The Reggaetón Factor in the U.S. Elections

Reggaetón made its electoral debut this year. First, Daddy Yankee turned heads when he publicly endorsed Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Barack Obama followed suit highlighting reggaetoneros support for the Democratic ticket in videos. But it is in Puerto Rico that reggaetón is making the largest political waves. Although dismissed by some as apolitical party music, this electoral season confirms reggaetón's politicization. What that means, exactly, depends on who is doing the politicking.

October 20, 2008

Who would have thought when Daddy Yankee released "Gasolina" in 2004 that four short years later the song would become the butt of jokes about John McCain and offshore drilling? If there were still sectors of U.S. society that didn’t know about reggaetón, this year’s presidential race certainly changed that.

Daddy Yankee (Raymond Ayala) endorses McCain before a shrieking crowd of high school girls in Arizona.

Daddy Yankee caused a stir in August when he publicly endorsed Republican presidential candidate John McCain. The reggaetonero recently made headlines again when he agreed to help moderate a debate on October 9 among candidates for governor of Puerto Rico as part of the "Vota o Quédate Callao" (Vote or Shut Up) initiative to get young voters to the polls in November.

Not to be outdone, Barack Obama has also had a number of reggaetón artists come out in support of his campaign, most notably Julio Voltio and Don Omar who appeared in the video "Podemos con Obama," directed by Yerba Buena's Andres Levin. Calle 13 is even rocking the vote over at MTV. The duo can be seen in ads on MTV and MTV Tr3s urging young people to listen to their new album on the way to the polls.

Does this signal the emergence of a "reggaetón vote"? Pundits have wondered about the weight of the "hip-hop vote" in this year’s election, particularly regarding Barack Obama’s potential appeal to young African American and Latino/a voters. But in 2012 will political pundits be asking candidates what they’re doing to win the "reggaetón vote"?

Maybe. But much like the "hip-hop vote," the idea of a "reggaetón vote" is more complicated than it seems, and it defies simplistic categorization. Politicians’ use of reggaetón in speaking to the so-called "Latino Vote" revealed stark cleavages within the Latino/a community along lines of nationality, race, class, gender, legal status, and age. Indeed, the strategy backfired in many ways and exposed the messy complexities and divisions within the Latino/a community that often gets lumped together with monolithic labels like "Latino/a" and "Hispanic."

Although some analysts continue to question reggaetón’s political potential, this election season confirms the genre’s growing politicization. What that means, exactly, depends on who is doing the politicking.

Daddy Yankee, "El Cartel: The Big Boss," 2007, Interscope Records.

When McCain appeared with Daddy Yankee in an attempt to woo Latino/a voters, controversy erupted over whether Daddy Yankee—and by extension reggaetón—could or should represent the Latino/a community politically. In public responses to the endorsement some felt that reggaetón was something too Puerto Rican or too Caribbean to fully represent the entire Latino/a community.1 Others felt that reggaetón was too "low-class," saying they did not want to be associated with references to drugs, violence, and aggressive sexuality.

Others felt that as a U.S. citizen Daddy Yankee was not immediately affected by immigration policy and, therefore, had no right to endorse McCain because of his stance on immigration. Still others wondered why Daddy Yankee’s endorsement even garnered so much attention since as a Puerto Rican resident he is barred from even casting a ballot for president on Election Day.

Likewise, recent events in Puerto Rico have sparked further debate over reggaetón’s political potential. Many youths are resisting the cooptation of reggaetón by the political mainstream and using the music to channel concerns and challenge the status quo.

A group of young artists staged a protest outside of the Puerto Rican Convention Center against the gubernatorial debate being held inside on October 9. They organized not in protest to reggaetón’s cooptation or even Daddy Yankee—though they did burn his albums—but in protest to the hypocrisy expressed by Puerto Rico’s four major political parties.

Listen to Sietenueve's "Quédate Callao":

The protestors denounced how reggaetoneros, like Daddy Yankee, are being used in an effort to attract youth to a political system that systematically ignores their concerns. Sietenueve, a hip-hop artist based in the barrio of Villa Palmeras in Santurce, composed a biting critique of Daddy Yankee entitled "Quedate Callao" accusing him of greed and political ignorance. While Yankee implores youth to "Vote or Shut Up," Sietenueve's song title suggests his colleague do the latter. At the end of the song, he raps, "How can you endorse a guy that wants to bring us more war, more blood, more death. It's real sad. Brother, if you don't know your history, educate yourself. Or just shut up."

Although urban music such as hip hop and reggaetón is seen by many as little more than apolitical party music, artists like Sietenueve, other musicians, and their fans in Puerto Rico are increasingly using it as a platform for social justice and anti-establishment political engagement. This point is made poignantly visible with "Ninguno, el candidato de los hip-hoppers" (Nobody, the hip-hoppers candidate).

The "Ninguno pa’ Gobernador" (Nobody, for Governor) campaign is an intervention by political theater group Papel Machete. Much like the "None of the Above" vote that Puerto Ricans made famous during the 1998 plebiscite to determine Puerto Rico’s status, Ninguno’s supporters are urging voters to once again turn to "la quinta" (the fifth)—in protest to the four main parties—and write-in "Ninguno" on the November 4 gubernatorial ballot.

Sietenueve and other high-profile ningunistas joined the Friends of Ninguno Committee in the protest outside the convention center during the gubernatorial debate to highlight the lack of representation all four candidates offered voters.

As one protester told Primera Hora, "In our country, political parties work within an imposed limited structure, making electoral participation an act of selection between candidates, who, once elected, automatically become puppets of the rich."

While all the candidates claim that they know the struggles of the young, the working-class, and the marginalized of Puerto Rican society, their platforms are largely indistinguishable from the status quo and desires of elites. Protestors provocatively asked, "Which candidate for governor comes from the barrios? Which one of them works in the factories? Is there a true representative of the worker, the woman, or the poor?" The answer is of course Ninguno. As Ninguno himself states, "Todos prometen, Ninguno Cumple" (Everyone promises, Nobody delivers).

While U.S.-based Latino/a youth and Puerto Rican youth are using music as a vehicle for political expression and action, they are also actively resisting superficial attempts made by politicians to win their votes through token musical shout-outs, while casting them aside in terms of actual policy.

Indeed, Daddy Yankee’s endorsement of McCain as well as his participation in the gubernatorial debate caused outrage among many young people because it threatened to turn reggaetón into a hollow signifier, separating it from its radical and subversive potential.

This election season shows politicians will not win the reggaetón vote through cultural pandering. To win over this growing group they will actually have to address the issues affecting U.S.-based Latino/a and island-based Puerto Rican youth with concrete policies. Dancing perreo on stage for votes isn’t going to cut it—and, in fact, it never did.

Marisol LeBrón is a NACLA Research Associate and writes about pop culture for her blog Post Pomo Nuyorican Homo. She is a doctoral student at the Program in American Studies at New York University.
1. These "responses" are based on coverage of the endorsement by mainstream media such as Primera Hora, The Washington Post, Newsday, and New York Times, and their readers’ comments as well as Latino/a themed blogs and forums such as Latin Americanist and Vivir Latino.

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