‘Inherently Black and inherently political’: Afro-latinos are leading a racial reckoning of Reggaeton

Reggaeton grew out of Black music genres, but following the murder of George Floyd, many of the genre’s biggest stars were conspicuously quiet. Now, Afro-Latinos are pushing Raggaeton to recognise its heritage, writes Bethonie Butler

Thursday 10 December 2020 11:12 GMT
<p>Daddy Yankee</p>

Daddy Yankee

When artists across the music industry began speaking out against racial injustice following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, “King of Reggaeton” Daddy Yankee and Calle 13 rapper Residente were among them. But many of reggaeton’s biggest stars stayed conspicuously silent.

There was nothing from Bad Bunny, the charismatic Puerto Rican rapper and outspoken LGBT+ ally who was a visible (and audible) figure in the protests that led to the resignation of Puerto Rico's governor. Fans called out others for tone-deaf posts: Colombian breakout Karol G tweeted a photo of a dog with black and white spots, tweeting in Spanish that it was “the perfect example” of how beautiful white and black looks together. J Balvin included the Black Lives Matter hashtag alongside a video of himself dancing with a Black woman.

Those messages highlighted the growing dissonance between reggaeton's origins in poor, marginalised communities in Puerto Rico and Panama and the genre's contemporary and increasingly global image. Reggaeton and its offshoots – including Latin trap – grew out of Black music genres including reggae, dancehall and rap. Reggaeton is inherently Black and inherently political: poverty, racism, police violence and the genre's own criminalisation were persistent themes in the genre's early days, anchored by Afro-Latino pioneers including Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen and reggae en Español legend El General.

The clumsy platitudes from some of reggaeton's chart-topping stars failed to honour that legacy and overlooked the systemic racism experienced by Afro-Latinos. And it wasn't just fans who took note of the erasure: Gloria “Goyo” Martinez, lead singer of the Afro-Colombian hip-hop trio ChocQuibTown, shared an emotional open letter via Billboard, lamenting some of the uninformed statements she had seen on social media.

“(Saying) that we are all equal negates racism and discrimination,” Goyo wrote in Spanish. “I read superficial messages that allow people to keep saying something that is not true.” Her letter also referenced Anderson Arboleda, a 24-year-old Afro-Colombian man who died in May after a Colombian police officer allegedly struck him on the head with a baton.

The discourse reflected issues that extend beyond the music industry: namely racial politics in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the notion of a national, multiracial identity – mestizaje – has long been emphasised over individual race. Fans and critics have for years urged reggaeton, now overwhelmingly dominated by white or light-skinned Latinos, to acknowledge and honour its Black roots. The backlash to the reggaeton community's uneven response amid a heightened movement around racial justice brought that desire into renewed focus. It marks a pivotal moment for the once-underground genre, which has become a force in contemporary pop music.

Slow Mike (left), Goyo and Tostao Valencia of Chocquibtown

Amid the scrutiny in early June, J Balvin and Karol G apologised for their posts and pledged to educate themselves. Bad Bunny emerged from a social media hiatus to share a “lyrical statement” with Time magazine and later commissioned “Black Lives Matter” to be painted on murals across Puerto Rico. Reflecting on the criticism in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, the rapper admitted he had only recently begun to grasp the disparities that Afro-Latinos - including icons like Calderón - have faced in the music industry.

That's largely because the industry is structured in a way that allows white artists to thrive, says Katelina Eccleston, a reggaeton scholar who explores the genre's history on her website, Reggaeton con la Gata.

“If you look at the hiring and the talent in all levels in the industry, it's just lacking diversity,” Eccleston says. “And that translates into the decision-making.”

Take this year's Super Bowl halftime show, for example. For all the gains made by putting Latin music at the centre of the marquee event where Bad Bunny and J Balvin performed alongside headliners Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, the show did little to reflect the full diversity of Latin culture.

And while Afro-Latino artists are gaining visibility in the industry, Eccleston says it's limited: “When we look at the artists who are singing this very Black music, Black women are missing completely.”

In the music video, Pabón lies on the ground with an officer's knee against his neck. His eyes remain fixed on the camera

In early June, Eccleston, an Afro-Panamanian Boston native, penned an op-ed for the Latin culture site Remezcla, arguing that as purveyors of “one of the genres most indebted to Black music and culture,” more reggaeton stars should have been ready and wiling to speak out about systemic racism. She soon found herself on a group chat with artists, publicists and other tastemakers from the Latin hip-hop community, a brainstorm that helped yield the Conciencia Collective, an alliance of industry insiders and executives hoping to raise awareness around racial injustice and other issues.

The collective has united the community in responding to an important moment in history, says Goyo, one of the artists spearheading the effort. As its first initiative, the collective paired with We Are Mitú to host a series of YouTube conversations called Conciencia Talk, covering such topics as mental health, police brutality and white privilege.

Goyo knows these discussions can be fraught. She made headlines back in June for her pointed response to Karol G, using the “Tusa” singer as an example of an artist profiting off Black culture while understanding little about racial disparities.

Gloria ‘Goyo’ Martínez

Amid the raw emotions surrounding Floyd's killing, “a lot of people took it as me trying to make her feel bad,” Goyo says in Spanish, noting her intention was simply to educate. “Sometimes we make a mistake and we don't have anyone to say 'listen, you're wrong on this.' Human beings are always growing.”

ChocQuibTown has long celebrated both parts of their Afro-Latin identity. In 2010, four years after their indie debut, the group won a Latin Grammy for “De Donde Vengo Yo,” a joyful homage to their native Chocó, a predominantly Black department on the Colombia-Panama border. “We have problems but we are happy,” they chant in the song, which name-checks the area's rich biodiversity and culture but also notes that racism and internalised self-hatred are prevalent.

“Before (Floyd's death), we were always wanting to have these conversations and there was almost never space for that,” says Goyo. “It's not talked about.”

This year, some of the most poignant statements against systemic racism and police violence have come from Afro-Latinos who are charting innovative paths in reggaeton and Latin trap - and are perhaps more visible than ever in the genre's pop era.

Just weeks after Floyd's death, emerging Puerto Rican rapper Rafa Pabón released “Sin Aire” (“Without Air”), a piercing freestyle that references Floyd and other victims of police killings. In the music video, Pabón lies on the ground with an officer's knee against his neck. His eyes remain fixed on the camera as he raps: “Le temo más a un policía que a un criminal / No me llega aire pa' respirar señor oficial” (I fear a cop more than a criminal / I can't breathe, Mr. Officer).

Murals of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In July, Myke Towers released “Michael X,” in which he channels Malcolm X. “Orgulloso de ser negro, la gente sabe como soy,” Towers raps. “Que en paz descanse George Floyd” (I'm proud to be Black, the people know how I am / Rest in peace, George Floyd). The Puerto Rico native (born Michael Torres) told Grammy.com he felt a responsibility to speak out “as a Latin artist who has been heavily influenced by Black culture.”

Sech wears his support for “Black Lives Matter” – literally, with a hoodie featuring the phrase - in the music video for the “Porfa” remix, a star-studded collab featuring J Balvin, Maluma and Nicky Jam, among others, released in July. In an interview with The Post, Sech said the hoodie was a subtle but enduring way to show support. “It's a little thing but, everybody, when they see the video now, tomorrow – in one year – they can remember: Black Lives Matter.”

Before he attracted the attention of producer (and fellow Panamanian) Dimelo Flow a few years ago, Sech worked in the construction and food service industries. Seeing Floyd and other victims of police violence, Sech says, “I feel like that's me. Or that could be my brother.”

Along with his sometime collaborator Ozuna, Sech has become one of the most visible Afro-Latinos in reggaeton – and critics say his Panamanian roots evoke reggaeton's early influences. He burst onto the scene last year with the post-breakup ballad “Otro Trago,” an R&B-tinged track that topped the Hot Latin Songs chart, and has teamed up with heavyweights including Daddy Yankee, Bad Bunny and Nando Boom, a pioneering reggae en Español singer.

Bad Bunny accepts the Top Latin Artist Award onstage at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards

Lito MC Cassidy, an Afro-Puerto Rican rapper who rose to fame as one half of the Nineties duo Lito y Polaco, said he's particularly encouraged by Sech's ascent. He recalls going to TV appearances where make-up artists would try to alter his appearance and that of other Black musicians. To see an artists with similar features climbing the charts, Lito says, “I was clapping, like ... 'you made it!'” The rapper credits fans and social media, in part, for helping to move the genre forward, beyond an implicitly white image. “People are talking and choosing what they like,” Lito says. “So, I think this is the best opportunity to make a change. But it has to be consistent.”

Eccleston, of Reggaeton con la Gata, sees potential progress in the discussions and initiatives that have happened this year. But “there needs to be more diversity in the talent, period,” she says. “I don't feel great always having to mention Sech every time we're talking about diversity.”

Daddy Yankee's 2004 hit “Gasolina” became the first reggaeton song to be nominated for a Latin Grammy award, making way for the genre's evolution on the pop charts. But the annual awards show has had a tenuous relationship with the reggaeton community.

Art is created for us to reflect on everything that affects us, it's created to make us feel free and to say what we feel without fear

A number of artists, including Yankee and J Balvin, skipped the Latin Grammys in 2019 in protest of the annual awards show’s perpetual snubbing of reggaeton, particularly in the top categories. “Si no hay reggaeton, no hay Latin Grammy” (Without reggaeton, there is no Latin Grammy), artists shared on their platforms.

The social media campaign, which prompted the Latin Recording Academy to add a reggaeton category, echoed criticism that Black US artists have also directed at the Recording Academy, but seemed to ignore the unsettling racial subtext of relegating reggaeton to the ceremony's few urban categories.

That isolation played out in a debate-provoking way last year when Spanish phenomenon Rosalía cleaned up at the awards show, winning album of the year (the first woman to do so in 13 years) and best contemporary pop vocal album for her acclaimed pop-flamenco fusion debut El Mal Querer, and urban song of the year for her reggaeton duet with J Balvin, “Con Altura.” The collab beat Sech's “Otro Trago” in the latter category, leading many fans to bemoan the Latin Recording Academy's missed opportunity to honour – as Mic put it – “one of reggaeton's brightest stars”.

For some, her success highlighted the ease with which white artists can experiment with so-called urban genres and be celebrated for it. Similar criticism revolved around “Despacito,” a Yankee-featured track that took Luis Fonsi, a decidedly Latin pop star, to the top of the Billboard 100 for a record-setting 16 weeks.

Daddy Yankee on stage in Puerto Rico last year

When the Latin Grammy nominations were announced in September, with Bad Bunny, Ozuna and Balvin dominating the top categories, the Associated Press dubbed it a reggaeton redemption. None of them triumphed in top categories at last week's ceremony, though they were honoured in various urban categories.

Residente won song of the year for “René,” a stirring, nearly eight-minute reflection on his mental health struggles. A favourite of the Latin Recording Academy, the socially conscious Calle 13 frontman started his career in reggaeton and still collaborates in the space.

“Art wasn't created to 'make history' or set records,” the rapper said in his acceptance speech from Puerto Rico. “Art is created for us to reflect on everything that affects us, it's created to make us feel free and to say what we feel without fear.”

“Tonight, I see a lot of talent, but I also see a lot of fear,” he added.

Six months after the conversations prompted by this year's protests, there are small strides to celebrate. Bad Bunny recently hosted Ivy Queen – a feminist icon – on the remix for “Yo Perreo Sola,” about a woman who finds freedom in dancing alone. “He made space for me and gave me my flowers while I'm still alive to enjoy them,” she told Entertainment Weekly before the ceremony, where she performed as part of a tribute to salsa legend Héctor Lavoe. “ I'm still overwhelmed by it all.”

And ahead of the telecast, Goyo became the first Afro-Latina to be honoured as one of the Latin Grammy's leading ladies of entertainment alongside Selena Gomez, lawyer Angela N Martinez and journalist Maria Elena Salinas – visibility she knows will mean a lot to her fans of all backgrounds.

Conversations this year have opened a dialogue and given the industry “the opportunity to listen and to become familiar with some areas that Latin music maybe hasn't explored, always trying to show or sell one idea of being Latino,” Goyo says. “But we are all Latino, and we are diverse.”

© The Washington Post

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