Thursday, November 29, 2007

Reggaeton Nation

What follows is an excerpt of the article I co-wrote with Frances Negrón-Muntaner and published in the most recent issue of the journal NACLA Report on the Americas. To read the full article click here.

Reggaeton Nation

by Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Raquel Z. Rivera

It was a stunning sight, circa 2003. Onstage at San Juan’s recently renovated 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 (aka 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.

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. 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 of criminal acts.” 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. “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.”

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 of Puerto Rico. 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. “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.”

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. 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.”

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 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.”

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.

(To read the full article, click here.)


Speaking Boricua said...

Very well written and interesting article. I really enjoyed it.

I'm about to go post a link to it over in my blog and I think I'll bookmark your blog and try to get my hands on your book eventually.

It's really wonderful to find a fresh and original writing style that immediately catches you... I commend you for it.

zooey03 said...

I am an M.A. student at UF and I am writing my thesis on regueton so I was very happy when I saw that finally there were people writing on it. I've had so much difficulty trying to get material to back up my thesis that I was almost getting discouraged. Thanks for doing what you do.

Anonymous said...

I was fortunate enough to hear your talk at UConn. This article is by far the most incisive, thorough, and succinct historical treatise on reggaeton's emergence and popularity I've ever read, and I've been looking for a long time. I'm thinking of including this in a class I teach about youth culture and generation gaps. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Leí su artículo Reggaeton Nation y debo decir que en su vasta mayoría llevan la historia que es. Por otro lado creo que sugiere mucha opinión a la hora de decir

"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."

El hip hop comenzó en Estados Unidos y se ha regado por todo el mundo de la misma manera que se regó en Puerto Rico. No me parece que esto haya sido ningún intento de acercar nuestra muy propia cultura a la cultura americana. En PR no se ha sentido más que en cualquier otro país. es normal que cuando un país está en poder todos los demás se influencian por este. Otra cosa es que muchos puertorriqueños viven fuera de PR, pero pocos realmente son puertorriqueños. Sólo has de contar los que han nacido en la Isla o los que han pasado la mayor parte de su vida en ella. Ahí no me cuentes a los que no saben hablar español. Para haber estado 113 años bajo las garras del imperio estamos bastante distantes de su cultura. El reggaeton no sólo se influencia del hip hop, sino también de sabores Jamaiquinos y sabores Panameños y somos tan caribeños como estos sin ningunas ínfulas de superioridad por color, economía o estatus político. Son más cosas las que podemos envidiarles a ellos.

Con todo respeto...

raquelzrivera said...

Gracias por tu comentario, Jacinta.

Pero te equivocas sobre la historia del hip-hop.

El hip hop no se ha regado por todo el mundo de la misma manera que se rego en Puerto Rico. La relacion neo-colonial entre PR y EU propicio que el hip-hop se desarrollara en PR ANTES que en otros paises.

Es ironico que mientras para ti es muy importante arrebatarle el titulo de puertorriquen~os a los hijos de nuestra diaspora, los historiadores del hip-hop describen a los puertorriquen~os junto a los afro-estadounidenses y jamaiquinos como 3 de los grupos etnicos mas importantes en el desarrollo del hip-hop en El Bronx.

Escribes: "El reggaeton no sólo se influencia del hip hop, sino también de sabores Jamaiquinos y sabores Panameños y somos tan caribeños como estos sin ningunas ínfulas de superioridad por color, economía o estatus político. Son más cosas las que podemos envidiarles a ellos." Claro que el reggaeton se influencia del reggae panamen~o y jamaiquino pero lamentablemente de "infulas de superioridad" pecamos los puertorriquen~os igual que pecan otros grupos.