The Second Whitening of Dem Bow: Spain’s Reggaeton, Dancehall, and Hip-Hop Hybrid
While we’ve seen that reggaeton is distinctly rooted in radical and technologically innovative musical practices of Afro-Caribbeans in Jamaica, Panama, Puerto Rico, and New York, it’s today a worldwide phenomenon created and consumed by people of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Reggaeton exploded on the global market in the early 2000s with a new, slickly produced sound from Puerto Rican and Latin American superstars like Don Omar and Wisin y Yandel. The shift of the genre’s name, from “música negra” to “reggaeton”, and the appearance of its stars, from visibly Black to white or light-skinned artists, demonstrates the processes of blanqueamiento (whitening) the music has undergone.
Today, reggaeton still occupies space in the mainstream — who can forget 2017’s mega-hit “Despacito” — with young superstars like Bad Bunny and Ozuna. But an additional branch of reggaeton’s complicated genealogy is gaining visibility thanks to platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube, where young women in Spain are quickly gaining popularity. Artists like Bad Gyal, Bea Pelea, and Lapili utilize reggaeton’s distinct dembow rhythm as the backbone for many of their tracks, often mixing in trap-style autotune in their vocals and dancehall aesthetics in their dress, dance, and music video production.
It is worth saying that this kind of mash-up aesthetic is nothing new. Hip-hop wouldn’t exist without Kool Herc stitching funk breakbeats together in the Bronx, and reggaeton wouldn’t be the same without DJs like Playero, Negro, and Vico C chopping up New York hip-hop and Jamaican riddims. Yet what these processes have in common, that the music of Spain’s young reggaeton stars do not, is a physical linkage to the migration patterns of the African diaspora.
The commodification of music with roots distinctly in Black communities is also nothing new — see the blues, techno, and hip-hop. Writing on the 1970s Northern Soul scene in the United Kingdom, Les Back says:
“The interest for some white soul fans in black people is only as deep as the grooves in their beloved records…blackness thus become a ‘coloristic effect’… Here, black music becomes, to use Franz Fanon’s phrase, ‘an object amongst objects,’ where its sonic effects and pleasures can be separated from any responsibility to the human beings that created it” (146).
It is not clear that Bad Gyal, a white Catalan woman, understands the cultural significance of her music, visuals, or linguistic style. When questioned about her patois artist name, she says:
“When I came up with it, I really didn’t think much about it — it was just this dumb thing that I heard in a lot of the songs I was listening to. So, when people started reacting to it and saying it was [cultural appropriation], I was just really, really shocked” (Weiss).
The music industry is clearly becoming more and more globalized, with cross-genre collaborations like those between Cardi B (American hip-hop) and Ozuna (Puerto Rican reggaeton), Mc Fioti (Brazilian funk), Future (American hip-hop), J. Balvin (Colombian reggaeton), Stefflon Don (British dancehall/hip-hop), and Juan Magán (Spanish EDM) becoming more the rule than the exception.
Of course, no nation or group’s culture is essential or pure. Postcolonial scholar Edward Said notes that in some way, “all cultures… are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic” (qtd. in Eagleton). But with globalizing hybridity, the sonic reconfiguration of distinctly Caribbean music by white performers risks the erosion of any sense of its locality, and the radicality of its Black originators.
Scholars like Luis Alvarez and George Lipsitz have explored idea that the adoption of foreign musical genres can enable marginalized groups to form community, uphold a sense of culture, and “become more themselves” (Lipsitz 63). In the wake of 2017’s violent fight for Catalan independence, it is possible that Spanish youth are experiencing a moment of cultural confusion and mixing dancehall, trap, and reggaeton to assert a more globalized identity — yet, Bad Gyal asserts that her music is “not a political thing” (Myers).
Regardless of their political intent (or lack thereof), awareness of their music’s originators (or lack thereof), or attention given to the historical legacies of Spanish colonization and commodification of Black culture (or lack thereof)… it is clear that this musically-hybrid Spanish scene continues to grow — with various degrees of sonic, visual, and linguistic reconfigurations.
Alleyne, Mike. “Globalization and commercialization of Caribbean music.” Popular Music History, Vol. 3, №3, 2008.
Alvarez, Luis. “Reggae Rhythms in Dignity’s Diaspora: Globalization, Indigenous Identity, and the Circulation of Cultural Struggle.” Popular Music and Society, Vol. 31, №5, 2008.
Back, Les. “Sounds of Hybridity, Black Music and The Complexities of Racism”. Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 20, №2, 2000.
Eagleton, Terry. The Idea of Culture. Blackwell, 2000.
Myers, Owen. “The dazzling melancholy of Bad Gyal’s dancehall-inspired party music.” The FADER, 20 Dec. 2017, https://www.thefader.com/2017/12/20/bad-gyal-nicest-cocky-interview-dancehall-catalan.
Oliver-Cretara. “Music in Translation.” Reggae, Media & Representation, 26 Feb. 2019, The New School. Lecture.
Weiss, Alexandra. “Bad Gyal Is Here to Fix Reggaeton’s Sexism Problem.” VICE, 21 Mar. 2018, i-d.vice.com/en_us/article/xw7zmj/bad-gyal-is-here-to-fix-reggatones-sexism-problem.