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The unstoppable rise of reggaeton

In the last decade, reggaeton has exploded into the mainstream. We trace its booming ascent and undeniable impact

Reggaeton

Words: Jhoni Jackson
Illustration: Larissa Hoff

When Daddy Yankee’s Gasolina was unleashed into the world in 2004, it spread like wildfire.

The quickly-iconic hit signalled a new era of Latinx representation in mainstream culture, something that had been missing since Mexican-American pop star Selena was tragically murdered at the height of her powers in 1995. Fifteen years later, and it still commands a perreo intenso (or, intense grinding) like no other when DJs drop it in the club – which they do, all over the Anglo world, frequently.

Fast forward to 2017 and Daddy Yankee is featuring on Luis Fonsi’s chart-busting hit, Despacito, signalling another reggaeton revolution. By the following year, the song’s unprecedented commercial success had even garnered Fonsi Guinness World Records recognition: it spent 16 weeks at No. 1 in the Billboard charts (a feat only topped by Old Town Road), became the most-streamed song worldwide and was the first YouTube video to hit five billion views. And that’s just the beginning.

Right now, reggaeton is closer to pop than it’s ever been

But in its commercial triumphs, and in comparison to Gasolina, Despacito also serves as an indicator – and a guidepost – for how the genre’s sound has permeated into the mainstream. Right now, reggaeton is closer to pop than it’s ever been, a powerful force in the music industry, underwritten by skyrocketing YouTube views, Billboard chart placements and global concert sales.

The genre’s popularity in Western markets might seem sudden to some, but it has a history. Reggaeton, an intoxicating blend of Spanish-language reggae, dembow rhythms and dancehall, is an adaptable, living genre. For better or worse (depending on who you ask) reggaeton has evolved over time – and never more so than in the 2010s. Its latest commercial iterations rely heavily on trap and pop, harnessed by chart-topping artists like J Balvin, Ozuna and Arcangel. It’s upped the dancehall quotient at times, and dialled it down, incorporated more or less of its fundamental rhythm, dembow, and even spawned surprise mutations, like when Bad Bunny’s Tenemos Que Hablar folded in touches of pop-punk.

The building blocks of the genre, though, trace back to late- 70s Panama. The US-controlled Canal Zone construction drew in West Indian workers, and when the area was returned to Panama in 1979, Jamaican riddims paired with Spanish lyrics flowed on local buses called Diablos Rojos (red devils). In the early 90s, the sound grew with the Puerto Rican collective The Noise, which included pioneering female artist Ivy Queen. Founding figure DJ Negro ran a club in San Juan by the same name, and it was there that the collective, plus artists like Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderon and Wisin & Yandel, propelled the movement.

Reggaeton was a fountain of unadulterated joy for many, warranting close dancing and unrepentant sexuality as a form of catharsis

Reggaeton was a fountain of unadulterated joy for many, warranting close dancing and unrepentant sexuality as a form of catharsis. And as it’s prominence rose, spreading to other Latin American countries and the US, the genre became an unmatchable source of pride for Latinxs.

As a result of the Gasolina-aided mid-00s commercial boom, the past few years have been a blur of hits – many that have changed reggaeton’s landscape forever. A major accelerant in this is Bad Bunny’s boundary-breaking debut album X 100PRE. A rich tapestry of trap, reggaeton and bachata, it features a cameo from Ricky Martin on self-love anthem Caro, and with Solo de Mi, Bad Bunny fortified the song’s affecting lyrics with a message of solidarity with domestic abuse survivors in its music video. Most notably, though, the album was praised for its unabashed emotional vulnerability and, paired with Bad Bunny’s meticulous manicures and eccentric, neon-hued fashion sense, presented male reggaetoneros in a different light altogether. Operating in the same arena where Puerto Rican artist Anuel AA espoused homophobic lyrics in 2018 diss track Intocable, Bad Bunny’s aesthetic and social stance felt significant.

Reggaeton and urbano are, in some corners, also running parallel to the #MeToo movement. Artists like Natti Natasha, Karol G and Becky G are flipping the genre’s overt male-narrated sexuality to the female POV, reclaiming agency with each beat. There’s the aforementioned politics of Bad Bunny’s X 100PRE and, earlier this year, he teamed up with Puerto Rican rapper Residente in what many heralded as a step forward in feminist progress. Their joint track Bellacoso is all about being horny as hell – but explicitly “sin acoso” (or, ‘without harassment’), spotlighting consent as the centre of the song.

the inclusion of feminism and queerness shores up the genre’s ability to grow and adapt

An offshoot of this is the neo-perreo movement, a digitally- drenched, feminist iteration of dembow led by artists like Tomasa Del Real, Ms Nina and DJ Rosa Pistola, and outspoken queer artists like Sailorfag, La Pajarita La Paul and the late Kevin Fret, Puerto Rico’s first openly gay Latin trap artist who was fatally shot in his hometown this year. For a genre with roots in the hyper-patriarchal Latinx landscape, the inclusion of feminism and queerness shores up the genre’s ability to grow and adapt to the world around it.

This progress wouldn’t have been possible in any other decade. As an Extremely Online generation, people from marginalised backgrounds the world over have created new platforms for themselves on the internet, raising their communities and culture to new heights. Latinxs have also followed suit in this movement, boldly expressing our varied identities with unflinching pride.

This was the decade Latinxs demanded space and reggaeton became truly visible

In the 2010s, reggaeton became our protective shield, with its infectious hooks, waist-pumping beats and inimitably radiant energy. It crystallised into the worldwide genre we always knew it could be if it was given the chance. And in a Trumpian, increasingly right-wing landscape where our Latinx identity is not only misunderstood, but largely not tolerated, the genre’s success offered a sparkling counter to the antagonising narratives associated with us on the news. This was the decade Latinxs demanded space and reggaeton became truly visible – and we invited everyone along for the ride, one perreo intenso at a time.