three key works which explore the relationship between race, class and reggaeton:

– Rivera, R, Marshall, W and Hernandez, D. 2009. Reggaeton: Refiguring American Music. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
– Rivera-Rideau,R. 2015. Remixing Reggaeton: the Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
– Baker, G. 2011. Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaeton, and Revolution in Havana. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

These works map and localise its roots in the Hispanic Caribbean, namely Puerto Rico, although it is the “product of an infusion of Jamaican dancehall and underground rap beats influenced by connections to Latino hubs in Miami and New York. In its Latin American context, reggaeton is tied to the experiences of urban, working-class communities – and often these communities are black or Afro-Latin American. In fact, it was once referred to as música negra . Indeed, certain reggaetoneros have used the genre to explore and advocate for this experience. Tego Calderon, an Afro-Puerto Rican reggaetonero, is a good example: his songs feature references to predominantly black neighbourhoods (Loiza, Puerto Rico) and shared “black” or “urban” experiences ( e.g. racial profiling by police). However, as a result of the association between reggaeton and the non-white, “ghetto” experience – considerable attention has been paid to the assumed shared (and negative) traits between them, for instance hyper-sexuality, hyper-masculinity (or machismo), violence, gang culture, and depravity. In particular, criticism is aimed at the associated dance style (“el perreo” i.e. doggy-style) and “sexualised dance floor environments” (Munoz-Laboy et al. 2007). Reggaeton is also criticised for how it refers to and makes use of women in its lyrical (and visual) narratives: women are decorative, submissive, fetishistic and fragile – simultaneously (Bartlow & Hobson 2008). Typically, reggaeton music videos show women as barely dressed (sometimes bikini-clad), dancing or positioned suggestively, and are very much visual props to a storyline which represents the reggaetonero(s) as dominant. These observations, however, have lead some aficionados of reggaeton to point out that other forms of music similarly reproduce exaggerated gendered representations and inequalities (Munoz-Laboy et al. 2007).

Interestingly, these connotations and stereotypes are mirrored in the US hip-hop scene and its associated “urban” culture. However, as reggaeton enters the US mainstream in the early 2000s, it retains these associations, but is kept in a distinct sphere from US urban, hip-hop culture – instead it assumes the category of “hurban” or Hispanic-American. This is in spite of the fact that hip-hop “has always been a key ingredient of reggaeton”. It also ignores the fact that the communities who typically engage with (and relate to) reggaeton and/or hip-hop have a shared urban experience living in the Americas (Rivera 2015). By creating a new category, commentators have separated hip-hop from reggaeton – simultaneously separating the African-American experience from the Latin American one. This is particularly problematic for Afro-Latin American identity, but it also downplays a sense of shared identity and experience within the African diaspora more generally.

As reggaeton has burst into the mainstream once again — epitomised with Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s hit “Despacito” in 2017 — it is an apt time to reevaluate the place of reggaeton and the direction it is heading toward. How does the genre, once the música negra of Latin America, look now?

Two recent podcasts (2016, 2017) are particularly insightful about the changes within the reggaeton movement:

– The New York Times “Popcast”, Latin Pop Thrives, No Bieber Required (2 June 2017).
– The New York Times “Popcast”, J Balvin’s Reggaeton Mission (8 July 2016).

The changing status of reggaeton

In 2017, “Despacito” was Daddy Yankee’s second biggest mainstream hit since “Gasolina” in 2004, and has topped the music charts within Latin America, the USA and internationally. (The song also narrowly missed out on winning the award for “Song of the Year” at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in January 2018.) Both songs highlight pivotal moments in reggaeton and its relationship with those outside of the movement. When “Gasolina” introduced reggaeton to an English-speaking audience, it became something that was “not-quite-black” and, yet, not quite white (Rivera 2015). Reggaeton became “reggaeton latino” and is “Latinised” accordingly – increasingly associated with distinctively “Latin” musical influences such as bachata, merengue and salsa, whilst downplaying any dancehall or hip-hop aesthetic which links it more intimately to Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latin American or African-American cultures. With the release of “Despacito” the genre shows similar signs of undergoing a process of whitening (blanqueamiento) as it enters, and is accepted within, mainstream popular culture.

During the time of “Gasolina” in 2004, media coverage referred to Daddy Yankee’s olive skin tone and wavy black hair which were considered typical Latin features (Rivera 2015 p.147) He was presented as non-black and described as a “whiter” reggaeton artist (Ibid.) More recently, the choice of language used by music critics and media outlets is particularly revealing of the ongoing blanqueamiento of the genre – referring to the arrival of the “light, bright Colombian reggaeton moment” (Caramanica 2017) [my emphasis].

The man responsible for leading this moment is Colombian reggaetonero, J Balvin, and he serves as a good example of the transformation that reggaeton has undergone in recent years. J Balvin is arguably the most well-known (and commercially successful) reggaetonero outside of Latin America in the last twenty-four months. His 2017 hit “Mi Gente” reached third position on the Billboard “Hot 100” – and spent thirty weeks on the chart. However, J Balvin’s story deviates from the typical narrative of a reggaeton artist. Firstly, he is not from Puerto Rico. Secondly, he is not from the barrio: J Balvin is from a middle-class family in Medellin, Colombia. Thirdly, he is white. If we consider this alongside numerous claims that he is responsible for ushering in a “second generation of reggaeton” that goes against “images of masculinity, misogyny and violence” and instead he brings a “continuum of tenderness” to the genre (NBC News 2017; Billboard magazine 2017; New York Times 2017), we are encouraged to view these positive alterations as synonymous with a white, middle-class influence. (Or a movement, led by Balvin, which is increasingly removed from an urban, lower-class, and black context.)

Colombian reggaetonero, Maluma, is another interesting example of an artist who has been credited with this so-called new brand of reggaeton. Consider the following excerpt from an interview published by Billboard magazine (2017):

[He is] soft-spoken and exceedingly polite – holding doors for others, greeting people with eye contact, firm handshakes and traditional Latin cheek kisses…Maluma’s brand of reggaetón syncs nicely with his image, managing to be both romantic and raw.

Maluma is also from Medellin and he is white. He went to a private school and spent much of his childhood and early adolescence training with semi-professional football teams. His experience(s) do not reflect the typical narratives of Latin American “street” culture – the same culture which is celebrated in the lyrics (and videography) by reggaeton artists from Puerto Rico in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Another interesting example is Nicky Jam – a reggaetonero raised in a neighbourhood called Barrio Obrero in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Currently, there is much focus on his “reinvention” – a narrative that will be explored in an upcoming bio-series commissioned by Netflix called “Nicky Jam: El Ganador” in 2018. It will follow “his ups and downs, from early drug use and prison to his rise to global success” (Netflix 2018). What is interesting here is the associations made (implicitly or explicitly) between his newly-found “global success” and the type of reggaeton he is involved with in recent years. Nicky Jam has been a part of the reggaeton scene for decades and his earlier work mirrors the “ground zero” style typical of the 1990s Puerto Rican underground scene. However, it was only when he was “adopted” by Medellin, Colombia (where he relocated to overcome his alcohol and drug problems), did his rebirth or “renaissance” come about (Billboard 2017). In his earlier music career, Nicky Jam raps over fast-paced beats and uses rhetoric such as: ‘Ahora viene Nicky Jam con un disco más violento...’ and ‘A ella le gusta que le den duro y se la coman.’

The music Nicky Jam has been making since his comeback in 2012 is noticeably different. (2) Firstly, he sings. Secondly, much of what he has released (or collaborated with) has more of a romantic, melodic or softer tone. In the music video to his song, “Juegos Prohibidos” released in 2012, the opening scene is of Nicky Jam (and a male friend) talking casually in a parked car whilst both eating a lollipop. It is worth noting that this song opens with the lyric: ‘Yo se que tu estas con él y por eso no puedo mirarte y tengo que respetar.’ It all seems like a far-cry from the infamously derogative and sexist reputation of reggaeton lyrics. Another example is the music video for his 2014 hit (it spent eighteen weeks as number one on Billboard’s “Hot Latin Songs” chart), “Hasta el Amanecer.” Filmed in a laundrette, the female love-interest is fully-clothed and all the dancing is done by Nicky Jam himself – at certain points he dances playfully with a mop. (3) In one of the final scenes, an elderly woman enters the laundrette, and he helps her with a basket of laundry. He seems to have distanced himself from “old school” reggaeton and is essentially making “baladas urbanas” (Remezcla 2017).

Let us contrast this with Daddy Yankee’s arrival to mainstream music in the US in 2004. Rivera (2015) notes that media coverage at the time focused on the artist’s “biography of urban life” above other stand-out details about his upbringing and young adulthood. In turn, Daddy Yankee arguably used his experiences of the San Juan caserios (notably, gun violence – he was caught in a crossfire and was shot) to authenticate his use of a genre with strong ties to urban “street” life. Whilst Daddy Yankee used his biography to link him to the urban or “street” subculture which he considers an integral part of belonging to the reggaeton movement, Nicky Jam, as part of the “new” reggaeton movement, distances himself from his biography and, by default, the reggaeton scene he was once a part of.

Why does this matter?

Why are these claims that J Balvin, Maluma and Nicky Jam represent the “recent resurgence” of reggaeton problematic? After all, there is good reason to celebrate the commercial success and international profile of reggaeton in its current form. Arguably, its growing popularity focuses wider attention on a previously “forgotten continent” (Reid 2017) – lending a platform for the stories and culture of Latin America to a global audience. The question is: which stories and culture(s)? Does reggaeton still reflect the realities of Latin America?

Gamez Torres (2012) argues that, when it first appeared in Latin American countries in the 1990s, the rejection of reggaeton was a racially-charged response against a group of people who broke into the cultural sphere without permission. Taking this argument a step further, when reggaeton became popular beyond the geographical borders of Latin America in the early 2000s, this resentment persisted and led to the repackaging of reggaeton as increasingly “Latino” and, therefore, whiter. Media coverage continues to replicate the distinction between the Latin American experience as represented by reggaeton, and the Afro-Latin American and -American experience as represented by hip-hop, stalling any attempts for a) the concepts of hip-hop and reggaeton to be reconciled and b) the potential for a black, Latin American identity and experience to be recognised and celebrated on an international stage.

Today, reggaeton as a music movement looks different to what it did in the early 1990s – and even the early 2000s. However, as the contemporary reggaeton movement distances itself from the earlier styles – it confirms and reinforces negative societal beliefs about hip-hop and its associated urban, black and lower-class culture. For example, reggaetoneros in recent years, have been credited for transforming a style of music that was once “hard, fast and aggressive” (Coscarelli 2016).

However, reggaeton in its hip-hop-oriented style still exists. Enter: “Trap Latino”. Mirroring its hip-hop equivalent in the US (trap music), the genre sounds less like the current wave of soft pop-like tunes of the new style of reggaeton – notably omitting tropical-infused melodies and returning to the “grittier” lyrical and acoustic style of the earlier reggaeton sound of the 1990s. Also, it has become an outlet for predominantly Puerto Rican artists.

However, what the world now knows and refers to as “reggaeton” is forefronted by artists who are not framed as part of the communities and narratives it once spoke for, and who often explicitly place themselves outside of it. It is revealing how Nicky Jam, for example, positions himself (as a reggaetonero) in relation to hip-hop. In an interview with US radio station, Hot ‘97, in March 2018, he explains his surprise to be invited onto the show:

For me Hot 97 it was just something… you gotta be a hip hop artist to be there. It’s unreal for me. I’m a reggaeton artist, I sing Spanish music… where the beat is not hip-hop [sic].

Whilst this might be interpreted as a throw-away comment, it is representative of the general consensus in regards to how removed reggaeton is from the everyday realities of the urban, black and working-class communities it was born from. Therefore, we need to be conscious of the language we use when speaking about the styles of music emerging from Latin America. The “reggaeton” of recent years is no longer the música negra that emerged from the Hispanic Caribbean – it no longer predominately acts as a barometer for the experiences of discrimination and marginalisation faced by Afro-Latin Americans. Looking ahead, “Trap Latino” resonates more strongly with Latin Americans or Latinos who feel an affinity with hip-hop culture and the people it speaks to (and speaks for). So, as the internationalisation of this music genre continues, it is important that we counterbalance the popular image of reggaeton with a reminder that it no longer necessarily represents the diverse social, cultural and racial realities of Latin America today.

1 These are songs that have done very well commercially-speaking and have crossed over to English-speaking markets. Daddy Yankee’s song, “Gasolina”, was released in 2004; “Despacito” (song by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee) was released in 2017.
2 “Lean Back [tiraera pa Daddy Yankee]” and “ En la Cama ” in 2004 and 2001, respectively.
3 See: s

Lauren Chalk has studied at Royal Holloway, University of London, and UCL – and currently works at the Jewish Museum London. Upcoming projects include Jewish life in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the links between anti-Semitism and colonialism.

Lauren is interested in cultural representations of Latin America – and has previously researched representations of Latin American culture and art in UK museums and galleries. In particular, she wants to explore further the relationship between representation(s) and sociopolitical events.

You can follow Lauren on Instagram @laurengchalk

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