ila, a German magazine devoted to Latin America published a special issue on reggaeton this summer, including an interview with yours truly. If you kann ein bisschen Duetsch lesen (like those of us who studied vergleichende Musikwissenschaft in graduate school), then you can click on that link in the last sentence and read it there.
If not, allow me to share our exchange in English, which is how it happened. This took place back in May, and I would have a lot more to say about some of these questions at this point in this year, but I’ll no doubt have another chance soon — yet another lingering “Despacito effect.” But more on that luego/pronto.
For now, please read on for questions by Britt Weyde, editor of ila, in italics, followed by some answers.
BW: After the „despacito effect“ in 2017 – What’s the actual position of Reggaetón according to your opinion?
W&W: Reggaeton is as popular as ever, at a grassroots and industry level, and on a national/regional as well as global scale. Reggaeton enjoys a strong presence across the pop / club landscapes of the United States, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, and the wider world. YouTube not only bears witness to Despacito’s staggering 5 billion views but to a remarkable presence of reggaeton artists and tracks among the top viewed videos of all time.
BW: The worldwide success of Reggaeton – is it simply demographics (increasing latino population in the US, migrated latino Diaspora in Europe, i.e. Spain)? – or are there other reasons, for example the immense possibilities/capability of the genre to merge/fuse/integrate always other/new musical styles? Is it because Reggaeton already had started as a hybrid genre it easily continues developing/integrating other styles?
W&W: I think demographics play a role in terms of the genre’s ability to establish metropolitan beachheads around the world, but I also think you’re right that there’s a broader aesthetic resonance there. To my ears, it has a lot to do with how reggaeton takes up dancehall’s modern, electronic distillation of a classic Afrodiasporic rhythm. It’s a rhythm that itself undergirds so much of reggaeton’s ability to integrate and fuse with kindred genres. Indeed, while the sound of reggaeton has changed profoundly over the last 20 years — in step with broader trends in hip-hop, dancehall, and global club music — that bedrock rhythm has remained its lynchpin.
BW: Who are the most important/interesting artists representing the genre nowadays (according to your opinion, male and female)?
W&W: This question demands that we think about the genre’s contents — and discontents. Who represents the genre? Who has the authority to say so? Depending on how and where you locate the genre (and its boundaries), you may find that the most interesting or important things, in terms of stylistic innovation and a re-imagination of the genre’s contents, are happening along those borders of the genre (which, as I’ve chronicled, are often intensely policed and debated by reggaeton enthusiasts).
Though it had been floating around since the mid-90s, the term reggaeton only really came to prominence around 2003. Prior to that, artists and audiences were as likely to call it dembow, underground, Spanish reggae, or just reggae — or possibly even melaza (molasses) in Puerto Rico or petróleo (oil) in Panama, terms clearly linked to the genre’s black, working-class base. During the genre’s 2004-08 heyday, all manner of artists were happy to hitch their wagons to reggaeton, but after the hype died down (and perhaps a certain oversaturation), a number of artists sought to distance themselves from it, preferring more vague terms such as “música urbana.” Someone like Residente of Calle 13 rose to prominence on the reggaeton wave but he has long since embraced a range of other styles. Is he (still) a reggaeton artist? He’s definitely making some of the most ambitious and incisive music on the planet right now.
More recently, we’ve seen the rise of Latin trap as an alternative approach for a new generation of Puerto Rican and Latin American artists, and something like the #neoperreo movement queers the genre in more ways than one. Should we consider any of the artists associated with those movements part of the wider reggaeton genre? Are “soundcloud rappers” and DIY dembow scenes part of reggaeton? Are artists from the Dominican Republic, or elsewhere, who use reggaeton rhythms as part of a broader musical palette part of the genre? In which case, Amara La Negra definitely deserves attention for the ways she challenges racism within the music industry.
If the Despacito effect now entails a new wave of reggaeton, branded as such, centered in Colombia, should we consider someone like J Balvin a reggaeton artist? He’s making a strong play for global pop crossover stardom; as such, he’s certainly interesting as a force in bringing Spanish-language songs into the Anglo mainstream, and via reggaeton’s hallmark rhythms. Inevitably, such efforts will reshape the contours of the genre yet again — and inspire no end of debates.
BW: Is Colombia the new Reggaetón hotspot (since Reggaeton Superstars like Maluma, J. Balvin come from there and Nicky Jam lived there for a while)?
W&W: Clearly, Colombian artists have been making major waves for a few years now, and I might go so far as to argue that, where it once resided in San Juan, New York, or Colón, reggaeton’s new capital is arguably Medellín. Although Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee are Puerto Rican, “Despacito” was co-written with a Colombian songwriter, produced by Colombian producers, and initially pitched at the Latin American audience that increasingly looks to Colombia for reggaeton hits. The success of J. Balvin, Maluma, Karol G and others are part and parcel of this wave. Despite the expansion of audience and market-share for the genre this represents, this Colombian turn is not seen by all as a positive development. Some have argued that the Colombian industry has “sanded down” reggaeton’s rough edges to produce a slicker, pop-ready sound, an aesthetic form of gentrification, blanqueamiento / whitewashing, perhaps even appropriation.
BW: What about the postcolonial promise you named in your article “from Música negra to Reggaetón Latino” – that of a convivial, cosmopolitan multiculture – on the musical level we might have got another step closer, but regarding politics we seem far more away?
W&W: Indeed, one might hear global pop today sounding as convivial and cosmopolitan as ever, undergirded by Afrodiasporic rhythms, open to far-flung musical references, and even increasingly multilingual. Meanwhile, we seem to behold a deeply acrimonious social wedge being driven between people based on racism and xenophobia. The fact that a Spanish-language song like “Despacito” would dominate the US and global pop charts during Trump’s first year in office seems downright paradoxical. For me, it actually signals that the vast majority of people are not xenophobes and do not want to build huge walls, whether physical or cultural. For all the “top-down” industry meddling that can structure things, I still think of popular music as a deeply “bottom-up” movement, and the abiding (and sometimes surging) popularity of reggaeton perhaps prefigures the next political wave to come. People who have been voting “with their feet” so to speak, dancing along to beloved polyrhythms, may one day vote together with their ballots too, though that might be an optimistic assessment of the present political circumstances.
BW: With artists like Fonsi, Maluma, Nicky Jam, J.Balvin, Natti Natasha and even Europeans like Enrique Iglesias – Did we reach another stadium of whitewashing the original mostly black music? (exception regarding mainstream superstars is Ozuna)?
W&W: I think one can make the case that, yes, the artists most effectively able to exploit reggaeton in the mass market are artists who are less constrained by anti-blackness. The “mainstream” — which is to say, middle-class consumption — at least in the United States but also across the post-colonial world, is still a sphere of racialized class order. From Elvis and the Rolling Stones through Eminem and Justin Bieber, this has been the case. I believe this is less an indictment of any of the artists that we’re discussing here, however, and more an indictment of white supremacy.
BW: In mainstream reggaetón lyrics refer mostly to romanticism and love, in many hits the reggaetoneros not only rap, nowadays they also sing (p.g. Nicky Jam, Fonsi, Iglesias) – is this still reggaeton or simply latin pop?
W&W: This line, between reggaeton and Latin pop, has often been a blurry one. Certainly, many reggaetoneros have aspired to the level of success that would allow them to operate as pop stars rather than be confined to a smaller genre. Stylistically speaking, reggaetoneros have always mixed rapping with singing, which is the Jamaican way too. If anything, we can hear the recent pop-ification of reggaeton more in the “clean” production values that characterize the Colombian style. That said, Luny Tunes and other producers were pushing reggaeton in that direction during the genre’s initial heyday, and it’s worth remembering that reggaeton itself became Latin pop on its own terms before this more recent turn in which we might hear a more thorough remaking of reggaeton style by pop-leaning producers. Originally, reggaeton was a DIY music made by working-class producers who reveled in their ability to exploit recording technologies — and let these sonic seams proudly show; today, reggaeton is increasingly produced by middle-class or elite producers who approach it not as a tradition but as a stylistic palette.
BW: What do you think about the discussion about cultural appropriation? Most recent example: the discussion roundabout lesbian reggaetonera “Chocolate remix” from Argentina
W&W: As long as racialized, patriarchal structural inequality persists, we’re going to have these debates. Reggaeton itself emerges on the margins, but as a rather macho cultural formation, it also reproduces certain forms of oppression too — especially in terms of gender and sexuality. I’ve tried to chart certain openings with regard to some of reggaeton’s “harder” stances about gender roles or sexual identities, and I think there is a great deal happening in different local scenes that challenges some of these “established” features of the genre. Given a certain degree of exclusion and objectification, I think that women and queer artists should feel free to “appropriate” the genre for their own ends, especially if in service of political critique and intervention. As I explored in my chapter in our Reggaeton book, a great deal of ink has been spilled over whether reggaeton is essentially the property of Jamaicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, Latinos, “morenos,” etc. Discussions about appropriation are, at bottom, about the question of who has the right to exploit some piece of (common / communal) property and whether they reside in or outside the circle.
BW: Some of the successful reggaetoneros of the moment are doing also Trap, recovering in these tracks the gansta/macho/blinblin/objectifying women “aesthetics” (p.e. maluma – cuatro babies, ozuna – la occasion) – is Trap digging Reggaetons grave?
W&W: Given reggaeton’s recent comeback and the fact that it has maintained popularity in so many places, it is hard for me to imagine it being swiftly or simply pushed aside by something like Latin trap. Because reggaeton moved away from hip-hop references at a certain point, the genres now seem further away from each other than, say, reggaeton from dancehall reggae. But hip-hop has always been a part of reggaeton, and Latin trap — and its inevitable intersections with reggaeton — just represents another set of possibilities for collaboration and stylistic innovation.
BW: Regarding gender – there are still not so many women doing reggaeton (or at least having big success) – why?
W&W: As I mentioned above, reggaeton remains a fairly macho genre, and the entire industry is, of course, part of the wider patriarchal culture and society we live in. This has made it difficult for women to succeed in the genre, until fairly recently, unless they were willing to play the sing-song, subservient foil: e.g., Glory or Jenny La Sexy Voz. One big exception of course is Ivy Queen, though it’s notable that she came to prominence by being as tough and fierce as any man in the genre. This is remarkably similar in some ways to the rise of women rappers, many of whom approached the art as hyper-competitive and took up the themes of powerful braggadocio that characterized their male peers’ performances. Over time, though, as we have seen in hip-hop, there are always ways to subvert or break that mold, and in the same way we’ve seen a wider range of possibilities emerge among hip-hop artists (and both men and women, notably), I believe reggaeton has that potential too. Indeed, the number of women participating as artists is as large as ever and offers quite a range of approaches.
BW: On the other hand: regarding lyrics, we don’t have the monolithic macho structures anymore, in J.Balvins “Ambiente” the girl he’s interested in is kissing another girl, or Maluma is up to a quite polyamory stile in his “Felizes los cuatro” – do you share these observations?
W&W: Yes, exactly, and I think this also mirrors popular culture more widely, which has softened in its ideas about policing ideas about gender and sexuality. This is as true for, say, mainstream television as it is for, say, hip-hop and dancehall and reggaeton.
BW: What are legendary producers like Luny Tunes doing today? In ´”The chosen few” they said they would like to do things together with “the Neptunes” (but Pharell is featured in Malumas “Safari” instead) … And some of the reggaetoneros present in “the chosen few” have still success nowadays (Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam …) what about the others?
W&W: I’m afraid I don’t know what they’re up to at the moment! I wish I’d had a chance to ask DJ Nelson last week. I haven’t really kept tabs on all of these artists, though their “disappearance” is in no way exceptional for popular music. There’s always a lot of turnover and churn. It’s not an easy way to make a career. That said, this does make the careers of Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam all the more remarkable. Twenty years of popular success is impressive in any genre.