Reggaeton, the new pop
Possibly not since the golden years of disco has Western music lived such a schism. It emerged as a minor genre in the Caribbean in the late 20th century, but a couple of decades later, it has become the new pop, ravaging Billboard lists and YouTube view counters, and converting more artists to its cause than pagans to the Catholic Church. We’re talking about reggaeton. That genre that a lot of people looked down, predicting a brief existence typical to commercial fads. Everyone who forecast its death was wrong.
It invaded Cuba like all victorious campaigns in this country, from East to West, and today it is a permanent part of the contemporary sound landscape. Listeners, artists and groups such as Candyman, Marca Registrada and El Médico, became pioneers in the creation of reggaeton in our country. Soon after, rappers such as El Micha and Alexander Delgado, and groups like Eddy K (whose core members subsequently comprised the popular Los 4) and Cubanos en la Red joined the wave. These and many other groups gave shape to a national way of making reggaeton, with local themes and references and the progressive incorporation of rhythms and typical orchestrations of Cuban dance and music genres. Factors that motivated reggaeton’s adoption by local musicians, according to musicologist Yurien Heredia, include “its catchy rhythm, low production cost, and the freedom to expression social issues in a way different from rap, using more direct language, satire and jocularity.”
That Cubans like to dance is more than well-known, and reggaeton artists have been able to steal the dance floor from their timba counterparts. As producer Frank Palacios explains to researcher and journalist Nora Gámez, “reggaeton begins with a chorus, quickly followed by the counter-chorus. People who want to dance don’t want to hear twenty-six bars of pretty lyrics such as the case in salsa; instead, as soon as you start, they want to be dancing. If you can only dance two minutes out of a five-minute song, it doesn’t make sense to go see you to dance. They’ll go see you in a theater, but they won’t pay a cover to see you. That is what reggaeton has; right from the start, it is a dance genre.”
Researcher Geoff Baker has noted the communicating vessels between reggaeton and rumba, to the extent that many of their cultivators have “reggaeton-ized” or “rumba-ized” songs from either genre. We can see examples of that with songs by groups like Gente de Zona, Los 4 and Yoruba Andabo, where both the presence of the rumba beat and use of choruses show their respective inter-influences.
Reggaeton has definitely won its naturalization in our country through its fusion with our popular music, incorporating Cuban genres and styles, and opening up a place for itself in the repertoires of artists from other scenes who add elements of reggaeton to their compositions or even make their own incursions into it. Now, in 2018, the real question is not when reggaeton will go out of fashion, but what forms will it take as a genre that has proved it is here to stay.
The "reggaeton phenomenon" has been frequently talked about in academic spaces and in the media. With honorable exceptions - scarcely visible, unfortunately - the dominant tone of the discourse is a prejudiced stance, full of recriminations to its aggressive texts and repetitive musical structure. When, curiously, neither the aggressiveness of the texts is exclusive of reggaeton (and if it is a reflection of social issues, it never causes); nor is it by far the only genre with monotonous sounds.
Less has been said about the reasons for its popularity, the rhythmic nature of its percussion base, its effective grasp and narration of sociocultural themes in our society today, its DIY nature — allowing individuals with esthetic interests to get involved in composing reggaeton without needing in-depth musical knowledge, and possessing only a few simple pieces of production software and a handful of backgrounds (whose authors, fortunately, tend to distribute them freely on the Internet) — as well as its deft marketing mechanisms, which have become a model for self-management in Cuban music.
Buried under hasty declaration of plagiarism and a lack of originality, very little attention has been paid to reggaeton’s use of pastiche, quotes and intertextuality, all common to postmodernism and particularly pop music, and all notably expressed in this genre. The language of reggaeton is the language of the street; its lyrics quickly become popular because they share in the codes of broad social groups in our country. Reggaeton collects, synthesizes and sublimates words and actions associated with marginalization, but it is not the root of the problems affecting Cuban society. If anything, it is a showcase for matters that many would prefer not to see, to avoid dealing with them (to mention a few: machismo, violence, poverty and materialistic aspirations).
Reggaeton’s sense of opportunity borders on the perfect. The simplicity of its musical structure allows it to effortlessly swallow up any genre presented to it, something that has been grasped by the mainstream pop industry, which in the face of its surge has promoted collaboration among pop singers and reggaeton artists. The result is smash hits that are topping the charts (Despacito, Bailando, Súbeme la radio and so on), songs that can captivate an extensive public based on their transversality.
In our country, reggaeton is nothing more or less than the upstart nephew of rap and timba, capable of synthesizing the practices of production, marketing and consumption developed by these genres in earlier years, and connecting all of this to a context marked by the worldwide rise of reggaeton (the growth of the Internet and digital platforms had been essential to its expansion) and the gradual restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States.
As reggaeton has gained space among a broad public, with the consequent commercial yields for its creators, the genre has undergone a process of “bourgeoisification,” which does not mean it is less popular. Its creators clearly understand that they should not lose their belonging to “the ‘hood” in their discourse, something they always stress, those “expressions of territoriality that marked a social belonging in the creative beginnings of reggaeton,” as researchers María Eugenia Espronceda Amor and Ligia Lavielle Pullés put it. In any case, they find themselves in a win-win situation, given that their success is not interpreted as a betrayal of their essence, and instead reflects the aspirations of broad social sectors of the economically displaced, putting them at the same level with the wealthy classes, both established and emerging.
In this sense, the “Miami-ization” process of reggaeton made in Cuba is extremely notable, meaning the increasingly growing influence of the Miami market on the processes of the creation, distribution and consumption of Cuban reggaeton, a round trip that modifies the behavior of musicians and public within Cuba. This insertion in a regional context — Miami is hub par excellence of Latin music in the United States — and within the established dynamics of the commercial music market, has obliged reggaeton artists to standardize certain sounds and lyrics, in the interest of reaching that heterogeneous public that Anglos refer to as “Latino,” although without losing the elements that distinguish them from their continental counterparts.
More and better reflection is needed about the genre’s musical and sociocultural evolution, with both its lights and shadows. Reggaeton is here to stay. Currently, of the twenty Cuban music videos most seen on YouTube, seventeen are reggaeton. Whatever the Cuban cultural authorities may say, today’s Cuban music appears to be in the hands of individuals such as Yomil and El Dany, Gente de Zona, Jacob Forever, Chacal and Chocolate MC. Headphones, speakers, dance floors, sidewalks and public plazas are populated by their respective esthetics, which intertwine lyrical and sound offerings that range from the stylized and wannabe to the aggressive and marginal. For the mikis and for the repas. Each, in their own way, represents different social sectors, with their respective discourse, frustrations and aspirations, sectors that wrestle with each other, intertwine and feed into each other in the relatively democratic space of reggaeton.
Rafa G. Escalona
Certified Journalist. Father of a music magazine.