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.)

Nación reggaetón

(Esta fue mi columna de ayer miércoles 28 de noviembre publicada en El Diario / La Prensa)

Nación reggaetón


San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2002: Velda González, entonces miembro del Senado, protagonizaba una campaña en los medios de comunicación y la legislatura para controlar la visibilidad del baile conocido como “perreo” y la música que lo acompañaba. En ese entonces, González fustigó al reggaetón por sus letras y videos violentos y sexualmente explícitos, y también por promover un baile que, según ella y muchos otros, constituía un factor que incitaba a la criminalidad.

2003, San Juan, Puerto Rico: Un reportero de Telemundo de Puerto Rico le informaba con cara de asombro a su teleaudiencia que estaban a punto de ver en vivo “nada más ni nada menos” que a Velda González bailando reggaetón en un tarima donde cantaban Los Bambinos. Las imágenes eran comidilla para los medios noticiosos ya que entonces aún no era común ni ver a una persona mayor, y menos todavía a un oficial del gobierno, bailando este género ante las cámaras. Pero todo cambió durante ese año de campañas políticas, cuando no sólo González sino muchísimos otros políticos se lanzaron a bailar reggaetón con entusiasmo, tiesas caderas, y la esperanza de cautivar las miradas y los votos de los más jóvenes.

2007, San Juan, Puerto Rico: El reconocido escritor puertorriqueño, Juan Antonio Ramos, declara (y no precisamente complacido) que de un género perseguido, el reggaetón se ha convertido en “el” género puertorriqueño de nuestros tiempos: “No sería exagerado decir que hablar mal del reguetón es casi un sacrilegio. Es casi ser un mal puertorriqueño.”

¿Cómo es posible que tanto haya cambiado en Puerto Rico en tan poco tiempo? ¿Y qué nos dicen estos cambios sobre la sociedad puertorriqueña de principios de Siglo XXI? ¿Cómo logró este fenómeno musical ser lo suficientemente exitoso para que sus antiguos enemigos sean ahora algunos de sus más prominentes lambeojos?

En un artículo titulado “Reggaeton Nation,” publicado en el más reciente número de la revista NACLA Report on the Americas, Frances Negrón-Muntaner y esta servidora intentamos esclarecer el asunto. Para aquellos interesados en ver el texto completo, haga click aquí.

Monday, November 26, 2007

La isla infinita y la cultura popular

(Este artículo fue publicado como mi columna del miércoles 21 de noviembre de 2007 en El Diario / La Prensa)

Usando el concepto de la isla infinita para pensar y re-pensar las similitudes, diferencias y posibilidades de las islas del Caribe, el Museo de Brooklyn tiene en exhibición hasta fines de enero una muestra de arte contemporáneo titulada Infinite Island. La exhibición incluye a artistas de diversos países, entre éstos, República Dominicana, Puerto Rico y Cuba.


El sábado 17 de noviembre tuve el placer de participar en una charla pública en el Museo junto a la profesora Sujatha Fernandes de Queens College y el artista puertorriqueño Miguel Luciano cuyo trabajo es parte de Infinite Island. Nos ubicaron a un extremo de la galería, justo al lado de la sección dedicada a la cultura popular, ya que esa tarde teníamos como encomienda hablar sobre las conexiones entre la música y la cultura popular en el Caribe. La conversación que se dio entre panelistas y público tocó importantes temas como: la relación de las islas hispanohablantes con el resto del Caribe, el rol de la industria musical en el desarrollo de la cultura popular, las identidades nacionales, la producción musical de las mujeres, y la cultura juvenil, entre muchos otros temas.

Las obras localizadas en esa sección de cultura popular se prestan para discutir variados temas, particularmente con niños y jóvenes. La serie Pure Plantainum de Miguel Luciano, por ejemplo, toca el tema del consumerismo y la estética blin-blinera del hip-hop y el reggaetón a través del símbolo cultural e histórico que es el plátano. Jorge Pineda explora la inocencia infantil y su opuesto en su serie de dibujos titulado Niñas locas. Por su parte, Quisqueya Henríquez contrapone estereotipos culturales y realidad en su serie Paraíso de la verdura.

Imagenes de la serie Paraíso de la verdura de Quisqueya Henríquez:


Imagen de la serie Pure Plantainum de Miguel Luciano:


Mientras recorría la galería, me fijé en una pareja que junto a sus niñas dibujaba plátanos frente a los plátanos platinados de Miguel Luciano. Mentalmente felicité a estos padres por proveerle a sus niñas esa tremenda oportunidad creativa y educativa. Miré a mi alrededor y vi escenas parecidas que se repetían a través de la galería. Y me alegré mucho.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Youth, sex and sexism



Many parents, educators, legislators and academics—among many others—worry over the influence that popular music has on youth sexual activity.

A New York Times article earlier this month addressed the issue by citing the most recent academic research undertaken by public health experts. Though only hip-hop is referenced, the issues that it touches on apply just as much to reggaeton.

Dr. Miguel A. Muñoz-Laboy, assistant professor in the department of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, spent three years conducting research in the hip-hop club scene, observing youth in dance action and interviewing dozens of them. The study, published this month in the journal Culture, Health and Sexuality, concluded that the main factors that have bearing on youth sexual activity are peer pressure and drug and alcohol use, not the sexual explicitness of lyrics and dancemoves.

The journal Pediatrics had already published last year research findings suggesting that hip-hop’s sexually explicit lyrics are not the main factor influencing young people’s decisions to be sexually active. The key, according to the study, are “degrading lyrics,” not sexually explicit lyrics. (The researchers defined “degrading lyrics” as “those that portrayed women as sexual objects, men as insatiable and sex as inconsequential.”)

I'm particularly interested in thinking through that distinction between “sexual explicitness” and “sexism.”

I celebrate the efforts of researchers who are trying to address these issues by taking into account their complexity. I appreciate their attempt not to go to the extreme of censoring or mindlessly celebrating. I think it’s worth our while to go case-by-case, song-by-song, artist-by-artist, thinking through these issues and taking the opportunity to talk to the young people in our lives about them.

Hip-hop and reggaeton provide a great communication opportunity between adults and young folks. I worry that so many adults make the same error as our parents by simply sentencing: “it’s all the same crap.” Case closed.

If we keep doing that, we keep closing off the path toward dialogue and possibilities for change.

What you’ve read above was my column in El Diario / La Prensa last Wednesday. In response, a reader wrote in the paper’s web version: “Hahahaha!, of course that music is crap. And case closed! Just because you made all your limited ‘career’ as a sociologist based on that trash called reggaeton you think us parents have to analyze one by one all the aspects of that music? Be honest, reggaeton and hip-hop only produce delinquents and people who are resentful. Trash-music for young folks that later will be trash-adults.”

My answer: I’m not saying everybody has to like the music. I’m just saying that, for the sake of connecting with young folks, it’s worth learning and talking about it—and making at least an effort to understand and respect their musical taste. Not all artists are the same. Not all fans are the same.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Juventud, sexo y sexismo

Haga click aquí para acceder a mi columna del pasado miércoles 14 de noviembre de 2007 en El Diario / La Prensa titulada "Juventud, sexo y sexismo."

Friday, November 09, 2007

La 'música urbana' y el Grammy Latino

Tarde, pero seguro: Haga click aquí para el link de mi columna del miércoles pasado en El Diario / La Prensa.

Hoy ya es viernes y confirmado está que en el Grammy Latino de nuevo no les fue bien a los reggaetoneros "tradicionales."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Reggaeton in the Time of Zune

(Click aquí for the Spanish version in El Diario / La Prensa.)


Wisin and Yandel—the self-proclaimed “Duo of History”—for real made history in 2006 when they became the first artists to get four of their songs into Billboard’s top ten in the Hot Latin Songs chart.

This month they again made history, according to Machete Music President, Gustavo Lopez, as the first reggaeton artists to simultaneously be at the top of three Billboard charts less than a month after a song’s release—in this case, “Sexy Movimiento.” Last week, this first single from their newest album was #1 in the Rhythm Airplay chart, #2 in the Tropical charts and #3 in the Latin Pop charts.

Wisin and Yandel also made history this week when Microsoft made them the first artists to collaborate with the corporation in the design and marketing of a Zune digital media player.

The customized Wisin and Yandel Zune is pre-loaded with their new album and exclusive music, videos and photos. This limited edition Zune is yet another corporate effort to captivate the Latino music market and, particularly, the youth sector that represents a huge portion of digital and mobile music sales. It’s of great significance that among so many musical genres in the English and Spanish markets and so many artists to choose from, Microsoft opted to market the Zune via Latinos via reggaeton via Wisin and Yandel. (Hhhhhmmm... And yet some folks still insist that reggaeton, as a commercial product, is dead.)

I imagine Wisin and Yandel are happier than a dog with two tails since their new album is dropping next week, when they will also find out if they won that Latin Grammy they’re nominated for.

Oh, and last week their new music video for “Sexy Movimiento” premiered—a Jessy Terrero production I’ll sum up as plenty more of the visual, musical and lyrical formulas reggaeton has accustomed us to. In other words: fancy house meets bling meets fancy cars meets helicopter and adrenaline-inducing scenes and fantasies of power and bikinied women—one of them with a Zune in hand. It’s probably thanks to those same formulas that reggaeton still resists its prematurely announced death.

Congratulations?