Reggaeton’s relationship to hip-hop and reggae — and the shared socio-cultural circumstances of urban poverty, high unemployment, and (coerced) participation in the violent-but-profitable trans-American drug trade — go a long way toward accounting for reggaeton’s focus on sex and the bleak realities of ghetto/street/thug life. But, the glamorization of violence and material gain is far from a subcultural pathology: these are the preoccupations of mainstream American culture and society, too. San Juan is no more responsible for advancing stereotypes and negative imagery than, say, Hollywood or Washington. Overlooking the inherent critique of racial injustice in reggaeton’s bling-filled fantasies is to miss the boat.
Only relatively recently, with its acquisition of market power and stateside acceptance, has reggaeton reached Puerto Rico’s middle- and upper-classes. What was previously denigrated as crude and crass now stands as a national symbol and a promising source of foreign exchange. In a place where, despite their celebrated mixed-ness, over 90% of Puerto Ricans self-identify as “white,” it’s no accident that a prominent reggaeton artist like Tego Calderon foregrounds his blackness by wearing an Afro, referring to himself as “El Negro Calde,” and incorporating Afro-Puerto-Rican traditions. In the US, Hispanic immigrants often find themselves living alongside, and racialized along with, African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, so it’s no surprise that reggaeton works in sympathy and solidarity with the cultural politics of hip-hop and reggae.
As reggaeton increases its reach, finding a receptive audience not just in the US and Latin America, but in Europe, Asia, and Africa, its spread will more likely resemble that of hip-hop/reggae than salsa and merengue. In that sense, it will represent a break from previous transmissions of Latin music as “world music.” By integrating itself into the urban music market, reggaeton essentially markets itself, like hip-hop and dancehall, as mainstream pop, even as underground currents and fringe movements remain vital expressions of, and contributions to, the genre’s evolving sound. Top-selling artists like R. Kelly, Sean Paul, and Britney Spears are already exploring reggaeton riddims, particularly in remixes, and, to that extent, reggaeton is being “cleaned up” and stylized for the MTV masses. And, just as it always has, reggaeton will continue to draw from the most compelling contemporary pop, borrowing styles and samples from hip-hop, versioning the latest dancehall riddims, and pushing an already tech-savvy sound further into the synthesized stratosphere.
Reggaeton will also no doubt continue its dialogue with more “traditional” Latin music: one can already hear how reggaeton’s hip-hop-inflected Caribbean rhythms are finding their way into other Latin genres. Salsa bands, Rock en Español groups, and Latin-tinged musicians of all stripes are now adding touches of reggaeton to their performances, often by foregrounding and accenting, if not modulating, their snare-drums.
And yet, for all its power and popularity, reggaeton remains an embattled pop form: it’s not reggae, it’s not rap, and for some, it’s not Latin either. Reggaeton has been belittled by a vast array of critics, among them rockists, reggae purists, hip-hop heads, upper- and middle-class Puerto Ricans, and Latin music aficionados. Purists of all sorts decry reggaeton, which makes sense, for it is an inherently hybrid music. It is also, in essence, an industrial music — a high-tech product with a tendency toward, and an aesthetic based around, recycled rhythms and riffs. Although reggaeton’s detractors have some valid complaints, especially with regard to the genre’s most crassly commercial releases, it is clear that quite frequently they simply have not listened closely enough, or to the right things. . . or with their hips.