La Favi and So Icey Traps. Image from remezcla.com.
Despite what you may have heard, the history of reggaeton spans way beyond Bieber’s feature on ‘Despacito’ with Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. Reggaeton, a music genre that originated in Puerto Rico in the 90s with roots in Panama (a country with a large Jamaican population), is made up of Latin American hip hop influences blended with Jamaican dancehall, Latin merengue, Puerto Rican Bomba and sometimes salsa, fused with electronic dance music. Think of it as a mixture of reggae, Latin rap and hip hop. With Jamaican migration, Jamaican dancehall, first and foremost an adaption of reggae, spread across the Americas, generating new beats as it encountered diverse cultures.
The genre skyrocketed in popularity among latinx* youths, providing a space for expression and belonging. ‘Despacito’ took off internationally reaching no.1 in many countries, including America, the UK, and Germany to mention a few, giving reggaeton prominence across the English speaking world it had never before had. However, its history is embedded in Latin American culture which most white audiences overlook, or are unaware of. My ears were first graced with the sounds of reggaeton when I spent some time living in Mexico a couple of years ago, where I found myself questioning whether the sexism ingrained in most reggaeton lyrics was compatible with the fight towards gender equality…and if this really mattered anyway?
The lyrics themselves are traditionally associated with sexism, or ‘machismo’. Including descriptions of sexual conquests, objectification, sexist slurs and general hostility towards women. At the extreme ends of the scale some songs mention threats of sexual violence. These issues persist and a lot of reggaeton lyrics continue to be problematic as they come primarily from male artists.
Chikki, Puerto Rican reggaetonera and creative director, “when I was in high school if you listened to reggaeton you were ‘ghetto’, but if you were white it was like ‘oh wow, how sensual, how different.’ Its good its reaching people globally… But at the same time its neglecting the people who started it.” Although the genre is continuously white washed as appropriated versions become prioritised in popular culture, Chikki reminds us not to forget, “the roots of reggaeton are black.”
Ms Nina and La Favi. Image from Youtube.com.
You can still get down to sexist reggaeton beats, or any beats for that matter, and believe in gender equality. In a society whose very structures are ingrained with sexism, rejecting it in all its forms would be rejecting so much of what gives meaning to that society and the diversity it has to offer. This may seem like an easy way to justify consumption and disregard the sexist morals- and really, any progress towards equality of the sexes will come sooner and more likely if we stopped consuming misogynist music. But at the same time, so much of reggaeton is also empowering and promotes spaces of agency. Rather than perceiving ‘dirty dancing’ as a product of the ‘male gaze’ and self-objectification, many Latinxs* view it distinctively as a way to reclaim their bodies and their sexuality. This experience obviously differs for white women, like myself, who consume reggaeton very differently to the Latinx who created it.
As Spanish philosopher Marina Hervas Munoz points out, “sexual emancipation through Reggaeton’s dirty dancing does not have the same meaning for white European women as it does for women of color from Latin America, especially those raised with the hypersexualized Latina stereotype.”
The only way to explore Reggaeton is through Latinx themselves and the artists who self identify as *Reggaetoneras:
“The biggest stereotype is saying that it’s marginalizing women; it’s bringing women down. Demonizing women’s sexuality is really the problem. It’s not what she’s doing with her body; it’s how people perceive it,” said artist Yaya Mala.
There has been an explosion of female and female identifying artists emerging in the scene and directly counteracting the misogyny that has always been such a large part of the genre. Artists like La Favi, Ivy Queen, La Zowi , La Sista, Ms Nina, Tomasa Del Real and Bad Gyal are some names to look out for. With the prominent rhythms in Latin America including reggaeton, dancehall and Neoperreo. It is important to recognise that a lot of female identifying artists choose not to not identify as feminists as it is often associated with white feminism, and therefore a failure to include and promote the distinct experiences of Latinx women, who lack the privileges granted to white women.
“Reggaeton represents the struggle of minorities so it impresses me that despite its capitalisation it continues to reinvent itself from the bottom up. For example, after years of mainly misogynist reggaeton that objectifies women, these artists have turned it around so that today it is synonymous with female empowerment.”
-Daniela Ladance, Mexican illustrator.
Ms. Nina. Image from Shazam.com
What’s more, reggaeton parties across Latin America often provide spaces for resistance, freedom of expression and experimentation, operating in stark contrast to the violence that can occur on the streets in countries that are riddled with corruption and cartel warfare. Reggaeton parties enable communities of like-minded youths to let out pent-up frustrations and disillusions with the system.
Moreover, as opposed to the traditional aggression that can occur from men at dance parties who demand women dance with them, women at reggaeton parties have more control. It is common to ‘perrear’ (the verb assigned to the way audiences dance to reggaeton, like twerking), a kind of dancing associated with owning your sexuality and expressing it through movement, therefore an act of resistance in itself, commanding attention in a space that is traditionally dominated by men.
“When we dance reggaeton and we move our body to ‘el perreo’, we rise against years and years of oppression, of people telling us to stay quiet and still. It comes from the ghettos, from the favelas with little kids moving and dancing in face of poverty. So, if it is dembow or daddy yankee, reggaeton is our way to free ourselves and those behind us, for the freedom and future of Latino girls and boys to dance.”
-Maria Saenz, Mexican Student.
You don’t have to like reggaeton but it’s important to acknowledge its history and the role it has had in creating and promoting spaces of agency and owning sexuality for Latinx communities. These artists, along with many other emerging women, trans and non binary individuals are changing the game and they’re not stopping the ‘perreo’ anytime soon.
*Latinx is a gender- neutral or non binary alternative to Latina or Latino used in Latin America.
*Reggaetoneras- female identifying reggaeton artists.
Alice is a volunteer at the Victorian Women’s Trust and studying media and communication. She is passionate about gender equality and believes it will not be achieved until the struggles of all kinds of women are heard. She is also passionate about pizza and her dog Scout.