So it’s little surprise that the top reggaeton releases now sell in the hundreds of thousands, reggaeton performers sell out major venues across the country, and formerly ecumenical pan-Latin radio stations have been adopting the new, reggaeton-centric “Hurban” (Hispanic-Urban) format. But perhaps even more significant is reggaeton’s massive grassroots following. The music offers a set of sounds and symbols so broadly appealing that it appears to be fueling the broadest pan-Latino youth movement to date, unprecedented in its reach and appeal. From New York to Miami, Roxbury to Lowell to Springfield to Cambridge, Cuba to Colombia to Chile, young Latinos and Latinas are using reggaeton music and style to articulate a sense of community. They are producing their own recordings, performing and marketing their music in local and regional scenes, trading mp3s and samples on the Internet, and infusing what is already a vibrant movement with exuberance, vitality, and new accents.
As a modern sound, a sound intimately related to hip-hop and reggae, reggaeton gives Latino youth a way to participate in contemporary urban-American culture without abandoning important aspects of their heritage. This may help to explain why a Latin-Caribbean form — and not, say, a Mexican or Chicano style — has managed to captivate young Latinos in a way that norteño never has, despite Mexican-Americans constituting well over 60% of the US Hispanic population.
Alongside the hopes and dreams of would-be Don Omars and Ivy Queens are the hopes and dreams of record execs, media mavens, mass marketers, and other opportunists hoping to cash-in on the phenomenon. With Daddy Yankee already a major commercial force on Universal, and Tego Calderón’s Atlantic debut due out this year, reggaeton is poised to become a truly massive musical and cultural force.
A Brief History
Before reggaeton was called reggaeton, it went by the humbler, less marketable “Spanish Reggae” or Reggae en Español. Traveling along mass media circuits as well as diasporic networks, Jamaican popular music spread around the world in the 1960s and 70s. Reggae arrived in places like Panama and Puerto Rico as quickly as it reached more traditional centers of migration, such as London and New York. In the case of Panama, which proudly claims reggaeton as its own, Afro-Panamanians — many of them the descendents of Jamaican migrant workers — had been performing and recording Spanish-language reggae since at least the 1970s. Tens of thousands of Jamaicans moved to Central America in search of work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Having contributed to the building of the Canal, many settled on Panama’s Caribbean coast, maintaining connections to Jamaica even as some adopted Spanish as their native tongue. By the late 1980s and early ’90s, Afro-Panamanian artists such as El General and Nando Boom were making waves by adapting the latest dancehall reggae hits for Hispanic audiences, loosely (and sometimes closely) translating the lyrics and often singing the same, recognizable melodies over the original, Jamaican-produced riddims.