Reggaeton – from the underground to a global hit

Luis Fonsi’s song Despacito is the first Spanish-language song to reach the top spot on the benchmark US singles chart, the Billboard Hot 100, since Macarena in 1996.

Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, whose hit Despacito has brought reggaeton – a genre that combines the rhythms of Jamaican music with rap – to a wider audience. AFP
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Reggaeton music has long been a fixture in nightclubs in the Spanish-speaking world but the genre has failed to achieve much critical acceptance, rooted as it is in marginalised communities of Puerto Rico.

However, a genre so scorned by the elite has unexpectedly found a massive new market, thanks to the global success of Luis Fonsi's song Despacito. It is the first Spanish-language song to reach the top spot on the benchmark US singles chart, the Billboard Hot 100, since Macarena in 1996.

A remix of the song, which features Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee with an assist from Justin Bieber, has just spent its fifth week at number one.

Reggaeton – characterised by its blend of the fast-paced, club-ready rhythms of Jamaican dance hall with a rap vocal delivery often pouring with machismo – took off in Puerto Rico in the 1990s. Initially, it was simply called “underground”.

Puerto Ricans had been an active force in the birth of hip-hop in New York, while the beats came from 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 such as poverty, police brutality and racism," says 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.”

Critics attacked reggaeton for its hyper-sexuality. The Puerto Rican Senate in 2002 held hearings on the portrayal of women in the music videos.

But Rivera-Rideau believes 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 says.

Despacito, which means "slowly" in Spanish, is driven by a reggaeton beat and features lyrics full of innuendo. Bieber delivers a breathy opening verse and later sings in Spanish – which he recently mangled during a live performance.

Bieber collaborated on the remix, released in April, after Despacito had already become a megahit on Latin charts.

The original video, which was released in January, has amassed more than 1.9 billion views on YouTube – the most of any release this year.

Fonsi has said Bieber’s participation was the Canadian’s singer’s idea after he heard the hit playing in a club in Colombia.

While it was already a hit, Rivera-Rideau says the remix, with Bieber, “exposed the song to many people who had never heard it before”.

Complicating the story of reggaeton’s rise, Fonsi does not even hail from the genre. The 39-year-old has scored hits in the past two decades with ballads and Latin pop tracks.

“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 marginalised community for his own commercial success,” says Rivera-Rideau.

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.”

* Agence France-Presse