It was a stunning sight. Onstage in 2003 at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium, five-time senator Velda González—former actress, grandmother of 11, and beloved public figure—was doing the unthinkable. Flanked by reggaeton stars Hector and Tito (a.k.a. the Bambinos), the senator, sporting tasteful makeup and a sweet, matronly smile, was lightly swinging her hips and tilting her head from side to side to a raucous reggaeton beat.
"El Disco de Reggaeton," 2004, courtesy Vale Records.
Only a year before, the same senator had led public hearings aimed at regulating reggaeton’s lyrics and the dance moves that accompany it, known as el perreo, or “doggy-style dance,” in which dancers grind against each other to the Jamaican-derived dembow rhythm that serves as reggaeton’s backbone.1 Using her reputation as a champion of women’s rights, González chastised reggaeton for its “dirty lyrics and videos full of erotic movements where girls dance virtually naked,” and for promoting perreo, which she called a “triggering factor for criminal acts.”2 Her efforts as reggaeton’s “horsewoman of the apocalypse” touched off such a media frenzy around perreo that Puerto Rican writer Ana Lydia Vega humorously noted the irony of transforming a mere dance into a national obsession.3 “To perrear or not to perrear ,” Vega wrote with characteristic flair. “Finally we have an important dilemma to fill the huge emotional vacuum that we are left with every four years by electoral victories and plebiscitary failures.”4
Originally dubbed “underground,” among other names, reggaeton is a stew of rap en español and reggae en español, cooked to perfection in the barrios and caseríos (housing projects) of Puerto Rico.5 Drawing on U.S. hip-hop and Jamaican reggae, Spanish-language rap and reggae developed parallel to each other throughout the 1980s in both Puerto Rico and Panama. Although it was initially produced by and for the island’s urban poor, by the mid-1990s, reggaeton’s explicit sexual lyrics and commentary on the violence of everyday life had caught the ears of a wary middle class that responded to the new sound with its own brand of hostility. “Many people tried to stop us,” recalled Daddy Yankee, reggaeton’s biggest star, in an interview. “As a pioneer, I think I can talk about that, about how the government tried to stop us, about how people from other social extractions . . . looked down on young people from the barrios, underestimating and seeing us as outcasts.”6
Running contrary to middle-class values, reggaeton has been attacked as immoral, as well as artistically deficient, a threat to the social order, apolitical, misogynist, a watered-down version of hip-hop and reggae, the death sentence of salsa, and a music foreign to Puerto Rico.7 In the exemplary words of the late poet Edwin Reyes, the genre is a “primitive form of musical expression” that transmits “the most elementary forms of emotion” through its “brutalizing and aggressive monotony.”8
Faced with an unprecedented and seemingly uncontrollable crime wave, the state also paid close attention to reggaeton. Associated with Puerto Rico’s poorest and blackest citizens, and their presumed disposition toward indiscriminate sexual depravity and violence, reggaeton was targeted by the island government as a dangerous criminal. In 1995, the Vice Control Division of the Puerto Rican police, assisted by the National Guard, took the unprecedented action of confiscating tapes and CDs from music stores, maintaining that the music’s lyrics were obscene and promoted drug use and violence.9 The island’s Department of Education joined in and banned underground music and baggy clothes in an effort to remove the scourge of hip-hop culture from the schools.
But slowly throughout 2003, a campaign year, the body politic began to swing the other way. It became common to see politicians besides Senator González on the campaign trail stiffly dancing reggaeton to show off their hipness and try to appeal to younger voters. By early 2007, when no one complained after Mexican pop singer Paulina Rubio told the media that her reggaeton single was a tribute to Puerto Rico, since “it is clear that reggaeton belongs to you,” writer Juan Antonio Ramos declared the war against reggaeton officially over.
“Five or seven years ago, such a statement would have been interpreted not only as an unfortunate mistake, but as a monumental insult to the dignity of the Puerto Rican people,” Ramos wrote. “Reggaeton’s success has been such that it no longer has any enemies. . . . It would not be an exaggeration to say that condemning reggaeton has become a sacrilege. It’s almost equivalent to being a bad Puerto Rican.”10
Though Ramos is overstating the point that reggaeton has no enemies—as recently as August, a local TV personality promised to explore how reggaeton is “fueling the country’s current wave of criminality”—he calls attention to the genre’s trajectory from a feared and marginalized genre rising out of Puerto Rico’s poorest neighborhoods to the island’s primary musical export.11 How could such a dramatic change happen so quickly? How did reggaeton become the dominant sound of the “national” soundtrack? How did a Spanish-language musical phenomenon originating in a poor colonial possession of the United States make it so big that even its former enemies must now pretend to like it?
In a nutshell: commercial success—achieved, however, in the most unexpected of ways.
It is a great irony that the road to reggaeton glory was paved with the best intentions of the genre’s very detractors. While reggaeton exploded across Puerto Rico, the media, religious organizations, and cultural gatekeepers coalesced to contain and regulate it, producing a chain of events with unanticipated consequences. The intent may have been to crush reggaeton, but the result was quite the opposite.
Ivy Queen, "Sentimiento," 2007, courtesy Univision Music Grp.
Before the media paid attention and the state seized on reggaeton as a convenient symbol of the country’s social woes, the genre was largely a contained class phenomenon. But the efforts to censor reggaeton transformed it from marginal to notorious, boosting its appeal as the new idiom of rebellion for many of the island’s youth. “It’s only logical,” Ivy Queen, the genre’s lone female star, has said. “When you prohibit something, that’s when a kid will most want to know about it. Velda González gave us the best promotion, because she sparked the whole world’s curiosity. We have to be grateful for that. She helped us commercialize the genre.”12
Once reggaeton burst out of the barrio, it became impossible to repress for a second reason: It was “real.” In contrast to the commercialized and sanitized rap en español and salsa romántica that largely replaced the barrio-centric lyrics of salsa’s classic period, reggaeton spoke directly to the social conditions prevalent in the country: outrageous unemployment rates of up to 65% in some towns, failing schools, government corruption, and widespread drug violence. Government officials tried to blame the music for many of the island’s problems. But the reggaeton generation understood the music’s crude language, explicit sexuality, and gritty street commentary as no less obscene, violent, or morally suspect than Puerto Rico at large. In rapper Eddie Dee’s pro-rap anthem “Censurarme por ser rapero” (To censor me for being a rapper) for example, he criticizes the moral corruption of the island’s elites by referring to the ex-secretary of education, Víctor Fajardo, who was convicted in 2002 of stealing federal funds, and to Edison Misla Aldarondo, a former speaker of the House of Representatives found guilty of extortion, money laundering, and attempted rape of a minor:
To censor me for being a rapper
Is like censoring a whole people
I don’t care if you like me or not
After all, my high school diploma
Was signed by a man who was corrupt….
Most of us are better people than them
No rapper on this island
Has been accused of crimes as dirty as Misla’s.13
Even more ironic, the state’s success in scaring reggaeton producers into cleaning up their act backfired. Although the avowed objective of state censorship was to stop the music, the result was radio-friendly lyrics that now reached and appealed not only to barrio kids but also to middle-class youth. Reggaeton quickly became the norm at dance parties, discos, and other gatherings. Unsurprisingly, this had a major impact on sales, transforming reggaeton from a cottage industry, in which recordings were homemade and sold from people’s cars, to big-time releases by established record labels that sold in department stores. From 2002 to 2003 alone, sales increased exponentially, with new reggaeton releases selling between 50,000 and 100,000 units a month, consistently accounting for about a third of the top 10 albums sold in Puerto Rico.14
By entering pop culture respectability, the genre became a vehicle to launch the careers of schooled artists with eclectic musical tastes. A turning point in gaining critical attention was the musically, poetically, and politically sophisticated 2003 debut album of Tego Calderón. His populist lyrics—which reminded many of salsa’s El Sonero Mayor, Ismael Rivera—together with his innovative musical fusions, use of world-renowned musicians in live shows, and charismatic yet humble demeanor appealed to the old-school salsa lovers and the intellectual left.15 Fusing an experimental reggaeton style strongly rooted in the working-class Caribbean aesthetics of classic salsa with a strong dose of hip-hop, Calderón’s innovation strategically reached back in time to working-class, Afro-diasporic musical roots.
Tego Calderón, "El Enemy de los Guasíbiri," 2003, courtesy Sony International.
With Calderón’s successful debut, it started to dawn on some of reggaeton’s critics that the problem might not be the genre itself, but the underground, amateurish way it had thus far been produced. As journalist Laura Rivera Meléndez commented in a glowing review of a 2003 Calderón concert in Puerto Rico, which included the participation of musical heavyweights Roberto Roena and Tempo Alomar, “Any genre cultivated with musical care and a generous time investment can transcend prejudices and become the voice of various generations and social classes.”16 Since reggaeton was here to stay, perhaps the answer was not to demean it but to nationalize it, that is, to nurture artists like Calderón who could be trusted to carry on the nation’s officially recognized musical traditions.
The popularity of reggaeton at home was vital to the genre’s new status as a national music. Yet as important, if not more, was its validation by international music markets, including not only the United States but also Europe (particularly Spain and Italy), Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Japan, and Australia.
The song that pumped up the world and brought reggaeton’s global appeal home was Daddy Yankee’s aptly titled “Gasolina” (2004), an ode to what women want from an unabashedly male perspective. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, the song and its phenomenal success attracted the attention of a sluggish U.S. recording industry desperately looking for the next big thing to sell on the urban youth market. The anticipation that reggaeton could do for Latinos what hip-hop had done for African Americans prompted a wave of change throughout the industry. “Tropical” salsa stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami quickly changed their format to accommodate reggaeton and other “hurban” (Hispanic urban) genres. Hip-hop labels developed Latino imprints and signed the top talent. Major stars like Daddy Yankee were now not only making millions but also being hired for product endorsements, going on tours, and running clothing lines. Two years after “Gasolina” greased the way, reggaeton albums were going gold, platinum, and even double-platinum, ranking among the top sales successes of the Latin music industry.
With increased sales beyond Puerto Rico, a formerly resistant global music industry finally recognized reggaeton’s “artistic” merits when the upstart duo Calle 13—composed of two middle-class, light-skinned, college-educated men, Residente and Visitante—nabbed three Latin Grammys during the 2006 ceremony.
The entry of Calle 13 into the reggaeton pantheon also represented a significant change in other ways. If Calderón was the reggaeton champion of an Afro-Caribbean working-class aesthetic, Calle 13 fused a wide range of music styles with unusually surreal lyrics for the genre. Through expedient interventions into mainstream politics with hip-hop tracks like “Querido FBI” (2005), which denounced the killing of the militant independentista leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, Calle 13 redefined what a reggaeton vocalist’s relationship to Puerto Rico should be. Although Calle 13, like other reggaeton performers, typically comment on sexuality, gender relations, and the racism and violence of barrio life, Residente has fashioned himself as the nation’s digestive system, transforming the garbage of desire, politics, and violence into a usable language to criticize the status quo.17 “It bores me to talk about the system,” he raps in “Tributo a la policía,” a recent song protesting the shooting of an unarmed civilian by a police officer. “The system bothers me like an enema/So I give the middle finger to the system/And I spit phlegm on the system.”
Calle 13, "Residente o Visitante," 2007, Sony International.
Of course, reggaeton’s growing sophistication does not mean that everyone in Puerto Rico accepts it. But with Daddy Yankee’s global success, Tego’s populism, and Calle 13’s “alternative” sound and tirades against state power, reggaeton now has all the necessary qualifications to become a national music that is presentable beyond the island’s borders.
Reggaeton’s global rep arguably forced Puerto Rican elites to accept it as a valuable cultural export that brings attention and prestige to the island. In earlier years, to belittle reggaeton was to denigrate poor, black, urban youth culture, an easy target. Today the genre represents one of the most impressive stories of Puerto Rican economic and cultural success in the last decades—one that may also be particularly welcome at a time when many people in Puerto Rico have lost confidence in the government and are uncertain if the island will ever recover from its rampant corruption, incompetent leadership, and party factionalism.
Reggaeton’s story, then, holds the hope that even under dire conditions, the people of Puerto Rico can find creative ways to make a mark in the global economy. In capturing the imagination, it also tells us much about what kind of nation Puerto Ricans are imagining and inhabiting in the global era.
For starters, reggaeton calls attention to the centrality of black culture and the migration of peoples and ideas in (and out of) Puerto Rico, not as exotic additions but as constitutive elements. If Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans have celebrated Spain as the “motherland,” reggaeton redirects the gaze toward Africa’s diasporas. If much of Puerto Rican high culture is invested in distancing Puerto Rico from the United States, reggaeton brings Puerto Rican culture closer to the U.S. mainstream than ever by becoming a part of the “hip-hop nation.” If Puerto Ricans on the island pride themselves in being whiter and wealthier than all other Caribbean islanders, reggaeton insists that Puerto Ricans are as much a part of the United States as they are of the Caribbean.18 If island-based Puerto Ricans have looked down on Nuyoricans and the rest of the diaspora as not-quite-Puerto Ricans, the reggaeton generation stresses the island–diaspora connection in order to integrate itself into the long-standing history of Puerto Ricans in U.S. hip-hop music and culture.19 In this regard, reggaeton may at times imagine the nation as a contained space, but this notion of the local is composed of globalized cultures.
Daddy Yankee, "El Cartel: The Big Boss," 2007, Interscope Records.
At the same time, reggaeton’s success story highlights Puerto Rico’s contradictory location in the global economy. While the island is poorer than all the states in the union, by using an independent production model inspired by U.S. hip-hop and based in the grassroots, reggaeton artists are not only global stars but also local entrepreneurs. This is evident in the proliferation of labels like DJ Nelson’s Flow Music, Daddy Yankee’s El Cartel Records, and Wisín and Yandel’s WY Records, which have allowed performers to maintain a much greater degree of control over their products and earnings than salsa musicians ever enjoyed. In becoming the island’s most important cultural export since Ricky Martin, reggaeton showcases how social groups written off by the state, educators, and the media have transformed a homegrown product from underground infamy to global popularity.
Equally revealing, the political economy of reggaeton exposes the blurriness of elite and other spheres of power. For instance, many of the dramatic censorship acts undertaken against reggaeton were partly a response to widespread rumors that its recordings were financed by narco-trafficking. Yet, as is also the case with the government’s operations, the lines between legality and illegality are extremely blurry. The point was dramatically driven home last year, when the killing of alleged drug dealer José “Coquito” López Rosario was for months top headline news in Puerto Rico, largely because of his ties to both reggaeton artists and elected officials. Reggaeton is, as so many of its artists have clearly seen, no more law-abiding or corrupt than the island’s ruling elites.
The ability of the island’s lower classes to see through upper-class hypocrisy further underscores the greater role of global markets in valuing the nation’s culture and how local consumers, audiences, and corporations have largely displaced the traditional local elites in shaping ideas about the nation. In the end, reggaeton’s story is a productive point of entry into Puerto Rico’s changing sense of itself: While still a poor colony of the United States, with more than half of its population living in the continental United States, and widespread discontent at how the country is going, Puerto Rico is playing the national game better than ever—on the global stage.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner is the author of Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (NYU Press, 2004). She teaches Latino and Caribbean literatures and cultures at Columbia University. Raquel Z. Rivera is the author of New York Ricans From the Hip Hop Zone (Palgrave Macmillon, 2003) and editor, with Deborah Pacini Hernandez and Wayne Marshall, of Reading Reggaeton (Duke University Press, forthcoming).
1. For a detailed account of reggaeton’s musical aesthetics, see Wayne Marshall, “We Use So Many Snares,” in Daphne Carr and Mary Gaitskill, eds., Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006 (Da Capo Press, 2006), pp. 260–71. See also Wayne Marshall, “From Música Negra to Reggaeton Latino: The Cultural Politics of Nation, Migration, and Commercialization,” in Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini-Hernandez, eds., Reading Reggaeton: Historical, Aesthetic and Critical Perspectives (Duke University Press, forthcoming).
2. Jaime Torres Torres, “ ‘Condicionada’ la evolución del rap,” El Nuevo Día, September 24, 2003; Israel Rodríguez Sánchez, “A investigar los centros nocturnos,” El Nuevo Día, August 22, 2003. Miried González Rodríguez, “Velda sigue con el ojo en el ‘reggaetón,’ “ Primera Hora, August 22, 2003.
7. See, for example, Yolanda Rosaly, “¡Alto a la música ‘underground’!” El Nuevo Día, February 7, 1995; Lilliana García Arroyo, “ ‘Rap underground’: ¿Nueva alternativa o pornografía?” Claridad, March 24, 1995; Carmen Millán, “A atacar las agencias el ‘perreo,’ “ El Nuevo Día, June 11, 2002; Jaime Torres Torres, “’Condicionada’ la evolución del rap”; Jaime Torres Torres, “De espaldas a la tradición,” El Nuevo Día, October 10, 2004.
8. Edwin Reyes, “Rapeo sobre el rap en Ciales,” Claridad, December 28–January 3, 1995–96. Two weeks after Reyes’s article was published, Rafael Bernabe replied from the pages of the same newspaper with an article titled “Rap: soy boricua, pa’ que tú lo sepas” (Rap: I’m Puerto Rican, just so you know), in which he criticized Reyes’s position for “dripping with classist prejudice” and attempting to pose itself as “the arbiter of national identity” by seeking to uplift rap enthusiasts from tuserías (lowliness) to Puerto Ricanness. Claridad, January 19–25, 1996.
9. See John Marino, “Police Seize Recordings, Say Content Is Obscene,” San Juan Star, February 3, 1995; Raquel Z. Rivera, “Policing Morality, Mano Dura Style: The Case of Underground Rap and Reggae in Puerto Rico in the Mid-1990s,” in Reading Reggaeton.
18. See Mayra Santos, “Puerto Rican Underground,” Centro Journal 8, nos. 1 and 2 (1996): 218-31; Jorge L. Giovannetti, “Popular Music and Culture in Puerto Rico: Jamaican and Rap Music as Cross-Cultural Symbols,” in Frances R. Aparicio and Cándida F. Jáquez, eds., Musical Migrations: Transnationalism and Cultural Hybridity in Latin/o America, volume 1 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
19. See Juan Flores, “Creolité in the ‘Hood: Diaspora as Source and Challenge,” Centro Journal 16, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 289; Raquel Z. Rivera, New York Ricans From the Hip-Hop Zone (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).