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The rise of reggaeton

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“Mi música no discrimina a nadie así que vamos a romper, Toda mi gente se mueve.” In the opening lines of J Balvin’s reggaetón hit Mi Gente, the Colombian superstar makes his listeners a few promises. For one, this song is gonna be for everyone — Latino, gringo or otherwise. And, even more importantly, this music and everyone who moves to it are going to change everything.    

Late last year, Mi Gente shot up the Billboard charts in both the Spanish speaking world and, somewhat more surprisingly, here in the United States. From Madrid to Mountain View, its thumping bass and infectious rhythm received countless hours of playtime on mainstream FM radio and made innumerable appearances at bars, nightclubs and parties. Mi Gente, however, was far from alone. Its success was largely indicative of a new wave of foreign-inspired and produced music, the likes of which hadn’t been seen stateside since the famed ‘British Invasion’ of the 1960s. But unlike the English-language crooning of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones that so characterized that era, this particular ‘invasion’ has been led by a vanguard of Spanish-speaking acts, a phenomenon that speaks volumes about where American music — and America itself — is heading in the years to come.

Reggaetón is itself a term whose exact definition and ownership are somewhat nebulous and even controversial. Broadly speaking, it refers to a genre of Spanish-language dance music that’s “characterized by a fusion of Latin rhythms, dancehall, and hip-hop or rap.” Although Reggaeton’s earliest roots took hold in Panama in the 1970s, it remained something of a niche sound until it began gaining traction in Puerto Rico and Colombia in the 90s. The genre’s first forays into American markets were largely in the form of one-off singles and other guest verses (think Gasolina or, even further back, the Macarena), but these were always more of a novelty than a truly sustainable movement — a quick change of pace to inject life into a dance floor rather than a tangible shift in American preferences.

In the early 2010s, the rise of streaming and the movement towards digital modes of consumption like Spotify and Pandora meant that for the first time, large swaths of America had instant access to reggaetón records, and it was this change that gave the genre its initial bout of sustained exposure in America. Domestic consumers could now find songs from San Juan or Medellín interspersed with their algorithm-curated zumba playlists, party mixes and top-40 charts. This allowed now-renowned artists like Ozuna, Maluma, Nicky Jam and the aforementioned J Balvin to enter the nation’s collective music consciousness.

Then, in 2017, one song forever blew up whatever prior divide had existed between reggaetón and U.S. mainstream music. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Despacito and its subsequent remix with Justin Bieber achieved a level of ubiquity unprecedented in the history of American music, reggaetón or otherwise. It spent 16 weeks on top of the U.S. billboard charts (tying the all-time record for longest duration at number one), became the number one song in 47 separate countries and became the first video on YouTube to hit three (and then four and five) billion views.

Despacito was certainly a colossal event in its own right, but even beyond that success, its true lasting impact was to completely open the floodgates for subsequent songs and artists from Latin America in a way that has given them unprecedented exposure in the United States’ musical landscape. Since that release, numerous other hits like Mi Gente, Chantaje and Me Rehuso have found widespread success with American audiences. Anecdotally speaking, it’s no longer out of the ordinary or at all unusual to hear entire medleys of Latin songs in settings previously reserved for the standard fare of hip-hop, pop and electronic music.

Many will argue that the genre has been propelled to such heights on the backs of America’s Latino population, and it would be foolish to deny this outright. After all, there are some 57 million Hispanics in the United States, and their spending power is expected to exceed $1.8 trillion by 2021. Advertisers and influencers clearly have substantial motivation to tap into these markets, and in doing so, they’ve clearly helped propel reggaetón into the public eye. But with that being said, a sizable portion of Latin music listeners are indeed the very gringos who took so long to adapt to non-English music.  

Why then did we collectively choose, en masse, to embrace this new trend with such open arms? Well for one, reggaetón is a genre perfectly-designed for 21st century consumers. Long before their American counterparts picked up the same trend, Latin artists re-pioneered the idea that music could be released via a constant stream of singles rather than through more cohesive (albeit unwieldy) albums. Reggaetón was also a forerunner in the “features craze” that has come to dominate most hip-hop and pop releases. Major artists have found that by conceding a verse or two to other stars or up-and-comers, they can imbue their music with newfound vitality while simultaneously widening their shared listener-base, and no genre has been as prolific in this sense as that of our Latin neighbors. The inherently modern nature of the genre is also furthered by the fact that, like the trap and EDM music that constituted the last two major waves of pop, reggaetón is dependent less upon lyrical dexterity and complex productions and more on soaring refrains and catchy melodies. The overall impression is one of a genre whose rise, perhaps not coincidentally, was timed to perfection.

The consequences of reggaeton’s arrival extend far beyond recording studios and dance floors. This is a movement that asks questions and challenges many of the basic notions we’ve previously held regarding music in America. For one — what even is American music? After all, reggaetón largely came to be on the island of Puerto Rico, which is itself a part of America. But can a genre really be an American one when half its participants are foreign, and it’s almost entirely performed outside the bounds of the English language? Would that in fact make it more American instead of less? Like any good mental exercise, these are questions that lack simplistic answers, but regardless of your take on the genre, it’s not a stretch to say that reggaetón looks like it’s here to stay.  

At the time of writing, eight of the top 10 and 17 of the top 22 songs on the U.S. billboard youtube charts are by Latin artists. Cardi B’s I like It (anchored by a Latin sample and appearances from reggaetón superstars J Balvin and Bad Bunny) appears to be an early front-runner for song of the summer. Everywhere, it seems, Latin beats are thumping and, as J Balvin promised, people are moving to them. Clearly, reggaetón has arrived.   

Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Harrison Hohman is a junior from Omaha, Nebraska majoring in Economics and Iberian-Latin American Cultures. He enjoys sports, politics, music, and other stereotypical college-age interests, and ties far too much of his self-worth to his middling abilities on the pool table . You can find him at Kappa Sig, the Huang basement or the rejected pile at Goldman.