With Dembow in the Mainstream Once Again, How Can We Take Back Reggaeton?

The dembow- and moombahton-lite influences in Justin Bieber’s late-2015 hit “Sorry” are undeniable. After lurking the track’s production credits, which are shared between Skrillex and BLOOD, I had to ask myself – how did this sound reach them, and considering the massive commercial success of reggaeton, what’s taken the industry so damn long to integrate the sound into a pop track for “mainstream” (err, English-speaking) audiences?

In an interview with The FADER, BLOOD (who wisely changed his nom de plume from Blood Diamonds) described his production process with Bieber:

“I wrote the music to ‘Sorry’ with Justin in mind, it was one of the first things I wrote for the album. From the perspective of the producer, I find the muffled vocal chops to represent the people or situations in which Justin or the listener could be apologetic towards…Justin’s vocal delivery and the triumphant key of the song gave the narrative a warm color. I am most excited by music that allows the beat to tell a story as much as the vocal and in ‘Sorry,’ the beat is saying moving forward, and apologizing, can be exciting and fun.”

What’s not quite evident is whether BLOOD was concerned with the communities from which the beat was drawn. But that’s privilege, no? To put it bluntly, is he a fan of reggaeton pioneers like DJ Playero, too?

This is certainly not the first time we’ve seen questions of appropriation surface, nor will it be the last. It’s no coincidence that Diplo, the trendsetter of much of the urbano genre-gathering major label production motifs of the moment, was one of the first producers to be criticized by the global underground when he first started ascending to mainstream stardom. Do these producers owe it to the communities they draw from to give credit where credit is due? Sure, but who’s to hold them to that?

Consider the way Parris Goebel, the choreographer for the “Sorry” video, responded in a Rolling Stone interview discussing the source of  her inspiration, even after she was criticized for drawing heavily from dancehall communities and dance routines without attribution:

“Usually just the music…I don’t really like to anticipate or prepare things. For me, it’s all about being impulsive with exactly how I feel at that moment, with the song or the people around me. I’m always inspired by the moment — the song, the people around me, the imagery in the room — it’s all about that moment.”

It’s nonchalant and heedless responses like these that represent a missed opportunity for visibility and accreditation. These are the moments when Latinx, black, and queer communities are cut off from paid gigs to be compensated for their work, representing cultures that they in fact created, instead of the secondhand derivations that get the check. It’s that lack of effort to contextualize lesser-known originators, innovators, and creative geniuses that ultimately leads to the whitewashing of the mainstream. As a Jamaica Star Observer commenter put it, that’s the moment when it becomes “grand theft culture.”

Is BLOOD a fan of reggaeton pioneers like DJ Playero, too?

The way music media has characterized “Work,” Rihanna’s now ubiquitous ode to all things dancehall, is yet another example of this decontextualization. When Rihanna dropped the song on January 27, Rolling Stone labeled it tropical house, inciting a searing response from Twitter users. Other media outlets mischaracterized the song and described Rihanna’s playful patois as “gibberish.” Jesse Serwer, an editor at LargeUp, spoke out about the debacle and clarified Rihanna’s connection to and support for dancehall and other Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

While the rage surrounding these incidents is absolutely valid and should be honored, just as clave is looking at the longer-term picture of how these sounds have reached beyond the Latinx community, and culpability within Latinx industries. Reggaeton’s visibility outside of Latinx communities was not coincidental – it was manufactured and targeted as such, propelling reworked context with intentional, long-term marketing. Even the Latino remix of “Sorry,” which features reggaeton superstar J Balvin, seems like a calculated maneuver intended to maximize clicks and profit, rather than a genuine attempt to unite a major pop star with someone who actually records in the genre his music is inspired by.

Take the mainstream reggaeton explosion that emerged following Daddy Yankee’s seminal Barrio Fino, and labels’ subsequent response to the rise of these riddims. After witnessing the lucrative opportunities that could be siphoned from the genre’s newfound visibility, record companies clamored to capitalize on the phenomenon. As reported by The Washington Post back in 2005:

“American record companies that previously couldn’t be bothered are suddenly elbowing each other like shoppers at an after-Christmas sale, scrambling to cut deals that give them seats on the new bandwagon: Atlantic is teaming up with Tego Calderon, and Puff Daddy and the Wu-Tang Clan are starting their own Latino imprints. And in February, the behemoth Universal Music Group launched a full-service label dedicated to ‘Hurban’ (short for Hispanic urban) music, which the company’s news release says includes ‘the hottest new movement, reggaeton.’”

What started as a barrio-bred revolution was essentially repackaged and sold off. The Washington Post feature goes on to explain:

When we talk about respect for these movements and keeping profitability in our own hands, what are some steps we should consider?

“Isabelle Salazar is the Latin music buyer for retail giant Trans World Entertainment, which operates 850 stores across the country, including the F.Y.E., Wherehouse, and Coconuts chains. She has seen, heard, bought, and sold every Latin music trend of the last quarter-century. Forget the vis-à-vis, she says; nothing compares to reggaeton.

‘I’ve been in the music industry 23 years, and I haven’t seen a Latino movement like this one,’ Salazar says from her Southern California office. ‘Not even close. It’s music for all Latinos, and it’s crossing over to Anglos and other non-Spanish speakers.’”

In short, the crossover appeal of these sounds outside of Latinx communities was designed with revenues in mind. If sales are the objective, why would marketing teams stop to think about the cultural implications or safeguards from eventual appropriation? It’s quite the opposite – these moves were building the infrastructure for long-term profitability, not without hope for the mainstream offshoots that we see now outside of the Latinx community through folks like Bieber.

Reggaeton’s trajectory came with a precedent: the marketing and branding of the term salsa. Slapping a sweeping, unspecific label on the multiplicity of sounds that fall under the salsa banner decentralized credit from the communities that created them. Son, bomba, plena, guaracha, mambo, jazz, and more – the foundation for what is now known as salsa – originated in Afro-Latinx communities. In the case of reggaeton and the commercialization of a legion of genres (like rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and beyond), black and brown communities were quickly cut out of the narrative. In reggaeton’s case, Tego Calderon was the exception.

Salsa, manufactured with convenient sloganeering that placed a catchall, digestible identity onto a range of music movements, rendered it pronounceable, marketable, and digestible by English-speaking audiences and consumers. That the term was first proliferated by New York City promoter Izzy Sanabria in an English-language paper, Latin New York, further shifted the movements away from focusing on the Afro-Latinx communities that created them. Instead, it became an intentionally broad category prepped for consumption by the general market, as picked up by Johnny Pacheco and the branding of Fania Records.

The disaccreditation of the communities that created barrio-bred sounds is a recurring story. Though in the case of BLOOD, recognition and a nod to the communities that inspired the sound would go a long way. The issue goes back farther than just a Justin Bieber hit, and it’s not unreasonable to look for some kind of responsibility from our own industries, too. When we talk about respect for these movements and keeping profitability in our own hands, what are some steps we should consider? When resources are directed toward mainstream consumers, who gets cut out of the conversation, and where could those resources have gone otherwise?

What started as a barrio-bred revolution was essentially repackaged and sold off.

This softening of the genre occurs on the market level, but also in reference to the underground as well, where there’s just as much responsibility for giving credit where credit is due, and perhaps even more opportunity to do so, as the message is less controlled. A 2015 The FADER story, “How a Traditional Rhythm is Shaping Today’s Most Exciting New Music,” dabbled in explaining the tresillo rhythm’s influence on underground, Internet-driven club culture, though it chose to center even this explanation on a largely Eurocentric group of artists.

Excluded from conversation – and ultimately the limelight and opportunities for compensation, recognition, and industry growth – were, for example, the generations of reggaeton and dembow artists below the Daddy Yankee levels of stardom who have been grinding and establishing the sound for decades, and still are hard at work doing just that. These looming sources of brilliance and inspiration for artists who garnered attention with relative speed get left behind even in more underground retellings of the genre’s history.

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Reggaeton artists have always spoken to Latinx communities; now however, due to the industry’s long-game efforts to reinterpret these sounds for willing Anglo audiences, why is it any surprise that the sound and aesthetic of new productions reflect that? As Michelle Rivera, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, noted in a recent piece in Fusion:

“This is why Daddy Yankee has a bajillion endorsement deals, and the same for J Balvin. You can see across the board the same thing happening — [people] want to target this ‘untapped gold mine.’” The Fusion piece continues, “That goldmine’s audience is turning out in droves. If, in the process, it makes artists write more songs about sweet-nothings and falling in love, well then, dale.”

As the J Balvin and Nicky Jam 2.0 formula proves its profitability – with a softened sound amid lyrics re-worked with PG branding, the street-level side of the sound remains on the sidelines, and its pioneers continue to get left behind.

Correction, 2/25/2016, 1:15 p.m.: A previous version of this article attributed a quote from a recent Fusion piece to Petra Rivera-Rideau, author of Remixing Reggaeton. Michelle Rivera, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, is the author of the quote.