‘Bad Bunny is bigger than The Beatles’, I said, committed to the nth degree with the Bad Bunnyi Defense Manifesto speech I was delivering to a group of distant family members one hot Miami summer night last year. Of course I didn’t mean it. At least I didn’t mean it in the same way they heard it. They heard ‘I only listen to perreo dance music with misogynistic lyrics that glorify and romanticise money, drugs, and sex’. But what I meant was ‘shaming reggaeton and “urban music” for its themes and loreii is not only a classist, racist, and prejudiced thing to say, but it reinforces colonialist and imperialist ideas onto an already highly abused Latin collective’.
Reggaeton originated through youth’s musical innovations of the 1980s and 1990s in Panama and Puerto Rico, specifically through ‘multiple streams of migration and cultural exchange across the Caribbean basin’ (Bad Bunny Syllabus 2023). As Bad Bunny’s Coachella 2023 performance opening narrates: “it was when reggae and hip hop rose together from the underground of the Panama barrios and the Puerto Rican caseríos (public housing projects) of the 1980s to challenge authority and become the voice of the voiceless”.
In Panama, during the late 1970s, young people began the reggae en español movement by taking Jamaican dancehall records and rapping over them in Spanish, with prominent figures such as El General, who was descendant of West Indian labourers that migrated from Jamaica to Panama decades earlier to build the Panama Canal (Bad Bunny Syllabus 2023). As Marshall (2009:79) points out, El General’s early singles ‘Tu Pun Pun’ (1990), ‘Te Ves Buena’ (1990), and Muévelo (1992) were the inspiration for a generation of music across the Spanish-speaking regions of the continent. El General and his friends would pick up the B-sides of Jamaican singles on tape from DJ stands and forced the tapes on bus drivers while improvising live over them during the rides. This was during a time in Panama when people ‘didn’t want to sit next to [them] on the bus’ and dreadlocks were routinely cut off from people, by the dictatorships, first of Torrijos and later Noriega. As El General tells Twickel (2009:82), ‘they called me “El General,” because General Torrijos had the highest command’.
In February 1995, six record labels in San Juan were raided by the Drugs and Vice Control Bureau of the Police Department of Puerto Rico, confiscating hundreds of underground cassettes and mixtapes (Rivera 2009: 111). Underground – the term used for the genre of rap and reggae music in Puerto Rico – incited a moral panic due to its vulgar and violent lyrics that spoke of sex, marihuana, and guns, which propelled fear against this subculture and the dangers of this ‘submundo’ (subworld or underworld). Some of the key points of the battle against underground music were focused on the influence and impact that the music would have on Puerto Rican youth. Another powerful critique was focused on the ‘marginality’ of the genre, how music primarily developed by the labouring-impoverished classes was producing a cultural malaise that threatened to contaminate the social core with imaginaries from the periphery of barriadas (slums), and caseríos. Rivera (2009: 112) in her work Policing Morality, Mano Dura Stylee, shows how ‘the policing of public morality serves to strengthen social consensus and demonise transgressors, as well as cement power relations, social prejudices, and structures of oppression’.
Underground was censored due to its perceived ties with youth from poor communities who were seen as perpetrators of crime and social disorder. Policies like Pedro Rosselló’s (1992–96) Mano Dura Contra el Crimen (Tough Hand Against Crime) campaign implemented guards in caseríos, citizen surveillance systems, military occupation of housing projects, and banning of underground music. Considering that crime is directly linked to youth of the (racialized) labouring-impoverished classes, underground music challenges prevailing social structures by voicing the concerns of the invisible (Rivera 2009:111). Early reggaeton was a target for censorship for its obscene, ‘criminal’, and violent themes and aesthetics that challenged ideas of ‘proper behaviour’ held by the dominant public, governmental bodies, and religiousiii speech that regulated social order (Rivera 2009:129).
Reggaeton as Decolonising Methodology
Since the 16th Century, Puerto Rico had been a colony of Spain, until 1869 when the colonial power allowed the island more independence. After the United States declared war on Spain to liberate Cuba in 1898, Puerto Rico was ‘ceded’ and transferred by the Spanish to the US. Having never enjoyed full autonomy, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S citizenship in 1917 through the Jones-Shafroth Act (Blakemore 2020); and until 1952, flying the Puerto Rican flag was considered a felony, as the only flag allowed was the American one. Today, Puerto Ricans lack some central rights of mainland Americans, such as casting electoral votes in the general election.
It is in this context that I identify reggaeton as a decolonizing method. Bad Bunny’s rise to stardom occurred during a time in 2016 when Puerto Rico was suffering a debt crisis of $72 billion USD. This can be seen as a continuation of a ‘pattern of dependency and debt’ on the United States (LeBrón 2016, Fusté 2017). This, coupled with 2017’s Hurricane Maria gave rise to what Bonilla (2020) terms ‘the coloniality of disaster’. It is during these unsettling times of catastrophic natural events and political and economic crisis – which intensify the country’s historic racial and colonial histories – that Bad Bunny releases ‘Estamos Bien’ (We Are Good) and performs for the first time in on national US television in The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The song was not only played in the island during the hurricane’s aftermath to raise the spirits, but his performance in The Tonight Show directly addresses Puerto Rico’s struggles and the government’s ‘denial’ of the disaster.
Considering that research is not a distant academic exercise but, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012: 5) suggests, ‘an activity that has something at stake and that occurs in a set of political and social conditions’, I propose reggaeton’s modern chart domination – lead up until recently by Bad Bunny – as a research tool for anthropologists to pay heed to. As an anthropologist that defines herself as ‘Latin’ or ‘Hispanic’, my training follows Western academia and ‘specific disciplinary methodologies’ that make it incredibly complex to describe the life and customs of people with a particular paradigm or research model (Smith 2012: 6). Paying close attention to reggaeton’s history, aesthetics, lyrics, and chart presence can tell us things just as vital and true as research participants during interviews.
One of the most common difficulties for non-Western/white anthropologists is the fact that our academic education prevents us from ‘being in a “real” or “authentic” Indigenous position’ (Smith 2012: 14). And yet, speaking from a more ‘traditional’ Indigenous point of view not only does not make sense to the West, but is often simply reduced as meaningless and grammatically incorrect slang. Bad Bunny’s heartfelt speech during his acceptance of Best Música Urbana at the 2023 ‘gringo Grammys’iv was closed-captioned as ‘speaking non-English’, and his lyrics are regularly muted and censored. Still, the intentionality on decolonizing through reggaeton comes through when he is asked about the ‘non-English’ incident in a TIMES Magazine interview (Chow and Espada 2023), and his response is ‘it was porqueria (crap)’; and while opening his Stadium World Tour in Puerto Rico in 2022 he enters the Coliseo perreando and rapping ‘a mucha gente no le gusta mi lenguaje pero que se jodan eso fue lo que les traje (a lot of people don’t like my language but fuck them that’s what I brought them)’.v Bad Bunny is not an activist, and in several interviews has voiced his discomfort when he is forced to make a political statement. He calls himself ‘just a chamaquito (little boy)’,vi and like any other chamaquito, he feels uprootedness, anger, grief, love, and bellaqueo, and his songs speak of those experiences that resonate with billions of Latin people – and non-Latin people across the world.vii
What Bad Bunny has achieved, as opposed to other Latin music icons such as Shakira during her world-dominating period, is that he has intentionally shifted the centre from its imperial core, while never singing in English or tapping into the commercial American market. Through music, and propelled by the reach of social media, Bad Bunny has positioned himself at the very centre of global music, being the most streamed artist for three years in a row, beating Taylor Swift and Drake (Calvario 2022). I find it funny that during casual conversations in Cambridge, when I mention his name, nobody recognizes him or knows about him. Having only lived in very highly populated Hispanic and Latin places outside of my home country, finding that people do not recognize the top global artist, is a call to question if what we are writing and reading here about Latin America, is really what Latin America cares about.
Reggaeton has been used as a decolonising methodology by the people, to break away colonial imaginaries of what is ‘right’ or ‘good’. From Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, and Calle 13, songs that speak and challenge colonial imaginaries have been made, played, and enjoyed throughout the continent. Anthropology as a discipline can learn from these local, cultural phenomena and focus its lens on sensory methodologies that voice the lives of a large community. Doing so will help anthropologists shorten the gaps in anthropological perspectives and do what we are supposed to do: listen, really listen to what people are saying (or singing about). What “The Bad Bunny Effect” does is force the conversation with our distant family members. It forced me to make a grand shocking statement that questioned our ‘good taste’ and ‘cultured’ imaginaries, because historically ‘good taste’ was defined by people who did not look like us.
Welcome to the calentón.
i. Bad Bunny is the stage name of Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, a Puerto Rican rapper and singer, mainly in the genres of reggaeton and Latin trap. As of April 2023, Bad Bunny has been receiving an all-important counteresponse from the community and fandom, due to his comment on a TIMES Magazine interview regarding the industry’s systemic racism and history of exploitation of Black culture, whilst considering his lighter-skin complexion and perceived ‘whiteness’.
ii. ‘Lore’ is a contemporary internet term that refers to the worldbuilding and attractiveness of a specific theme or fantasy. My choice of this word here is deliberate, to be able to think and write with concepts that come from a local level, from people’s everyday language.
iii. The scope of this piece does not encompass the interesting intersection between religious imagery and reggaeton, which I believe is an exciting theme that has not been explored in anthropology. For an analysis on religious aesthetics, ambience, and sensations in media, see Birgit Meyer 2006.
iv. In 2020, Bad Bunny was nominated for the Grammys in two categories, after having participated only in the Latin Grammys prior to that. In a viral interview at the time, Bad Bunny says “to us, the Latin Grammys are the Grammys. But of course, I’m happy to be nominated for a gringo Grammy” (Exposito 2020).
v. Linda Smith outlines Ngugi Thiongo’s argument that ‘language carries culture’, and reggaeton produces a perfect convergence point for this inquiry. Puerto Rican slang such as bellaco (being horny) or bichote/a (gangster) has been widespread across Latin America and Spain and is now commonly used. Even Spanish artists such as Rosalía, who have a distinct Spaniard pronunciation of the Z and C, have decided to forego her native accent in her music and implement seseo (pronounce the letter C with the S sound) in her music. She also uses Boricua words such as gyales (derived from the Caribbean gyal that refers to a girl). The use and appropriation of the language of reggaeton by Spanish and European artists is an area requiring further examination.
vi. While this can be seen by some people as wasting and deferring the power and influence Bad Bunny has, I think anthropology is the most-fitted discipline to contextualise his divergence into a larger picture that considers personhood, the market, and societal expectations.
vii. One of his most used songs that expresses Puerto Rico’s struggles is El Apagón, for which the music video goes alongside a 22 min documentary about the island’s battles against beach privatisation, foreigners migration for tax exemption purposes, and electricity and water shortages due to privatised companies. It features his ex-girlfriend, Gabriela Berlingeri, singing ‘Yo no me quiero ir de aquí. Lo que me pertenece se lo quedan ellos. Esta es mi playa, este es mi sol. Esta es mi tierra, esta soy yo’ (‘I don’t want to leave. They take what belongs to me. This is my beach; this is my sun. This is my land, this is me’). This sense of uprootedness echoes the complicated feelings of young Latin people having to migrate (normally to the United States) to find work, while at the same time seeing their lands gentrified and taken over by Americans working remote after the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same song, Bad Bunny pays homage to pioneer reggaetonero Tego Calderón, by taking Calderón’s quote ‘métele sazón, batería y reggaetón’ (add seasoning, drums and reggaeton), and rephrasing it to ‘le falta sazón, batería y reggaeton’ (it’s lacking seasoning, drums and reggaeton), referring to the foreigners in the island.
Edurne Sosa El Fakih is an MPhil student in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is a member of Girton College and Maria Luisa de Sanchez Scholarship recipient. Edurne has served as a content writer for BELatina and Nuestro Stories, focusing on Hispanic culture, heritage, and complex experiences in the United States. Her book, Al borde de un viaje (2021), is a creative project that addresses issues of uprooting, migration, and nostalgia.
Blakemore, E. 2020. “Why Puerto Rico has debated U.S. statehood since its colonisation”. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/puerto-rico-debated-statehood-since-colonization
Bonilla, Y. 2020. “The coloniality of disaster: Race, empire, and the temporal logics of emergency in Puerto Rico, USA”. Political Geography 78:1-12.
Calvario, L. 2022. “Bad Bunny and Taylor Swift are Spotify’s 2022 most-streamed artists”. TODAY. https://www.today.com/popculture/music/spotify-2022-streamed-artists-bad-bunny-taylor-swift-rcna59505
Chow, A. and Espada, M. 2023. “Bad Bunny’s Next Move”. TIMES Magazine. https://time.com/6266349/bad-bunny-cover-story/
Exposito, S. 2020. “Global superstar Bad Bunny has never won a ‘gringo Grammy.’ Will 2021 finally be his year?”. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2020-12-08/bad-bunny-grammys-2021
Fusté, J. 2017. “Repeating Islands of Debt: Historicizing the Transcolonial Relationality of Puerto Rico’s Economic Crisis,” Radical History Review 128: 91-119.
LeBrón, M. 2016. People Before Debt, NACLA Report on the Americas, 48:2, 115-117.
Marshall, W. 2009. Placing Panama in the Reggaeton Narrative: Editor’s Notes. In Reggaeton (eds) R. Rivera, W. Marshall, and D. Pacini Hernandez, 78-80. North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Meyer, B. 2006. “Religious Sensations. Why Media, Aesthetics and Power Matter in the Study of Contemporary Religion”. Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen, Vrije UniversiteitAmsterdam. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241889837
“Resources on Reggaetón”, Bad Bunny Syllabus, accessed April 15th, 2023, https://www.badbunnysyllabus.com/syllabus/reggaet%C3%B3n-resources
Rivera, R. 2009. Policing Morality, Mano Dura Stylee: The Case of Underground Rap and Reggae in Puerto Rico in the Mid-1990s. In Reggaeton (eds) R. Rivera, W. Marshall, and D. Pacini Hernandez, 110-134. North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Smith, L. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed BooksTwickel, C. 2009. Muévelo (Move It!): From Panama to New York and Back Again, the Story of El General. In Reggaeton (eds) R. Rivera, W. Marshall, and D. Pacini Hernandez, 99-109. North Carolina: Duke University Press.