The cultural battle for musical tastes is one of the most cyclical and thorny. If it interferes with the Latin urban genre – simplified under the label of reggaeton – it is even more intense, especially since three years ago it became the most popular style on the planet. This is precisely what James Rhodes, the British pianist nationalized in Spain, who has involuntarily made the matter viral on the networks again, does not understand.
The fight between Residente and J Balvin is not personal, it is political
“Explain to me, please, about reggaeton and Bad Bunny. I swear I’m not saying it’s crap, but I don’t understand its popularity,” he asked the young people who participate in the talks organized by BBVA in La 2 this Sunday, To my teenage self. For many, the problem was not in the question but in the formulation. Rhodes begins by comparing Bad Bunny with Bach, Chopin and Beethoven: “Are we going to listen to him in 200 and 300 years? Well, no, no way,” says the 46-year-old professional.
The pianist intended to launch a plea in defense of classical music, which, according to him, is “posh” and boring, comparing it with other current genres. He admits that there are pieces by Serrat, Sabina or Robe Iniesta that give him goose bumps, and that they will continue to do so in 50 or 60 years. Nor does he believe that Beethoven had more merit than Rosalía or Leiva – “no kidding” -. However, “the reggaeton thing” is different.
Rhodes delves into the differences that he finds between Bad Bunny and the classics and shows a clear astonishment at his hegemony. Several people have shared this same criterion in networks and have taken the opportunity to defend that it is a legitimate question.
But what is it about reggaeton that causes so much acrimony? And, in response to Rhodes, who is Bad Bunny and what has he done to become one of the most listened and applauded urban singers?
Political yearning, macho fame: the contradictions of reggaeton
For Monsignor Builes, a fanatical Colombian bishop, in the 1950s any Latin rhythm that encouraged dance was synonymous with a direct connection with the devil. For the most critical, reggaeton is just macho lyrics on repetitive musical bases. In the era trump player, some have considered it a boast of “the Latin thing” over any wall. Depending on who you ask, it sounds like garbage, global success, or cultural dominance. The answer also changes depending on the side of the planet on which it is posed, and therein lies another of the criticisms of James Rhodes: Eurocentrism.
The problem is to reduce everything to a commercial label such as reggaeton. Within it, not only artists from different origins come together, but also different Latin styles that have intersected with radio. Cumbia, bachata, dancehall, afrobeat and also flamenco, trap or hip-hop. A mixture that has prevailed for decades in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, and that has only reached the academic debate when it reached Europe and the United States.
As in everything, there are singers of varying quality and talent, something that is not doubted even by the exponents of the sector: This is demonstrated by the beef between J Balvin and Residente, two of the great urban artists of the moment. And this is because in recent years, reggaeton has also grown in political aspirations. For example, during the summer of 2019 in Puerto Rico, reggaeton sounded like a revolution.
The revolts that Puerto Rico experienced then are usually included within those that caused Latin America to explode that year. Known as Telegramgate, the leaks of a courier service that caused the departure of Governor Ricardo Rosselló from “La Fortaleza”, were only the trigger. The other reasons for taking to the streets were not different from those that pushed Chile, Ecuador or Colombia: unemployment, extreme poverty and corruption.
The banners with slogans against corruption were mixed with what in networks was called “combative perreo”. “If the whole town wants you to go, damn it, and you stay, then we are in a dictatorship,” sang Residente, a former member of the Calle 13 group, and Bad Bunny in Sharpening the knives.
The young people chanted his verses and danced them in front of the Executive headquarters: “Let all the continents know that Ricardo Roselló is incompetent, homophobic, liar and criminal.” The song jumped from the streets of San Juan to social networks and the protests turned into trendic topic world. At that time there was no longer any doubt: reggaeton was a great speaker for the cause of Puerto Rico. This political edge is important to understanding the growing acceptance of the genre, but it is not the only thing that has moved it up the charts.
Its more rhythmic than melodic bases and its catchy lyrics could be the reason why reggaeton has doubled in popularity in the last five years. Artists of all genres, from singer-songwriters to rappers and poppers, have adhered to it because it is easier to add reproductions, sell copies and sound in the party places. That is why there are also critics and professional musicians who doubt that music should conform to these ephemeral ambitions. But should a musical genre aspire to the perpetuity of Beethoven? Some of those who have come out to respond to Rhodes praise precisely that fleeting, group and passing purpose that has received a verb of its own: dogging.
Reggaeton cannot be compared to classical music. But it doesn’t mean it either. Their greatest point in common is the need to assert themselves above prejudices. James Rhodes tries to do it with Bach and Beethoven: remove the halo of elite and professionalism and bring them closer to a heterogeneous audience. This is precisely something that Latin music has achieved in the West in recent years. Instead, the great challenge of reggaeton continues to be facing the past and present of its capitalist and degrading messages towards women.
Its listeners have come out of the closet because the genre has adapted to social changes with a necessary but not radical facelift. His macho lyrics no longer go unnoticed. Now there are many more reggaeton artists than before and men who do not need to insult women to put their songs on the charts. Of the latter, Bad Bunny stands out, a 27-year-old Puerto Rican who has made entire continents dance while modernizing the urban imaginary.
Bad Bunny is not just another reggaeton
The beginning of the committed facet of Benito Antonio Martínez (his real name) is diffuse, since he himself has participated in highly sexist collaborations within reggaeton. So right after he was branded as such in the song MINE, who sang alongside rapper Drake, launched his mighty Just of me. The lyrics contradicted the previous one saying “I’m not yours or anyone’s, I’m just me” and was accompanied by a video that denounced sexist abuse.
“We do not want even one more death. Less violence and more dogging (if she wants it, if not, let her dog alone and don’t screw her),” the singer wrote on his Instagram to announce. That idea took shape in a song for his new album titled I dog alone together with rapper Nesi, who has led to a viral campaign in which women from all over the world claim their right to dance without being harassed. “You can dog and be polite and respectful at the same time. If she doesn’t want to dance with you, respect. She dogs alone,” he said in 2020 while collecting his Billboard award for best Latin artist.
Before becoming the most listened to artist of 2020, Bad Bunny had already broken with the previous imaginary, even at the risk of being rejected. After decades in which reggaeton players used their loudspeaker to compete for wads of bills and the number of women who appeared in their music videos, Benito dynamited the scene. Already in 2018, he was kicked out of an aesthetic center in Oviedo during his tour of Spain in which he was preparing to get a manicure and pedicure. Stunned, he commented on it in networks and later appeared in his next video clip, Expensive, painting his nails as an act of protest.
The latter is one of the great challenges of the genre: fleeing from labels and showing that the mainstream It can also be used to inoculate consciousness in society. Thus, Harvard University led him to teach a masterclass in this regard in which Bad Bunny spoke about the protest song within different styles. Previously, he had done the same in Miami to sponsor a scholarship for low-income Hispanic students in one of his high schools.
In his last action on the stage of the late night from Jimmy Fallon, where in 2020 he presented his album, he appeared dressed in a petticoat and a T-shirt that read: “They killed Alexa, not a man in a skirt.” Alexa was a trans woman who was shot to death in Puerto Rico and who only he claimed responsibility for in one of the highest rated shows in the US.
Beyond his albums and his songs, played with record numbers on the platforms of streaming, Bad Bunny is the artist who has best connected with a young and modern audience who liked the Latin genre but not its exponents or its messages. Without becoming an expert voice in Puerto Rican politics, transphobia or misogyny, he has used his loudspeaker to position these matters on the media agenda and on the dance floors. And it may not sound like 200 years from now, but with it its current popularity can be understood.