For centuries, the complexities of racism in Latin America have been overshadowed by the false perception that high rates of racial mixture have created a racially democratic Latin American society. In her new book, Remixing Reggaetón: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, scholar Petra Rivera-Rideau challenges this idea through the prism of a genre of urban music that gained momentum in impoverished neighborhoods on the island and ultimately became a global pop phenomenon.
Positing that reggaetón challenges the racial democracy myth, Remixing Reggaetón focuses on leading Puerto Rican artists like Tego Calderon and Ivy Queen, who are shifting traditional views on gender, sexuality, and race through provocative, unapologetic performances. Using a historical and contemporary analysis, Rivera-Rideau situates the music against the backdrop of Puerto Rico’s legacy of anti-black racism, looking at how reggaetón both jump-starts the party and raises critical awareness.
We caught up with Rivera-Rideau to learn more about the motivations for her project, and how a sound popping off in the club is providing us with a language to talk about Afro-Latinidad.
What led you to this project?
I have always been interested in racial justice and popular music, an interest that developed in part from my father’s influence. My father has done a lot of community organizing and social justice work with Puerto Rican communities in Ohio and Connecticut, and he also has an incredible music collection, especially salsa. So he really instilled in me both this love of music and this desire to work on social justice issues.
Few academics in the U.S. pay attention to reggaetón despite its tremendous popularity all over the world.
As an undergraduate, I learned a lot about Latino-African American relations in the U.S., but I grew more interested in the experiences of Afro-Latin Americans, especially in Puerto Rico, where my father is from. I also was interested in the project because not a lot of academics in the U.S. pay attention to reggaetón despite its tremendous popularity all over the world. I felt like we were missing out on a huge phenomenon that speaks to a variety of social issues and has meaning for many Latino youth.
Can you briefly describe the trajectory of reggaetón and its progression from the barrios of San Juan to a world phenomenon?
Reggaetón is really interesting partly because of the question of origins. I focus the book on Puerto Rico for a couple of reasons – partially, my personal connection to the island, but also because I think that what people now think of as reggaetón is really grounded in an urban Puerto Rican experience. That said, many people would argue that reggaetón started as reggae en español in Panama, not in Puerto Rico.
On the other hand, a lot of people think reggaetón started in 2004 when Daddy Yankee released “Gasolina,” but the music has a long history in Puerto Rico that stretches back into the 1980s when it was called “underground.” Daddy Yankee himself started his career long before “Gasolina” came out. So reggaetón initially had circulated on the island informally on mixtapes and at parties and things like that. Eventually, some local record labels came out and the music became more visible on the island.
In the book, I talk about two censorship campaigns in Puerto Rico that came about each time the music grew popular – one in the mid-1990s and then another in 2002. Ultimately, these censorship campaigns wound up giving more publicity to many reggaetón artists, even though in many ways that is what would-be censors were trying to stop. As the music grew more popular, U.S.-based record companies started taking notice and signing distribution deals with existing labels or even creating their own reggaetón divisions. Reggaetón artists then could be propelled to the international stage in new kinds of ways with the backing of major record industry players.
Reggaetón provokes such extreme responses. There are whole sites dedicated to hating it.
What are the social and racial implications of reggaetón?
One of the things that makes reggaetón interesting to me is how it provokes such extreme responses. There are whole internet sites, for example, dedicated to hating reggaetón. But beyond that, I think that, at least in Puerto Rico, part of the attention reggaetón has received from legislators and policy makers is not really about the music itself as much as it is about underlying anxieties about race, especially blackness, and class issues. This is really at the heart of what I’m trying to do with this book. Reggaetón is, of course, party music. But it also brought to the fore issues like racial discrimination and problems facing poor urban communities on the island in ways that really challenged a lot of the dominant narratives about national belonging and what being Puerto Rican means.
Also, as several other scholars have noted, reggaetón highlights the island’s connections with the broader African diaspora as well as the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States, especially New York. And in the book I talk about how this really challenges a lot of problematic assumptions about Nuyoricans as “inauthentic” Puerto Ricans, or the idea that all Puerto Ricans want to distance themselves from blackness. This is not to say that reggaetón doesn’t have issues – certainly we could talk about the often problematic gender politics in the genre, for example. But I think that, like most forms of popular music, reggaetón is really complicated and contradictory. And so in the book I really stress how reggaetón serves as a space to complicate many of the normative and dominant ways that blackness has been understood in Puerto Rico.
[The music] challenges a lot of problematic assumptions about Nuyoricans as “inauthentic” Puerto Ricans.
Can you briefly describe the idea of a “racial democracy” and how this plays out in the context of reggaetón in Puerto Rico?
Racial democracy is really an idea that comes out of Brazil, but I use it in the book both because I think Puerto Rico and Brazil are pretty similar in terms of racial ideology, but also because I see more and more scholars of race in Puerto Rico using this term. To boil it down, basically, racial democracy refers to the idea that a population is all racially mixed and lives in racial harmony, and therefore racism does not exist. In Puerto Rico, we see a common narrative often referred to as “la gran familia puertorriqueña” that represents Puerto Ricans as the descendants of Spanish, African, and indigenous Taíno ancestors.
As a result, Puerto Rico is seen as a racially harmonious society in which everyone is treated equally and there are no problems. But a lot of research shows that this is not actually the case – racial disparities do exist in Puerto Rico. So racial democracy really represents a fundamental contradiction on the island because, rhetorically, it promotes racial harmony while hiding the reality of racism on the ground. I think its worth pointing out that this is not super unique to Puerto Rico – we see similar ideas and contradictions in much of Latin America, although these ideologies may have different names depending on whether you are in Brazil or Mexico or Colombia or wherever.
I think reggaetón makes a really critical intervention because it embraces a diasporic blackness that disrupts this idea. For example, reggaetón’s ties to hip-hop and dancehall bring up larger connections between Puerto Ricans and other African diasporic populations in the Americas rather than privileging Spain, as racial democracy tends to do. And this foregrounds blackness as something that is integral and relevant to contemporary Puerto Rican identities. Also, this produces a space to critique racism, which, in turn, discredits racial democracy.
How does reggaetón both confirm societal views about race and gender but also challenge us to think about these issues in transformative ways?
Many of the criticisms we hear of reggaetón have to do with the music’s treatment of women – that it has misogynistic lyrics or the videos objectify women, things like that. And often times these criticisms are valid. I think that here the intersection of race and gender is very important. Hypersexual representations of men and women in reggaetón often reflect stereotypes of black and Latino sexuality, for example. So I do think in many instances reggaetón performance can be interpreted as confirming dominant views about racial groups.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story. In the book, I really try to highlight these contradictions and show that there are times when reggaetón problematically reinforces ideas about race and gender, but there are also many times when I think it offers alternative ideas about blackness or identity that counter a lot of these stereotypes, like I have already mentioned. So things like embracing a diasporic blackness or talking openly about police brutality – that kind of thing can really challenge ideas about blackness in a place like Puerto Rico.
In the end, this is all pretty contradictory. But I don’t think that is unique to reggaetón – it’s something we see in most popular music. A lot of genres that we think of now as being pretty accepted, like jazz or salsa, were subject to criticisms of how they embraced blackness or to assumptions that they would promote inappropriate sexual behavior. And similar criticisms are leveled against other popular genres in the Americas besides reggaetón. Look at what Remezcla just reported a few months ago about champeta in Colombia, for example, or the criticisms of Nicki Minaj and her “Anaconda” video. Some people might think that “Anaconda” simply reproduces stereotypes of black women, but others might argue that she is exaggerating them precisely to make a sort of social critique – and still others might argue that claiming and celebrating one’s sexuality is a feminist act. So I think that there are lots of ways popular music both confirms and counters of dominant narratives about race and gender, and this contradiction is actually part of what attracts me to music as something to study.
How do you think the growth of U.S. Latino population has fueled the popularity of reggaetón in the U.S. and abroad?
Well, I think the first thing is that reggaetón is indebted partially to streams of migration to the U.S. We can think of, for example, Nuyorican participation in the development of hip-hop, which is extremely important for the development of reggaetón. There are also many reggaetón singers who we think of as based in Puerto Rico who spent significant time in the U.S.. So for me, part of the difficulty of this question is that when we think about reggaetón and Puerto Ricans’ involvement in the genre, it is difficult to distinctly separate the island from the U.S. And this makes sense – Puerto Ricans have a long history of back and forth migration between the U.S. and the island, and many of the biggest Puerto Rican musicians historically have been connected to both. Think about the importance of New York in something like the Fania All-Stars, which included Puerto Ricans from both the island and the mainland (and other Latinos) and was absolutely crucial for the development and popularity of salsa around the globe. Or Tito Puente is another Puerto Rican considered to have revolutionized Latin music – and he was from New York. So I think we have to be careful about making these distinctions sometimes, because we really can’t understand reggaetón (or other types of music) or the Puerto Rican experience without recognizing the important contributions of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Pop music both confirms and counters of dominant narratives about race and gender.
That said, as I mentioned before, I think that the recognition of U.S. Latino youth as consumers helped fuel reggaetón since they provided an audience for the music. Of course, the Latin music industry targets any music that is in Spanish or Portuguese, including groups that have largely Latin American audiences. But, many of the super large companies are based in the U.S., and U.S. companies have long had an interest in developing a Latino consumer base. So I think in that sense its not wholly surprising that “Gasolina” came out in the U.S. at the same time that these larger media industries like radio and television and record labels dedicated to reggaetón were developing all over the country. Though we know that many Latin American artists are profoundly successful with a predominantly Latin American fan base (and this includes reggaetón singers who did have an international presence beyond Puerto Rico prior to “Gasolina”), I do think that this attempt to court U.S. Latino consumers of reggaetón certainly contributed to its international popularity.
What do you think the future of reggaetón is?
This is interesting, because when I first started this project a lot of people were proclaiming the death of reggaetón, that this music was a fad that was going to go away eventually. And it’s true that we don’t have as many radio stations dedicated exclusively to reggaetón as there used to be, just to give one example. At the same time, I think that a lot of artists continue to have really lucrative careers, including people like Ivy Queen or Don Omar or Daddy Yankee who have been around for a long time. And we also see some new artists coming out as well as some new reggaetón scenes in other countries – or, in some cases, these scenes are not actually that new but people in the U.S. are starting to pay more attention to them. But like any form of popular music, reggaetón is evolving and changing and I think that’s a good thing and that will continue to happen. I don’t really think it’s going anywhere.
Petra Rivera-Rideau is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech University