A learning moment that I will never forget occurred to me a few Thursdays ago. A Mexican friend of mine and I were discussing artists that we were listening to after realizing how similar our music tastes were. At one point, I brought up Bad Gyal, a Reggaeton artist from Barcelona, Spain. At the sound of her background, my friend was taken aback before explaining to me what her cultural context meant to them.
Historically, Spain colonized what we know today as the world’s Latin American countries. Most of us know this, but have failed to consider what this means. During this period, Spain attempted to rob the dignity and identity of these countries’ native people by inhumanely forcing them into abandoning their languages, cultures and resources. To this day, Latin Americans, and the succeeding generations of these disrespected people, are still recovering from this. Now, artists who are descendants of the history that traumatized these people are interested in their culture and becoming popular when they use it. Of course this would trigger my friend and concern them at the thought of the future of Reggaeton, a rich, Latin American genre of music. Will cultural appropriators try to colonize this and take this from them too?
As a Black person, I could relate to and empathize with this concern and trauma response. I could especially relate to being the successor of a painful history that fuels their culture’s beauty, which has become the fetish of the ignorant. Instantly, I wondered how many more Latin American people shared my friend’s sentiment and why I have not heard of this from the countless “woke” platforms that we’ve been tailoring our morals to as a society.
Immediately, I wanted to interview my dear friend, visual artist and writer Angélica Díaz. Born and raised in Puerto Rico—a notable contributor to Reggaeton—Díaz is what some would call a “war baby.” Since youth, she has witnessed her country’s battle against the hold of post-colonization through channels such as music and other forms of self-identification. Even though she is currently studying in New York, she is living through another war: the battle against American colonization.
To my luck, I was able to score an interview with her last Thursday. I was once again faced with an unforgettable, educational moment. After reading Angélica Díaz’s perspective on this pressing topic, my only hope is that you are left with a new lesson too.
What is Reggaeton?
Angélica: You know how people try to say things like,”This place is like the ‘Brooklyn’ of Puerto Rico?”
A: I don’t like that s**t. But a close comparison to Reggaeton is American hip hop and rap, especially when it comes to its history, at least where I’m from. From what I understand, this genre is very tied to Puerto Rico as it was important to the formation of this style. I wasn’t really into it as a kid because most Reggaeton songs were about sex, drugs and violence. But because it’s so embedded in Puerto Rican culture and history, no person in PR would have never heard of it, whether they are super into it or not. There’s always an artist that everyone knows. Just like how everyone knows Wu Tang, everyone knows Daddy Yankee, Bad Bunny or—let’s not say that he’s great but—Anuel AA. He is not a person to look up to but we all know who he is.
Back in the ‘90s, listening to and playing [Reggaeton] was illegal. Some people still look down upon it. Usually the people that still look down believe that it’s an easy artform. I don’t particularly agree with that because music means something to people, regardless of if you like it or not. Many people grew up with Reggaeton, including my father, who was also within that scene as well. Where I’m from is the “ghetto” or “the hood” of the country, so I could connect with a lot of the subjects of the songs, especially those related to violence. Those that formed Reggaeton were usually from these types of neighborhoods. Started from the bottom, no Drake s**t.
What does Reggaeton mean to you and your culture?
Angélica: I’ll give you the “Default Angie Introduction.” I’ve been away from home for almost four years now because I came here to study. I’ve never lived outside of my country. Surprisingly, I don’t know anybody here who is from PR. Unfortunately, due to COVID, insane plane ticket prices and all types of s**t, I haven’t been able to go back home and see my family. I miss my home, family, friends, culture and my language.
So, Reggaeton—especially Puerto Rican Reggaeton—has been helping me stay connected to home, my best friends, my memories and my roots. I feel like I’m at my home away from home. With Reggaeton, the musician will talk how we usually do back home. Because I haven’t been able to speak as much Puerto Rican Spanish here, I feel comfortable with how the music surrounds me with my language. I always had this fear of forgetting my language and my culture and this genre silences that as it reminds me of my…Puerto Rican-ness? Let’s just say that. I feel like I’m still here.
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of Reggaeton blasting from cars and places at random times here. It’s surprising and cool that this artform is appreciated and consumed in commonly non-Hispanic spaces, communities and countries. I had a teacher tell me that they were in Japan and they heard Reggaeton playing. It’s crazy and nice to know that even though Latin Americans are not [always] acknowledged, we still have this global reach.
Now, Reggaeton’s meaning to my culture…I’m going to have to start with the genre’s meaning to Latin American countries. I feel like there is a sense of unity that it creates between us because a lot of us have contributed to the artform and this allows us to connect. But, although we all speak Spanish, share histories and share trauma, we are not the same. As I said before, crime and drugs and how the artists relate to them are discussed in this genre. [Latin Americans] have witnessed and have been affected by these topics. We’ve all seen some s**t, so this connects us as well.
In Puerto Rico, Reggaeton has been moving with the times. For instance, Bad Bunny. I used to not like him but now I really do.
Angie and I laugh, remembering this change of heart.
A: Because Bad Bunny is close to our age and generation while also being a part of that scene, he and his music are certainly bringing something new in a way. Puerto Rico is somewhat traditional so it’s great to see Bad Bunny use the genre to bring awareness to topics like questioning identity. So that’s a bit of where this music is going back home.
You mentioned how Latin American countries share history and trauma. Can you tell us how the trauma from Spanish colonization has manifested itself in the Latin American community today?
Angélica: In every way possible. Because the story of how we speak Spanish is somewhat shared, I’ll narrow this part down to Puerto Rico, for accuracy’s sake. We were just natives, the Taínos, and then these motherf**kers appeared. But we speak Spanish now as a result of the Spaniards coming in, taking our native language and culture while abusing, enslaving and murdering our native people. The reality of religion, namely Catholicism and Christianity, being big in Latin American communities and countries is because of the colonizers. These religions were forced on the natives as a way to erase their religion.
Now, going back to PR’s history, my country has never been free. First it was the Spanish and now it’s the United States. Over 500 years, we suffered the colonization of Spain. The reason we’re called Puerto Rico is because we had a lot of gold, and they stole that s**t. So they physically and conceptually stole from us. With the trauma from Spain and the US, there is internalized racism there because we come from a mix of people—the Spanish, the natives and enslaved Africans. So we have never “fit in” because our oppressors want us to be one thing, one race. This threatens to completely erase our societies, communities and cultures. On top of that, we’re looked down upon by Spain and others for how we speak Spanish as if we’re “not doing it right.”
This sentiment usually comes from the glamorization and fetishization of the Spanish language. Spanish is hella sexy but I do feel that some people are not respectful about this. For some reason there’s this ideal dialect that’s “hot” that people think all Spanish speakers sound like. Like English, not everyone speaks it the same. It’s one thing to poke fun…
Dana: And it's another thing to be a d***he.
A: Yeah. It feels like Puerto Ricans are not the “desirable” Spanish speakers. We’re desirable in the way that we’re expected to be “exotic,”have “sun-kissed skin,” and “gorgeous.” But we don’t speak that “dialect” or the “correct Spanish.”
D: The “Broken Spanish.”
A: Right. I feel like when I speak Spanish here that others will think that it's the gross version since it's not the “fancy” version.
D: Just because you’re not Penelope Cruz…
A: I feel like I’d be called a hoodrat. I get that there’s a formal and informal way to speak a language…
D: But when you call a whole language informal because that’s not how you speak it…
A: Like, we didn’t want to learn Spanish in the first place. I have heard that there are parts of Spain where they speak like us. So it’s like how can you fetishize a dialect of Spanish that actually belongs to a specific part of Spain and think that this is how all Spanish speakers talk? Another place where this post-colonization trauma hits us is within the education system. Growing up, learning about Puerto Rican history in school, we’re taught history as if the colonizers were the good guys. I get it. When you’re a kid, no one is going to tell you “the colonizers came and raped and murdered.” But as we grew, no one told us how outright disgusting this part of our history was.
I’m not sure if this is the same for most Latin American countries, but there are still parts of Puerto Rican history that have been purposely hidden from us. There are a lot of things that we don’t know about ourselves. I was never taught in school that when the Spaniards came, the Taínos thought that they were gods. The Taínos had never seen pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes before. But one day, some Taínos had drowned a Spaniard because of their curiosity toward their “godliness” and killed him as a result. There they learned that the Spaniards were just humans and were perpetuating this evil onto the Taíno people all of this time. The Taínos were depicted as “savages” because they believed in more than one god and their faith was nature based. The whole time they were civilized and living their lives.
I had a friend that believed that Puerto Rican culture and history was just struggle and oppression and that the art that the Taínos made—the cemis—was primitive. First of all, not everything has to look like European art to be art. The Taínos could have done more s**t if the Spanish didn’t come over and ruin everything. So there’s that.
Now, what are your feelings about Spanish musicians entering the Reggaeton scene and how their music is gaining popularity?
Angélica: First of all, I kind of like Rosalía (a popular Spanish artist who is known for her Reggaeton pieces along with her works in other genres). So I don’t have beef with Rosalía. I get it: Spain and Spanish-speaking countries speak Spanish. But on a sociopolitical level, it feels kind of weird. Some Spanish Reggaeton artists are good, sure. But when some of these artists become internationally popular and they show disregard for the origins of the genre, their fans will usually do the same. As a result, this perpetuates the disrespect toward those that do not speak the “golden dialect” and the cultures/countries that made the genre. I’ve noticed that some of these artists also put on accents to “sound Latinoamérican.” It’s kind of weird.
When a Spanish artist appropriates Reggaeton down to putting on these accents, it can make many question “is this the acceptable version of this music?” I know that a lot of Reggaeton artists today, especially Spanish artists, are faking their experiences for the genre’s sake. I’m not saying that there aren’t any hoods and ghettos in Spain, but some aspects of the subjects of Reggaeton are very specific to the goings on in Latin American hoods and ghettos.
Again, I love me some Rosalía. So I’m not saying that Spanish artists can’t make Reggaeton.
How commonly discussed is this concern toward Spanish artists in the Reggaeton scene within the Latin American community?
Angélica: Not a lot. I feel, in Puerto Rico’s case, we’re becoming more aware of our social and political issues and [how] they affect us deeply. However, some of us are also internalizing these issues in the form of looking upon Puerto Rican issues with an American perspective to feel that we have a place or voice in this world. A lot of the US’s issues do not occur in PR, like institutional racism. So these questions of “what race am I,” “where do I fit in in this world?”, and “how does the world view me as a human and Puerto Rican” instill these feelings of inadequacy/ I believe that this is why we do not have huge discussions about this topic.
But I do know that most of us always say [things] like “F**k Spain’ because they did all this s**t.” However, there are others that believe that Spain is the motherland because they “brought Spanish” to us.
Being in the US, I would have expected to hear about this more because there are a lot of people here that are trying to be woke. In the US, when there are issues that concern Latin Americans, people always ignore it. They don’t talk about it, but they are quick to call Reggaeton the “Spanish version of Hip Hop and Rap.” This genre is composed of way more than Hip Hop and Rap. Our culture is [still] being appropriated in the US.
Dana: Highly imitated, never appreciated.
Can there be a solution for this concern about the Reggaeton scene? How can Spanish musicians contribute to Reggaeton respectfully? Angélica: The solution starts with viewing this issue from the perspectives of all those involved. Not an American perspective. Nor should this issue be analyzed through a Spanish lens. This is a completely different conversation. Second, if you do not know about the genre, educate yourselves about it. This goes for all artists who want to contribute to Reggaeton, not just Spanish artists. Of course, we will not know everything. Solo sé que no sé nada, I only know I know nothing. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn and gain a better understanding of your world. It’s better to do something unknowingly than being purposefully ignorant. The world should be able to understand and empathize with those that are willing to learn and actually grow from mistakes like this. Cancel somebody when they’re purposely being ignorant.
Dana: And respectfully ask a Latin American person if you don’t know something that is related to their culture.
A: And please don’t put on an accent in order to make Reggaeton. Just make your own s**t.
Images from Dana Hinkson