In recent years, the media has exploded with stories announcing the arrival and takeover of a new urban music, reggaeton. Opinions differ as to the lasting power of reggaeton—some have called it a “fad,”1 while others have predicted it will find “a permanent, prominent place not just in the US, but in global popular culture.”2 The impact, however, that reggaeton has had thus far (in its mainstream existence) is undeniable. While for many, reggaeton is nothing more than a new sound on the streets, for a great number of Latinos living in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, reggaeton has meant much more—it is a reflection of urban life. “Reggaeton is the story of what is going on in Puerto Rico right now in the street, in the ghettos, and in prisons. It’s an artistic expression and it should be respected,”3 says Jesus Triviño, Associate Editor of Scratch magazine. It is also a key element in the dissemination of a so-called “pan-Latinidad,” an identity-notion that is both marketable and celebratory of a Latino identity without borders.
The emergence of reggaeton, however, has also proven problematic, calling into question many notions of race and identity. Latinos, who seem to occupy a sort of in-betweeness—neither black nor white, but a mixed people—have complicated the way in which urban music and a black aesthetic has thus far been constructed in the United States. With reggaetoneros like Tego Calderon claiming a black identity before his Puerto Ricaness (“I say I’m black first and then Boricua ‘cause it don’t matter where I go, what you see is a black face.”4) and rappers like N.O.R.E. unabashedly proclaiming his Afro-Latino identity, a multitude of questions emerge: is there such a thing as a black aesthetic in black music? If so, is reggaeton, performed by dark-skinned Latinos, black music? Can one in fact be a black Latino, if we consider how race is constructed in the Dominican Republic, for example? And finally, what effect will reggaeton have on the hip-hop community?
The tendency to essentialize Latino and black identities plays a large role when one considers the importance one’s identity plays within the realm of music. In Keith Negus’s book, Popular Music in Theory (Polity, 1996), he discusses how identity and certain essentialized notions of what it means to be male, female, black, white, etc make their way into our ideas about music. Racialized music, such as hip-hop being termed black music, can be both informative and misleading or restrictive for all of the aforementioned reasons. Thus, Negus proposes,
…a shift from essentialist ideas about cultural identity—the notion that individuals of a particular social type posses certain essential characteristics and that these are found expressed in particular cultural practices—towards the idea that cultural identities are not fixed in any essential way but are actively created through particular communication processes, social practices, and “articulations” within specific circumstances.
Nonetheless, race remains intimately linked with the genre of urban music as racialized notions of the Other are packaged for mass consumption.
Essentialized notions of race are not only imposed from the exterior, but are often imposed (and gain their salience) from their maintenance within a group as well. It is notable that reggaeton artists have manipulated the essentialized Latino identity to create a false sense of pan-Latinidad with which people can align themselves. When N.O.R.E. cries for “Latinos to stand up,” in his song “Oye Mi Canto,” he is making use of a market strategy and an idyllic historical imperative intended to speak to the so-called “naturalness” of Latinidad that does not necessarily exist.
In the Beginning
Until the advent of reggaeton, urban music was largely defined by hip-hop and rap, with its emphasis on authenticity, the artists’ ability to lyrically deliver social and political dissent, and a strong tie to the city streets and urban spaces. Distinct from R&B in musical form and manner of expression, hip-hop and rap have been in existence since the early 1970s. Although much debate surrounds the definitions of hip-hop and rap, it is often accepted that rap music is the lyrical component of the larger culture of hip-hop. Despite the popular conception that “…hip-hop [rap] belongs to African Americans,”5 the importance of Puerto Ricans in the formation of hip-hop is undeniable. Hip-hop’s multiethnic influences are real and deeply rooted in the diverse urban cultural spaces in New York City. Unchallenged in its ability to dominate the record charts, entertainment markets, and ability to infiltrate mainstream culture, hip-hop culture and rap music has aptly occupied a position of prominence in the United States since inception.
Let us consider, briefly, the history of reggaeton and its emergence, for it is important to note that reggaeton, like hip-hop, is not a new phenomenon. Although the origin of reggaeton may never be known beyond reasonable doubt (both Puerto Rico and Panama claim to be the point of origin), it is undeniable that Puerto Rican singers have been the ones to reach the greatest acclaim at a commercial level in the genre. “Daddy Yankee, Wisin y Yandel and Don Omar, among many others, laid the foundation, through their projects for today’s multifaceted, multi-million reggaeton industry.”6 Reggaeton’s hybrid nature comes from the mixture of the Caribbean sounds of reggae and dancehall that spread worldwide during the 1960s and 70s, with the mid-90s commercial rap music of Puerto Rico.
Although reggaeton is distinct from its predecessors in many ways, it nonetheless bears resemblance to hip-hop, which informs the reggaeton aesthetic. Indeed, both reggaeton and hip-hop draw inspiration from the urban lifestyle and the “persistent dialectic between ‘something truly epic and tragic’”7 that exists in cities—poverty and violent action on the one hand, yet striving to be liberated from the stigma of being that way on the other.
Reggaeton negotiates urban spaces in much the same way that hip-hop does—as the racialized Other—and mimics hip-hop culture’s fascination with heavy and expensive jewelry, scantily clad women, and baggy clothing and braids that in turn “lends some legitimacy and authenticity to reggaeton.”8 Reggaeton, however, now seems to pose a challenge—if not an opposition—to hip-hop as an urban musical form that is gaining wider appeal in the United States, and presenting a new sphere of influence for Latinos trying to make a name for themselves in music.
The effect this “new” music is having on the hip-hop community is powerful. For many, reggaeton has created a separate and equal sphere of legitimate and authentic expression for Latino rappers; the appearance and popularity of reggaeton in the United States is, in many ways, changing the way Latinos are being incorporated into hip-hop. What is the future of Latinos in hip-hop and reggaeton from the perspective of those who remain behind the scenes—industry executives?
Behind the Scenes
Many of the executives with whom I spoke expressed the position that Latinos seem to rest on the fence,9 between hip-hop and reggaeton, and therefore have to consider carefully which side they will choose. While there are Latinos like N.O.R.E. and Fat Joe, who once separated themselves from Latin Rap but are coming full circle and embracing their roots in Latinidad and reggaeton, there are other artists like Tru Life who fight to prove their deserving place in hip-hop and refuse to speak in Spanish. After my interviews with ten executives at hip-hop labels, it became clear that many executives find reggaeton to be a music through which Latinos can express themselves more “naturally;” consequently, this notion serves to negate or reduce the authenticity of Latinos in hip-hop. In essence, Latinos have finally found their “true” place in music, as though the hip-hop music they had once been performing was somehow less real.
Perhaps the most telling interview of my research was with Billy Bang, President of music marketing firm Powermoves Inc. Powermoves Inc., which is co-headed by Shawn Prez, a former VP at Bad Boy Entertainment, represents a full range of clients both inside and outside of the music industry and has executed numerous successful marketing and advertising campaigns for Bad Boy Entertainment.
Bang provided insight into what was the “authentic” space for Latinos in reggaeton and hip-hop. When asked to comment about N.O.R.E.’s involvement in reggaeton, Bang hesitated. “Initially I thought he was tryna chase a check- like, ‘until I got my next album, I’m gonna fuck with this and make some money.’ But I see he’s genuine—he’s half–black, half-Spanish. He’s bringing the game to the forefront.” Interestingly enough, N.O.R.E. himself felt the need to justify his foray into reggaeton, perhaps because of his medium-brown complexion and previous contributions to hip-hop that could raise questions as to his “true” identity. In an interview N.O.R.E. gave to MTV in 2004 entitled, “N.O.R.E. Reps His Latin Side With Reggaeton ’Oye Mi Canto,’” N.O.R.E. commented, “Reggaeton is in my blood like hip-hop is in my blood because I am half Latino-American.”10
Bang’s response, as well as N.O.R.E.’s self-justification, points to the way in which conceptions of race—or more importantly, skin color—play a role in determining one’s musical authenticity. I wondered what Bang’s response would have been had N.O.R.E. been a more “obviously Latino,” light-skinned artist like Daddy Yankee—would Bang have been more willing to accept him as a reggaetonero? Would he then have doubted at all N.O.R.E.’s “natural” place in reggaeton? Bang’s response to N.O.R.E., which does not deny the importance of Latinos in hip-hop, specifically Puerto Ricans in New York, clearly stems from his belief is that reggaeton is somehow inherently more Latino. “Because of the cultural landscape in America and the increase in Latinos, [reggaeton is] becoming a real force,” Bang says. “I’ve seen it come into existence. Latinos have always been a part of hip-hop but it was only a matter of time til’ they created something for themselves [emphasis added].” What legitimated N.O.R.E.’s “switch,” Mr. Bang explained, was his Spanish heritage to which he had perhaps not been faithful enough in his hip-hop days. The matter of authenticity came through in nearly every one of Mr. Bang’s answers, despite his attempts to give credit, where he felt credit was due, to Latinos in hip-hop. When asked if he felt there was any competition between hip-hop and reggaeton, Mr. Bang asserted, “Hip-hop embraced reggaeton. It’s a respectable genre. Is that really an issue? It’s like we let them in—they’re honorary members.” The they to which he speaks is, of course, Latinos who some how were unnaturally placed in the category of hip-hop.
An interview with Christopher Wammai, who works in Radio and Mixshow promotions at an independent hip-hop label, yielded yet another set of beliefs about authenticity of Latinos in reggaeton. When asked whether Latinos were “black,” Mr. Wammi struggled to understand the question: “Latinos, they Latinos. They ain’t black. They ain’t white either. For the sake of the white man, I guess we’re all black. The music Latinos are doing now is they shit; they’re doing what comes from their soul. We can’t fuck with that though. That’s they shit.”
Mr. Wammai’s response revealed a common uncertainty as to who or what Latino people are and into which racial category they fit. When I asked next what the intentions of hip-hop labels were in incorporating reggaeton into the roster, he would not answer on the record. The essence of his response was one that revealed the exploitive nature Wammai feels hip-hop labels are exhibiting in courting and marketing/promoting reggaeton artists whose familiar urban appeal falls in line with what is already done for rappers. He sees reggaeton as a successful business move—incorporation is a market-driven move.
The executives with whom I spoke were fully cognizant of the distinctions they were making in their minds between Latinos and blacks. While none of my interviewees openly disputed the presence and importance of Latinos in hip-hop from its inception, all exposed their tendency to accept reggaeton as a more appropriate place for Latinidad. For them, a supposed unchanging Latino naturalness, in an essentialist sense, guides Latino artists to be more appropriately suited for reggaeton, despite a prior affiliation or true experience in hip-hop. “It’s no surprise niggaz is crossing over,” said Richie Dollaz, Radio Promotions Guru/Label Executive of Next Selection/Interscope. “When something so popular explodes and it’s in your blood, it only makes sense you move with it.”
The implications of these revelations are great if we consider how it reflects the larger issue of our difficulty accepting the often-overlapping identities and histories of blacks and Latinos. The convergent discourses of race in Latin America and the United States make it such that to be black is not necessarily compatible with being Latino, despite the fact that it may be reality. Tego Calderón, famous for speaking about his multi-ethnic identity, spares no moment to bring the intersections of black and Latino identity to the forefront. “I already won the hearts and respect of those I wanted to win—mi gente Latina, my people, the street, my black brothers and sisters.”11The reader cannot help but be thrown by the reference to Latino people being followed by a description of their simultaneous blackness. The future of urban music may rest in the ability for hip-hop and reggaeton to more peaceably coexist with an understanding by the artists and executives that their histories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are often far too related to rely on essentialist constructions of race and ethnicity.
- 1. Agustin Gurza. “When the Fad Goes Fizzle,” Los Angeles Times (April 16, 2006).
- 2. Wayne Marshall. “From Daddy Yankee to Tego Calderon and Beyond,” The Phoenix (Jan 19, 2006).
- 3. Jesus Triviño. “Spanish Fly,” The Source (2004).
- 4. Raquel Rivera. “Between Blackness and Latinidad in the Hip-hop Zone” in A Companion to Latina/o Studies, Juan Flores and Renato Rosaldo, eds (Malden, MA: Blackwell 2007).
- 5. Helena Maria Viramontes. “Marks of the Chicana Corpus: An Intervention in the Universality Debate,” in A Companion to Latina/o Studies:14.
- 6. Alfredo Nieves. “A Man Lives Here: Reggaeton’s Hypermasculine Resident,” in Reggaeton, Raquel Rivera et al, eds (Durham, NC: Duke, 2009).
- 7. Zaire Dinzey-Flores. “De la Disco al Caserio: Urban Spatial Aesthetics and Policy to the Beat of Reggaeton,” Centro Journal 20, no. 2 (2008): 34-69.
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Interview with Christopher Wammai.
- 10. This type of comment of course lends itself to the question of whether reggaeton will ever be accepted as authentic if performed by non-Latinos. That, however, was beyond the scope of my interviews.
- 11. Shawn Lawrence James. “Tego Calderon Opposes P. Diddy’s Sean John Deal in Light of Sweatshop Scandal,” Allhiphop.com (January 18, 2005).