Colombian singer J Balvin Image Credit: AP

J Balvin apologised for a music video that featured Black people whose facial features were altered to make them look like dogs, including two Black women who were depicted as being walked on a leash by the reggaeton star.

Critics of the ‘Perra’ video include the vice president of Balvin’s native Colombia — who co-signed an open letter that the song’s lyrics, and video feature “misogynistic expressions that violate the rights of women” — and the singer’s own mother, who told a Colombian news programme that the video prompted her to call her son to ask, “Where is the Jossito that I know?”

Balvin’s apology, posted in his Instagram stories, arrived roughly a week after the video quietly disappeared from YouTube. “I want to say sorry to whomever felt offended, especially women and the Black community,” Balvin said in Spanish. “That’s not who I am. I’m about tolerance, love and inclusivity.”

The music video is the latest controversy for the ‘Mi Gente’ singer, who has been criticised throughout his career for culturally appropriating from Black artists and making tone-deaf statements about race. Amid widespread protests over racial justice last year, Balvin was slammed for posting a video of him dancing with a Black woman alongside the Black Lives Matter hashtag. (He later pledged to “do better”.) But the outcry over ‘Perra’ — which features rising Afro-Dominican rapper Tokischa — also highlights long-standing issues in the genre that made Balvin a pop star.

Reggaeton grew out of predominantly Black communities in Panama and Puerto Rico decades ago, but its surge up the pop charts in recent years has positioned White or light-skinned artists as its most visible stars. In his apology, Balvin noted his desire to support Tokischa, “a woman who supports her people, her community and also empowers women,” and other up-and-coming artists.

Tokischa’s involvement in the song and video, where she appears on all fours in a doghouse, has sparked debate on social media, with some defending her agency as an artist and as a woman embracing her sexuality in a male-dominated genre; others offered criticism, citing her role as just another example of a non-Black reggaeton artist like Balvin using a Black woman for commercial clout.

For her part, Tokischa defended the ‘Perra’ video as “conceptual” in an interview with Rolling Stone. “If you, as a creative, have a song that’s talking about dogs, you’re going to create that world,” she said. “I understand the interpretation people had and I’m truly sorry that people felt offended. But at the same time, art is expression. It’s creating a world.”

Tokischa’s manager, Raymi Paulus, who directed the ‘Perra’ video, told Rolling Stone that the dog theme was meant to evoke “the realities” of life in the Dominican Republic’s “barrios.” “Our creative process never aimed to promote racism or misogyny,” Paulus added. “The Dominican Republic is a country where most of the population is Black, and our Blackness is predominant in underground scenes, where the filming took place, and which was the subject of the video’s inspiration.”

Tokischa added that she was not part of the decision to remove the video, and that she had approached Balvin to collaborate with her on the track. “He came here to record with me and to share his platform with me,” she said. “Now I’m like ‘What did I get Jose in?’ “

Balvin has emerged as a defining figure in reggaeton, particularly following his 2017 collaboration with Beyonc, on a remix of ‘Mi Gente,’ and subsequent Coachella performance. He has become a champion of the genre and of Latin artists, even as his career has embodied many of the disparities within the industry.

In recent years, Balvin has been among a cohort of reggaeton artists boycotting the Latin Grammys for relegating the Latin pop genre to urban and specialty categories. But that thread of criticism, which Balvin echoed after this year’s nominations were announced last month, fails to recognise the Black artists — including many of Balvin’s collaborators — whose work has been repeatedly overlooked by the Latin Recording Academy.

In his apology video, Balvin directly addressed his mother. “Mom, I’m sorry,” he said. “Life gets better each day. Thank you for listening to me.”