Reggaetón, the Latin American ambassador to the world

Imagen de un artista sobre un pódium con los brazos estirados, con la sombra de la estatua del premio de los Oscars detrás de él, y en el segundo plano, un edificio representando las instituciones políticas en quiebre.

Illustration by CONNECTAS

This article was written by Grisha Vera for CONNECTAS, then republished and edited by Global Voices under a media agreement.

Being on the photo cover of Time magazine is something that very few public figures in any field achieve; much less in a language other than English, and from a Latin musical genre. But that was exactly what Bad Bunny achieved in March 2023. A month earlier, the Puerto Rican artist starred in the opening ceremony of the Grammy Awards.

Bad Bunny, ‘el conejo malo’, was the Latin American artist who earned the most money in the world in 2022 and has positioned himself as the most listened to artist on Spotify for three consecutive years. All this while singing in Spanish and mostly reggaetón.

Taylor Swift dancing while Benito sings is what you didn't know you needed to see

Criticism against this urban genre has proliferated since it began more than 20 years ago. One critique comes from those who think that it is a bad example for younger generations. However, it is an increasingly influential genre in regard to different social aspects, such as gender roles or politics. In addition, its presence — like that of several Latino artists — has an undeniable growth in other regions.

While the Latin American region loses economic and political weight in the global arena, it is conquering the world on stage. The importance of this cultural expansion, which often goes unnoticed, can represent a golden opportunity to promote the region's interests in the world.

The beginning of reggaetón's international rise

Marco Antonio Chávez Aguayo, a researcher at the Virtual University System of the University of Guadalajara, Mexico, explains that in the 20th century, with the rise of the industry, recordings, and other rhythms, “the pole shifted from Europe to the United States. So American products like pop, rap, and hip-hop began to dominate. I think that now—I don't know if it's too soon to say it—we Latinos are the pole.”

Víctor Lenore, a Spanish journalist, wrote in 2020 that Bad Bunny was the new Bob Dylan. Nowadays he notices a greater influence of Latin American popular culture in the United States and in the world in general. “For example, in Spain there is an almost unconscious colonial prejudice to think that the things coming from Latin America are not as important as those coming from London, New York, and Los Angeles. Fortunately, young people who are now 15, 25, or 30 years old, no longer have this bias. They listen to Latin music much more naturally and this is one of the most decisive factors.”

It is the same in the case of the artists. Nowadays they do not have biases and respect their cultural roots, explains Lenore. “For example, Julio Iglesias, who was an artist with huge popularity, when he wanted to conquer the Latin American market, he went to live in Los Angeles and recorded an album in English aimed at American listeners. This had already [started to] change, there were very important precedents, especially in Mexico, such as Luis Miguel and Juan Gabriel who refused to record an album in English.”

And he points out one more reason for the success of reggaetón: social networks. “The Anglo-Saxon industry always prefers to promote its artists. But suddenly, because of the YouTube algorithm based on the songs listened to, the listener is directed to another Latin song. This has been fundamental in the paradigm shift and in the fact that nowadays Latin American artists can compete with the Anglo-Saxons,” he told CONNECTAS.

The evolution of reggaetón

From the pioneers of reggaetón at the end of the nineties, to the Bad Bunny boom, much has changed, and nowadays the artists even promote values such as feminism. For Chávez, also known as Dr. Reggaetón, this evolution has allowed him to be one of the central figures in music in this century. “Both ‘underground’ and ‘mainstream’ artists have made reggaetón a vehicle for messages that precisely go against machismo, colonialism and many other things.”

In conversation with CONNECTAS, Chávez points out another change: the empowerment of women. “Bichota (one of the hits of the Colombian reggaetón singer Karol G) comes from ‘bitch’. This means: I'm the best bitch; I'm the bitch; I'm the one who makes the decisions; I have control over my body, over my relationships, over my emotions… In other words, phrases that were not heard at the beginning of reggaetón or in other genres.”

The collaborations between artists and the mixture of Latin rhythms are also highly used resources of this genre, adds the researcher. “Not all the songs are entirely reggaetón, many of them are mixed with other rhythmic traditions such as salsa, cumbia, samba, tango, bachata, and flamenco.” The mixes allow the region's musical variety to be showcased to the world, while the collaborations between singers allow them to expand their markets.

Moreover, Chávez points out that reggaetón is also produced outside of the Latin world. “I have seen good reggaetón from India, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Poland, Finland, Korea, Japan, China, Australia… Well, the number is huge.” The songs on his list have at least one phrase in Spanish and are mixed with local rhythms.

Reggaetón's global influence

While the region's music industries are only growing globally, issues of interest to Latin America are still far removed from the international political agenda. Currently, no Latin American leader enjoys the influence that many reggaetón artists do.

Eduardo Torres Arancivia, a Peruvian historian, explains that the political discussion about ideologies and their relationship with power does not interest young people as before. “But art appears to get them out of that reality that seems so complex or so frustrating, because art is also a way of escape. Art in its catharsis generates an alternate universe where it is possible to achieve what cannot be attained in political reality.”

Lenore adds that the problem of political leadership is global. “Simply the political leaders, the parties, the unions have less and less power. So they are not able to change things a lot, so we trust them less.”

And he remarks that artists, on the other hand, have a lot of influence as social leaders. “Reggaetón is criticized because it promotes a lifestyle of crime, and that's partly right, but on the other hand, as Daddy Yankee himself says: before me singing, the kids in my neighborhood wanted to be drug dealers; afterward, everyone wants to be a singer.”

He also recalls how Ricky Martin, Residente, and Bad Bunny participated in the protests in 2019 against the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, after audio leaks revealed his corrupt and homophobic attitudes. “Bad Bunny did what I think is the greatest possible political act: turn down money in order to join a popular protest. He was on tour in Europe charging half a million and a million euros per concert and he returned to San Juan to promote these popular protests.”

Bad Bunny y Residente están encabezando las protestas en contra del gobernador de Puerto Rico. Su papel es fundamental en las revueltas. Vivimos tiempos en donde las manifestaciones no las encabezan sindicalistas, sino referentes culturales. Y esto no es ni mejor, ni peor.

— Isabel Serrano (@isabelsd99) July 18, 2019

Bad Bunny and Residente are leading the protests against the governor of Puerto Rico. Their role is fundamental in the revolts. We live in times when demonstrations are not led by trade unionists, but by cultural leaders. And this is neither better nor worse.

For Torres, this is only a specific fact, as he explains that there is almost no political participation of many artists, at least in the traditional way. And while this might be true, for taking a stand against a particular leader or ideology there are many other ways to influence public debate, how the world is perceived and how it can be transformed.

For example, Lenore thinks it is odd that in societies that carry the flag against imperialism, the anti-imperialist power of reggaetón is not understood. “That intuition and effort to create a festive, danceable and more hedonistic rap is the most anti-imperialist thing that can be done, because basically it is rejecting the cultural products that your dominating power tries to sell you.” Bad Bunny expressed this clearly in the interview with El País: “You have to break that thing that gringos are gods… No, papi [‘daddy’].”

In addition, the successes that Latinos reap in other branches of the cultural industries, such as Hollywood, are very important but not comparable to the influence of popular music or Latin American literature in the years of the ‘boom’ of second half of the 20th century.

Chávez is optimistic: “I think that all this can serve as a reference to understand the importance of the momentum that reggaetón is having, its role in generating great interest in something specific to us, which is not an artificial creation, but very organic. It began to promote other traditions that belong to us, including our language, our way of thinking, of celebrating, of being.”

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