Bad Bunny and the Political History of Reggaeton
The genre is the product of migration, rebirth, and the struggle to be heard.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Puerto Rican star Bad Bunny’s VMA win highlights the politics of reggaeton, Chileans prepare to vote on whether to adopt a progressive new constitution, and Argentina draws closer to India.
If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.
From the Americas to the World
On Sunday, Puerto Rican trap and reggaeton star Bad Bunny became the first artist who sings in a language other than English to be named Artist of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards, according to the Los Angeles Times. While giving his acceptance speech in Spanish, he said he always believed he could become one of the best singers in the world “without having to change my culture, my language, my tongue, my slang.” Bad Bunny was Spotify’s top streamed artist for both 2020 and 2021.
Reggaeton’s rise to global phenomenon is not only a Puerto Rican story. Rather, the genre—which features variations on Spanish-language rapping and singing over a Jamaican dembow beat—is intertwined with the history and politics of several different Latin American countries, as well as the United States.
Part of reggaeton’s origins can be traced back to the construction of the Panama Canal, when laborers from what were then the British West Indies moved to Panama for work. Decades later, despite having permanently settled in the country, these laborers’ descendants continued to listen to music from their home countries—including now-independent Jamaica.
In the 1980s, Black Panamanians of Jamaican descent started singing over Jamaican dancehall beats to birth one precursor to reggaeton, reggae en Español. Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, some musicians who followed the early development of English-language hip hop began rapping in Spanish. Being able to sing and dance to songs they understood felt like “the movie went from black-and-white to color,” Puerto Rican artist Ivy Queen said on LOUD: The History of Reggaeton. She narrates the series, a deeply researched, impossible-not-to-dance-to audio documentary that traces the more than 30-year story of the genre.
In the early 1990s, as Panamanian and Puerto Rican artists frequently traveled to New York City, a version of the Jamaican dembow drumbeat was recorded there that would go on to serve as the base for countless reggaeton tracks. The sample—a boom-chk-boom-chick on loop—quickly made it back to Puerto Rico, where artists recorded their lyrics over it. Puerto Rican “underground,” also known as the earliest reggaeton, was born, with lyrics that told of working-class life in San Juan. Along with Daddy Yankee, the genre’s biggest stars in the 1990s and 2000s included Tego Calderón, who used his songs to denounce racism and colonialism.
Reggaeton is “about how kids who were young or poor, Black or dark-skinned—kids who were discriminated against in every way—how we refused to be quiet,” Ivy Queen argued on LOUD.
U.S. record labels failed to fully recognize the genre’s potential in the 2000s, according to LOUD. Though labels made deals with a handful of artists after the success of Daddy Yankee’s 2004 album, Barrio Fino, many quickly lost interest, viewing the genre as just a fad.
Colombia, meanwhile, played a major role in reggaeton’s ascent. At the same time as U.S. record labels were turning away, the Colombian city of Medellín was falling in love with reggaeton. Its government was pumping money into youth arts programs as part of an effort to reduce violence in poor neighborhoods, LOUD co-producer and co-writer Luis Gallo told Foreign Policy in an interview. The “social urbanism” policy of then-Mayor Sergio Fajardo was aimed at creating new opportunities for parts of the city that had “hit rock bottom” amid drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s heyday in 1990s. The possibility that Medellín could become a new hub of reggaeton was a chance to move away from violence; “as a society, we had PTSD,” said Gallo, who is Colombian.
Many of Colombia’s own reggaeton artists avoided a focus on guns and drugs in their lyrics in favor of storytelling about sex and romance, Gallo said. The genre flourished, and some Medellín residents who attended the government’s after-school arts programs even went on to become choreographers for stars such as Maluma, a Colombian singer who is one of today’s best-selling Latin artists worldwide.
Today, the politics of reggaeton takes many forms. Bad Bunny’s choice to make the international music industry adapt to his language as opposed to the other way around is deeply political in itself. But he has also devoted lyrics on his latest album to denouncing recent blackouts in Puerto Rico, citing the governor by his nickname. In Colombia, feminist reggaeton collectives such as Motivando a la Gyal used music to energize participants in last year’s anti-government protests.
Not all reggaeton artists take such overtly political positions, of course. As in many genres, plenty of reggaeton lyrics have objectified women over the years, and critics point out that female and darker-skinned artists have generally not reached the same level of commercial success as men and lighter-skinned singers such as Bad Bunny. Furthermore, as industry producers push to water down reggaeton for a pop audience less accustomed to Latin music, some in its community, including Ivy Queen, have voiced concerns about the genre losing its essence.
The antidote, Ivy Queen says in LOUD’s final episode, is to remember the genre’s history and seek out artists who are trying to honor it, especially those who celebrate marginalized communities. Reggaeton, in her telling, “is about la resitencia. Resistance.”
Sunday, Sept. 4: Chileans vote in a mandatory referendum on whether to approve or reject a new draft constitution.
Wednesday, Sept. 7: Brazil marks 200 years of independence from Portugal. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has called for his supporters to rally at a Rio de Janeiro military parade.
Thursday, Sept. 15: The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on U.S. policy toward Venezuela.
What We’re Following
India-Argentina ties. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Argentina last week, touting a possible weapons sale to the country and voicing support for Argentina to join the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Jaishankar also endorsed Argentina’s push to open talks with Britain on the territorial status of the Falkland Islands, over which the two countries fought a war in 1982. A British official told the Hindu that there was “no doubt” about British sovereignty over the islands.
Argentina’s ambitions to join BRICS were reportedly met with hesitancy by some Brazilian diplomats in the Bolsonaro administration, who were reluctant to participate in the creation of an “opposition bloc to Western powers.” But Celso Amorim, the foreign affairs advisor to Brazilian presidential front-runner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said he would support Argentina’s accession as a move that “strengthens Brazil and strengthens South America.”
BRICS or not, Argentina and India have already increased their commercial ties in recent years, with trade between the two countries reaching a record $5.6 billion in 2021, according to Argentina’s foreign ministry. India is Argentina’s fourth-largest trade partner.
Russian oil trails. Ecuador has asked the multinational commodity trader Trafigura to no longer supply it with Russian oil, in order to avoid the consequences of Western sanctions on Russia. While neither the United States nor European countries have announced that they will impose secondary sanctions on countries buying Russian oil, Ecuador’s state oil company said it was seeking to avoid “consequences that could come for the Republic of Ecuador and its government employees.” So far, South American countries have stayed out of the sanctions campaign against Russia for its war in Ukraine.
Brazil’s foreign minister, for his part, told Reuters in July that the country aimed to buy as much diesel as it could from Russia. Brazil has also increased its imports of Russian fertilizers since the war began.
New faces on the ballot. A record number of Indigenous Brazilians are running for office in October’s general elections, up 36 percent from four years ago. Many of the 181 candidates decided to enter politics for the first time in response to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest under Bolsonaro and the poor government treatment of Indigenous communities at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Guardian reports.
In its entire history, Brazil has elected only two Indigenous representatives to its Congress. Only one, Joênia Wapichana, is currently in office.
Question of the Week
Which of the following reggaeton artists is not Colombian?
El General, a reggae en Español pioneer, is from Panama.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Why Can’t Sweden Sell Its Fighter Jets? By Elisabeth Braw
• International Relations Theory Suggests Great-Power War Is Coming By Matthew Kroenig
• You Have No Idea How Bad Europe’s Energy Crisis Is By Christina Lu
In Focus: Chile’s Constitutional Vote
Chileans will vote on Sunday on whether to approve or reject a progressive new draft constitution written by an elected assembly over the past year. According to an El País poll aggregator, polls up to Aug. 19 suggest “reject” has about a 10 percent advantage, though the number of Chileans who say they plan to vote “approve” has inched up since the draft was finalized in July. Some 15.5 percent of Chileans say they are undecided.
That’s in part because opponents of the new constitution have been campaigning against it since long before its text was finalized, analysts say. Its supporters only started campaigning in earnest once the draft was set. An “accept” TV ad featuring popular former President Michelle Bachelet debuted only days before the vote.
Ahead of the vote, disinformation about the constitution has flooded Chilean social media, sowing confusion in a country where fake news has played a relatively small role in past elections. Some of the false content includes claims that the new constitution bans private property and allows abortions in the ninth month of pregnancy. Pollster Datavoz found that 65 percent of Chileans surveyed during the last week of July reported seeing misinformation related to the draft charter online, one of Datavoz’s directors told Reuters.
August 2022 was “the dirtiest and most violent month of electoral campaigning that Chile has had since 1989,” economist and pollster Marta Lagos of Latinobarómetro tweeted.
Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, Chile’s constitutional debate is far from over. As criticism of the draft constitution grew louder in recent months, President Gabriel Boric—a proponent of the document—said that should “reject” win out, he would support efforts to dramatically amend the current constitution, written during the 1973-90 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. He told Time magazine in an interview published this week that his government would also be in favor of convening of an entirely new constitutional convention.
Seventy-eight percent of Chileans voted in an October 2020 plebiscite that they wanted a new constitution, Boric emphasized, and “that mandate still applies.”
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.