Reggaetón Still Gets a Bad Rap
Why the urban Latin music genre makes people in power nervous
By Juan Carlos Pérez-Duthie
Several years after reggaetón reached its peak and some of its performers went on to become major stars, the music still ruffles feathers.
But it’s not raperos in this country that are feeling the heat for their once sex-and-violence-drenched lyrics. Those performers had to change their tune, or risk becoming the flavor of the day.
Thus, hardcore reggaetón led to more romantic or danceable forms of the genre, and saw performers like Wisin & Yandel, Tito El Bambino, and Don Omar, among others, broaden their base and get a second wind in their careers. Those who didn’t evolve fell behind and dropped off the music radar.
Guess some countries, especially in the Caribbean, didn’t hear that the party was cancelled.
Earlier this month, the Cuban government announced that it was going to crack down on reggaetón. The government said it considers reggaetón a type of music that corrupts people, is insulting to the Cuban woman, and devalues the musical traditions of the island.
One may or may not agree with that assessment, but Cuba doesn’t stand alone.
Puerto Rico, cradle of this mix of hip hop en español, street slang, and roots from Panama and Jamaica, tried to stamp it out when it first sprouted from the marquesinas or garage and porch areas in many houses to the clubs and then on to radio. But the music proved unstoppable and Puerto Rico had to come around.
In Cuba however, there’s a more formidable enemy at play: the repressive apparatus of a communist government that fears anything that may sway the masses. Timba, son, and other Cuban rhythms are still beloved, but Cuban youth - like so many other youth around the world - have found in urban music and reggaetón a way to forget about their troubles and just have a good time.
According to several recent news reports discussing the issue, there are ways to make reggaetoneros’ lives miserable. The Instituto Cubano de la Música (ICM) will guarantee that they would be removed from official lists for events, they would not get work gigs, and that radio and TV stations on the island would not play their music. Like so much else in Cuba, the government could try to make them disappear.
The reality - as usual - is different, and whether pushed underground or heard from radio stations in Miami or neighboring islands, reggaetón will find a way to skirt around the controls and flow.
Lest you think that a crusade against the vulgarity of urban music is a product of Cuba’s hypocritical, hypercritical, censorship obsessed and paranoid political system, think again. In nearby democratic Dominican Republic - another island famous for its musical contributions - reggaetón has also had some hard times.
In the mid-2000s and up to this day, antinarcotics and law enforcement authorities from that country linked the music to the increase in the use of drugs and drug-related crimes. Songs from several artists were even banned from radio, including tracks by Calle 13, Tego Calderón, and Lito & Polaco.
Hispanic urban artists - like many of their predecessors and colleagues in the world of English-language rap and hip hop - have certainly done tangible damage to their image and their cause by the subjects treated early on in their music and by the violence perpetrated on one another and the criminal backgrounds of some performers.
Today’s heavy hitters though are not the ones espousing violent and misogynistic and downright dirty songs. Ask Daddy Yankee.
In many cases, urban music continues to be a voice for the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and the poor. That’s something that Cuba’s masters and other governments fear, of course.
In Latin America, indigenous youth have found in rap a way to vent their frustrations. In Brazil, for example, you have Bro MC’s; in Bolivia, there was Abraham Bojorquez, now deceased, and Wayna Rap, as well as Insane Race and Clandestine Race; in Chile it’s Legua York and Wechekeche ñi Trawün; Mexico boasts Sociedad Café and Movimiento Acaxao; Los Nin in Ecuador; Paraguay had Nando El Enviado and Nino MC (both killed in a car accident in September), and so on.
Aymaras, Mapuches and other Amerindian groups of young people feel they now have a voice and have even incorporated folk sounds and instruments to their urban creations.
Even in Puerto Rico, protest can be found in a new generation of acts – Perros de Pavlov, Intifada, etc. – that stick closer to the roots of original hip hop than to the bling-bling mania that once characterized reggaetón, and do not disdain musical fusion.
The bottom line is that all these groups from various countries have something to say. Loud. And that is always scary, whether in Cuba or somewhere else.