Reggaetón Resiste

Graciela Batista
BFA IL 2024

Reggaeton has been circling my mind endlessly for months now. I listen to its addictive beat as one observes a muse, searching for a tick of inspiration. What exactly do I want to say about my musical guilty pleasure when there is so much to unpack? Why am I fascinated by how quickly it became an international sensation? And how do I talk about it without idealizing a very flawed genre? Perhaps it’s only an attempt to justify my fascination with its overtly sexual lyrics and repetitive nature, but I cannot shake the feeling that reggaeton is more than la musica de los jóvenes (music of the younger generation), that it is instead a deeply empowering catalyst for anti-authoritarian sentiment across decades of imperialism and local injustices.

It’s a divisive genre for so many reasons, from the prevalent sexualization and objectification of women’s bodies evident in hundreds of songs to the day-to-day politics of toxic macho Latin American masculinity. Older generations can’t seem to get behind reggaeton’s constant incorporation of slurs and references to drugs, alcohol, and crime. Nonetheless, behind la mala palabreria (bad mouthery), it is the sound of people reflecting their reality outward.

Reggaeton has a dense history that includes Jamaican beats, Panama Spanish reggae (or dancehall), and New York City’s hip hop influences. During the early 1990s, when it was still considered underground, Puerto Rico was undergoing a massive crime wave. Pedro Rosello launched his position as governor with the repressive anti-crime campaign “Mano Dura contra el Crimen’” (Iron Fist Against Crime). Part of this policy included the occupation of public housing projects by the police and national guard, who were charged with stopping drug trafficking at its source. Troops marched into projects, thoroughly searched the area, and fenced in the residents, unsurprisingly provoking widespread police brutality.

Many of reggaeton’s rising artists lived in, or adjacent to, these public housing projects, and their music captured the raging spirit of resistance. Songs like “Señor Oficial'' by Eddie Dee or “Somos Raperos No Delincuentes” by Ivy Queen condemned the government’s actions as abusive. And when lyrics like “prende un fili que quiero fumar, la policía me lo puede mamar” (light a joint, I want to smoke, the police can suck my dick) suddenly gained popularity, an unofficial war on reggaeton began. The music became an easy target; music stores were raided and hundreds of cassettes destroyed.

Police persecution became one of the more popular topics in reggaeton tracks because it was what the artists were experiencing. On the other hand, songs that spoke on violence did not commence with police brutality but with tracks that documented tensions between drug lords or competing rappers. Songs like these existed simultaneously to those transcribing violent encounters with authority, both meditating on lived experiences. However, the tracks that presented conflicts between their own people as violent and aggressive drove the narrative that public housing residents were dangerous; the same narrative that the police used to their advantage to excuse cruel practices. While revelatory lyrics about violence were the reason people celebrated the genre as resistance against authority, they also furthered the public bias toward low-income families as chaotic and criminal. Acknowledging this double bind is essential to understanding reggaeton as a genre that has been and can be misinterpreted. Trisha Rose describes this best in “Black Noise”, her evaluation on rap music: “In the case of rap music, which takes place under intense public surveillance, similar contradictions regarding class, gender and race are highlighted, decontextualized and manipulated so as to destabilize rap’s resistive elements.”

Reggaeton is innately nationalist, but I wish to redefine nationalism as more than an identification with one's own nation and include identification with one's own body. One can argue these are the same. Reggaeton demands respect, and through that , I feel a sense of pride and authority in the self. Ivy Queen’s song “Quiero Bailar” connects these sensibilities in urging that one’s desire to dance should not be confused with the desire to sleep with a partner. Even beyond giving women a voice in a male-dominated industry, Ivy Queen pushes reggaeton to be a liberated space for flaunting one's body, a musical manifestation of resistance in a largely Catholic and conservative culture.

When my own family challenges my fascination with reggaeton, I usually omit the appeal of sexual liberation and focus instead on its history as community-wide resistance. I began this essay referring to the genre as my “musical guilty pleasure” because that is the title of the Spotify playlist in which I house all my favorite tracks. This guilt could be my religious upbringing creeping through my personhood: I grew up believing that those that indulge in reggaeton’s profane lyrics were delinquents—lawless and unruly. And worse: if you were a woman who liked the music, you lost all respect. For a man to objectify a woman is only natural, the conservative line goes, but a woman should never refer to her own body in this way. The music is my personal protest against that psychology, liberation from the restrictive understanding of a woman’s position in society. Taking back the language about my body reveals my personal agency—it’s my body’s nationalism.

Reggaeton suggests an admirable frankness and innate unity as well. It values the collective over the individual, a characteristic that is arguably native to our people in general. Take Ricardo Rosello’s dramatic downfall as governor of the island: the political scandal in the summer of 2019 sparked the biggest protests of the decade and inspired various forms of art. Leaked transcripts of a group chat that included some of the biggest political figures on the island revealed misogynistic, homophobic, and sexist remarks as well as comments making fun of victims who died during Hurricane Maria, inciting the indignation of thousands. “Afilando Los Cuchillos” by Bad Bunny, Residente, and Ile captured the essence of that indignation. They left nothing unsaid on their track, denouncing the governor’s personal faults and political failures. This rage united people in ideology, as did the chants—often recontextualized classic reggaeton tracks—played during those hot summer demonstrations. When Rosello announced his resignation via Facebook live, the streets exploded with the chanting “Te Boté” by various artists. The lyrics, which sung of an abusive ex and the ability to move on, resonated powerfully that night as we watched a ruler who had hurt his own people leave. That night it became the song of a community speaking up, showing out, and changing the course of history—nationalism of the nation.

Perhaps I cannot wrap my head around reggaeton’s international success in moments like those, moments where I am reminded of its intimate connection to its land, people, and intention. It is the articulation, immortalization, and commemoration of the people’s stories that compose the songs of reggaeton as national anthems. On an individual level, reggaeton is the protest of taking control of the body; as a collective, reggaeton is the voice of power in masses. As much as I’d like to exalt reggaeton as revolutionary, a challenge remains: the music bolsters the very system that oppresses the people it speaks for. In other words, reggaeton is as messy and warped as it is revolutionary and unconventional. It can never be an easy solution to the social and governmental politics of the island because it has already lost so many of these battles. At times the genre has given in to mainstream ideology due to advances in the industry; colorism and injustices don’t seem as important when a party track would get more hits. And songs that bring to light injustices also include degrading lines about women. Reggaeton, through its many victories and losses, reflects the reality of the people who create it, and is ultimately a voice of nonconformity, struggle, and tension. Reggaetón resiste (reggaeton resists) because of this complexity, not in spite of it.

Graciela Batista is currently trying to branch out in her music preferences.