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The rise and transformation of Reggaeton

By Amanda Vilanova


I watched the opening of the 2023 Grammys solely because it was the reggaeton artist and fellow Boricua (Puerto Rican) Bad Bunny who would be performing. He didn’t disappoint, making history as the first ever all-Spanish opening act and playing a medley of songs with plena and merengue rhythms. Plena is a Puerto Rican genre of folk music born from the mix of Spanish and African beats. It is linked to both political resistance and having a good time. Merengue is from the Dominican Republic, with a beat typically in double and triple time that is a must at any Latin American party. Bad Bunny faced the A-list crowd accompanied by both dancers and cabezudos, handmade puppets known as ‘big heads’ and shaped like important individuals in Puerto Rican history. The whole thing made me ooze national pride, and his collaboration with the island’s multidisciplinary artist collective Agua Sol Y Sereno for the performance made me respect him even more.

He went on to win the Grammy for best Música Urbana Album of the year. This follows a string of accolades that include five Latin Grammys, status as the most streamed artist on Spotify three years in a row and being the first ever Latin American to headline the Coachella Festival. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated the prize to Puerto Rico, the birthplace and capital of reggaeton (‘la cuna y la capital del reggaeton’) and to the legends of the genre. He finished with a call out to up-and-coming artists to continue taking reggaeton to new heights. As I watched him speak, I thought about how much the perception of reggaeton has changed over time. The music hasn’t always been celebrated and its rise to international recognition is an interesting one. 

If you think you aren’t familiar with reggaeton, you’re probably wrong. Among other popular songs you’d recognize immediately if they came on mid-party, there’s the infectious Despacito featuring Daddy Yankee. In recent years, artists like Drake and Cardi B have collaborated with reggaetoneros leading to international hits like Tusa by Karol G and Nicky Minaj, I Like it by Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin, and Mía by Bad Bunny and Drake. Reggaeton’s genesis is traced back to the arrival of West Indians who migrated to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. A Panamanian marriage of reggae and Spanish rhythms bred the reggaeton dembow beat among artists like El General and Nando Boom. The reggae en Español beat made its way to Puerto Rico where it flourished and developed as underground music played by the country’s poorest communities. It was there that the rhythm was coined reggaeton, and most people couldn’t have anticipated the powerhouse it would become. 

Growing up in Puerto Rico in the 90s and early 2000s, reggaeton was playing everywhere and being talked about daily on the news, usually for all the wrong reasons. My first memories of it are a mix of thrill and shame. Its rhythm has always been described as pegajoso (sticky) and its lyrics were often sexually explicit. Couples dance in the perreo style, grinding on each other against walls, hasta abajo (all the way down) and sometimes with hands on the floor and bums held high. Any teenager at that time would have told you that their parents did not want them listening or dancing to it, especially if they were female. The music was said to glorify criminal conduct and to objectify women. Music videos were dominated by scantily clad females dancing for men’s pleasure. As a teenage girl, I felt a yearning to be looked at the way those women were looked at, even if this had nothing to do with my own enjoyment. My self-worth and desirability were directly linked to my ability to please the opposite sex. Speaking to women I grew up with, there is a consensus that we felt beckoned to be sexy, but shunned for being sexually active, and reggaeton did not help. 

My mother could not stand it, particularly because of the relationship many claimed it had with violence against women. Puerto Rico is notorious for gender-based violence. This is, of course, not caused by music, but some have viewed reggaeton’s content as a symptom of the violent male chauvinism that pervades the island and most of Latin America. Cut to 2023 and my mother is singing reggaeton out loud with a broad smile on her face, hips moving to and fro. After my initial shock, I asked myself what had changed. My first thought was national pride. The island has celebrated Bad Bunny’s worldwide recognition with the same gusto it celebrated Daddy Yankee’s status as the ‘King of Reggaeton’, Ricky Martin’s many hits since Livin’ La Vida Loca, Puerto Rico winning five Miss Universe contests, victories in male and female boxing, having an astronaut in space with NASA… We have a general belief that the success of one Puerto Rican is a success for us all. 

I was ecstatic over Bad Bunny’s win. There is something decidedly different about him compared to most successful reggaetoneros that have come before. In 2020, he released a song called Yo perreo sola, translated by some as ‘I (feminine) twerk alone’. In the song’s video Bad Bunny, dressed as a woman, dances sensually and comically in different outfits, mirroring those women I saw in music videos of the past. Shining in neon lights in the background are the slogans, ‘Ni una menos’ (Not one (woman) less) and ‘Las mujeres mandan’ (Women rule), phrases synonymous with feminist protest against male violence in Latin America. The video ends with shots of women of different shapes, ages and sizes dancing on their own, their way. It then cuts to a black screen with the following words in red: Si no quiere bailar contigo, respeta, ella perrea sola. (‘If she doesn’t want to dance with you, respect her. She twerks alone.’) The song and video were a hit and an immediate favourite of mine. The music video took me back to my very first attempt at perreo. As a goody two-shoes, my grinding on a classmate in public was looked on with shock by my peers. The whole thing was momentarily thrilling, but ultimately it was all about him, not me. I preferred, and still prefer, dancing to reggaeton on my own. 

 The movement towards this more gender inclusive and, dare I say, more feminist reggaeton is not the work of Bad Bunny alone. It is a change being seen across the genre and is the product of hard work led by women within Latin American societies to change sexist attitudes. It is also led by female artists rising through the ranks of a male dominated artform. The change isn’t complete or perfect, but it is palpable and exciting. Until a few years ago, the only well-known reggaetonera was the Puerto Rican rapper Ivy Queen. Referred to as La Diva, La Caballota and the ‘Queen of Reggaeton’, she started her career in the mid-nineties as the only woman in an otherwise all-male collective at a famous Puerto Rican nightclub, The Noise. Her third album Diva and its single Quiero Bailar, released in 2003, marked her rise as a leading artist of the genre. Before then, female voices in reggaeton were used mainly for sexy chorus refrains. Ivy, however, had men and women singing, Yo quiero bailar, tú quieres sudar. Y pegarte a mí, el cuerpo rozar. Yo te digo: ‘Sí, tú me puedes provocar.  Eso no quiere decir que pa’ la cama voy.’ (‘I want to dance, you want to sweat. And come close to me, brush up against my body. I say: ‘Yes, you can tempt me, but that doesn’t mean I’m sleeping with you.’’) It declared that women could be as sexual as they want, and still have a choice when accepting or rejecting a partner’s advances. This was a shift that marked a development in reggaeton, and that made the presence and popularity of more progressive reggaetoneros possible. It also changed attitudes towards female rappers, realising their potential for commercial success. 

Asking my mother about her newfound love for perreo, and exchanging some of our favourite hits, I realised it wasn’t just national pride that has brought on this new attitude, but the music’s shift towards mixing with other Latin American rhythms, like merengue, salsa, and plena, as well as the increasing number of female voices within it. The list is still growing; Karol G, Natti Natasha, Becky G, La Duraca, Nesi, Cazzu…  These women are making fun and infectious music that talks about their independence and their sexuality. They are doing so on their own terms as commercially successful artists. Alongside this, some male artists are changing their narrative within the music from one of sexual domination over women to a celebration of consent.

Reggaeton is one of many products of Latin American culture that are becoming mainstream in the US and the wider world. There is finally recognition that Latinos are a community worth working with and catering for. It is exciting that reggaeton’s move towards international success is coinciding with female empowerment and the presence of Latin Americans in mainstream media. Our presence is rising. I hope it does so not only across artforms, but also in many other important aspects of society. This is something both my mother and I can get behind, one perreo at a time.