Wednesday, August 30, 2006

On Appropriation, Class and Reggaeton

This post is inspired by David's, Negrura's and TatoBrujo's comments to my previous blog post (on

1. To take to or for oneself; take possession of
2. To take without consent; seize; expropriate

1. To dispossess a person of ownership

It has become increasingly common to talk about racial appropriation in the U.S. (particularly appropriation by whites of black cultural expressions). But, as David points out, there are class divisions among racial groups; divisions that sometimes get sidelined. When middle-class African Americans across the U.S. became engaged with hip hop, was that not "appropriation"? Yes indeed. We don't have to ignore class fault lines in order to highlight racial/ethnic unity. (Though, unfortunately, we often do. Acknowledgement of class, gender and sexual power dynamics is often suppressed in the name of racial/ethnic unity.)

Of course, when middle and upper-class African Americans adopt a cultural expression born from marginalized African American communities, though there may be some friction, the result is usually perceived as "appropriation" (meaning #1, above) rather than "expropriation" (meaning #2, above. classic example: the history of Rock and Roll).

In Puerto Rico, since there is a perception of a shared national/ethnic identity (save for immigrants, particularly Dominicans), it is a bit more common for class fault lines to be acknowledged (when compared to the States).

It fascinates me how those class distinctions are purposely blurred in contemporary reggaeton.

Reggaeton has a mythical alliance to "the street," an interesting metaphor considering even the most expensive neighborhoods have streets, as Felix Jimenez (author of Las practicas de la carne) pointed out to me in a recent conversation.

Reggaeton artists purportedly represent "the street," the barrios, the caserios. Some of these representatives grew up or live in those places, while others, though not having grown up or lived there, become representatives by virtue of being perceived to be down.

If an artist did not grow up in those neighborhoods he/she "represents," then: What exactly does it mean to be down with the street? What does it mean to have street credibility? Is it about adopting/appropriating a culture? Is it about assuming a street identity through your sympathies and solidarities? Is it a costume you can take on and off? All of the above? None of the above?

If you are down with the street do you then eventually become "from the street"? Is "tener calle" (literally, having street) the same as "ser de la calle" (being from the street)?

Since both share an obsession with street credibility, the following questions apply as much to hip hop in the U.S. proper as to reggaeton in Puerto Rico: How much of contemporary street credibility is about surface aesthetics and how much about culture, community and solidarity? Does that solidarity entail certain responsibilities? Or can you just adopt the mannerisms, don the clothing, hire a good Public Relations machine, and PRESTO?

No comments: