Reggaeton music has long been a fixture in nightclubs around the Spanish-speaking world, but that hasn’t brought it critical acceptance, with the genre rooted in Puerto Rico’s marginalised communities.
The genre so scorned by the elites has suddenly found a massive new market with the global success of Luis Fonsi’s song Despacito.
Despacito is the first Spanish-language song to hit number one on the benchmark US singles chart, the Billboard Hot 100, since Macarena in 1996.
A remix of the song, which features the Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee and an assist from pop celebrity Justin Bieber, spent its fifth week at number one on the latest chart published on Monday.
Reggaeton - defined by its blend of the fast-paced and club-ready rhythms of Jamaican dancehall with a rap vocal delivery that is often pouring with machismo - took off in Puerto Rico in the 1990s. It was initially simply called “underground.”
Puerto Ricans had been active in the birth of hip-hop in New York, while the beats came via Panama, where Jamaicans and other West Indians worked to build the canal.
“Underground was essentially party music, but it also provided a space to offer political critiques about issues like poverty, police brutality and racism,” said Petra Rivera-Rideau, an assistant professor in American studies at Wellesley College and author of the book Remixing Reggaeton.
“As underground spread, it was subject to a censorship campaign in the mid-1990s that, ironically, wound up providing publicity to the music and exposing it to new audiences,” she said.
Bringing out race and sexuality
Critics attacked reggaeton for its hyper-sexuality, with the Puerto Rican Senate in 2002 holding hearings on the portrayal of women in music videos.
But Rivera-Rideau said that reggaeton also provided a new means of expression, especially for black people in the US Caribbean territory.
“Reggaeton offered an opportunity for artists to articulate connections to the broader African diaspora, particularly urban black youth, and this threatened the fundamental tenets of racial democracy because it called out racism in Puerto Rico,” she said.
Despacito, which means “slowly” in Spanish, is driven by a reggaeton beat with lyrics full of sexual innuendo. Bieber delivers a breathy opening verse and later sings in Spanish — which he recently mangled in a live performance.
Bieber collaborated for the remix released in April after Despacito was already a megahit on Latin charts.
The original video, which came out in January, has amassed more than 1.9 billion views on YouTube - the most of any 2017 release.
A hit even without Bieber
Fonsi has said that Bieber’s participation was the Canadian’s own idea after he heard the hit playing in a club in Colombia.
While the song was already a major hit, Rivera-Rideau said that the remix with Bieber “exposed the song to many people who had never heard it before.”
But complicating the narrative of reggaeton’s rise, Fonsi - not to mention Bieber - does not hail from the genre. Fonsi, 39, has scored hits over the past two decades with ballads and Latin pop tracks rather than reggaeton.
“Many people have talked about Justin Bieber as appropriating reggaeton for his own gain, and that may be the case, but one could argue that Luis Fonsi is doing the same — borrowing from a genre associated with a marginalized community for his own commercial success,” Rivera-Rideau said.
Fonsi, in an interview with Rolling Stone, said he had not set out to write a “crossover record.”
“I felt as though I needed a little bit more movement,” he told the magazine.
“That’s where Latin pop is headed: It’s the right time to put a little rhythm into this record.”