The Erasure of Blackness in Reggaeton

Tego Calderon performing (Flickr)

In 2019, Reggaeton had reached a new level of blanqueamiento that had not been seen before. Rosalía, a Spanish artist, received the “Urban Song of the Year” award at the Latin Grammys for “Con altura,” featuring the white-identifying Colombian artist, J Balvin. This sparked months of debate about the erasure of Black artists and Rosalía’s proximity to an “urban lifestyle.” That same year, J Balvin paid homage to Daddy Yankee at Premio Lo Nuestro, and in a subsequent interview with news media he expressed gratitude to Daddy Yankee for opening the door for people who looked like him in the Reggaeton genre. Four years later, the meaning behind his statement has left a series of lingering questions—Did he see himself in Daddy Yankee’s whiteness? Did Balvin feel more connected to Daddy Yankee’s music based on identity politics in comparison to Afro-Puerto Rican artists like Tego Calderón? These are some of the questions that were asked on social media platforms like X (formally known as Twitter) and Instagram. Additionally, another global artist, Bad Bunny blew up Cardi B’s song “I Like It” in 2018 with a reference to a “Latino Gang” that has since perpetuated the ideology of blanqueamiento in Reggaeton. Whether or not Bad Bunny was aware of the implications of the Latino Gang, it functioned as a tool to whiten Reggaeton. The phrase further allowed white Latines to claim “urbanhood” and “Blackhood” without the political and social implications. The musical genre’s evolution, initially shaped by Black and economically disadvantaged Puerto Ricans, reveals a complex history of resistance against blanqueamiento ideology, yet its current journey raises questions about its deviation from its origins and acceptance of whitening influences.

The renowned Reggaeton rhythm finds its roots in Jamaican Dancehall music, United States Hip-Hop culture, and the Dominican Republic’s Dembow as the rhythmic base. However, the concept of rapping in Spanish over a reggae beat was inspired by the hundreds of Jamaican immigrants that contributed to the building of the Panama Canal. The journey of Black diasporic music to Puerto Rico integrating with the island’s own distinctive music of Salsa and Bomba led to the birth of Reggaeton. Similar to Hip-Hop, Reggaeton music was created for the people by the people, pioneered by Black and economically disadvantaged Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico’s housing projects and barrios in the 1990s. This musical genre features an intricate narrative of lived experiences, lifelong aspirations, along with themes of loyalty, respect, and street credibility.1 Since then, Reggaeton has greatly evolved in all its variations, but the lyrical, musical, and audience changes are a result of years of moral panic and criminalization because of blanqueamiento ideology that has been part of Puerto Rican society prior to U.S. colonization in 1898.

Hilda Lloréns, defines blanqueamiento as the racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic whitenings of a society. Blanqueamiento in Puerto Rico works as a trickle-down effect. Those in power dismiss all forms of Blackness and create a narrative to make a Black reality seem further removed from current Puerto Rican society. In Puerto Rico, this ideology strengthened after the Spanish American War in 1898 and merged United States race relations into Spanish/Caribbean race relations. After the United States colonized Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican elites with governmental power began to view themselves as an “ally” for white American elites, even if the allyship was one-sided. For some people in power, it was necessary to maintain this “image” in hopes of being socially and politically embraced by Puerto Rico’s imperial oppressors. The Puerto Rican government frequently employed “law and order” strategies and “moral correctness” rooted in anti-Black and capitalist ideals to uphold its racial hierarchy while maintaining its allyships with their white counterparts in U.S. political parties. The maintenance of the white Puerto Rican image meant that any variation of Blackness was a prominent threat and if blanqueamiento ideology did not work, then criminalizing “the other” was oftentimes the next step. However, Reggaeton did not represent “law and order,” nor did it present itself to be “morally correct” under the eyes of the Puerto Rican government. Reggaeton serves as a reminder of an unspoken Blackness and an unspoken voice for communities the government has spent decades trying to suppress. By 1993, former governor Pedro Rosselló declared a “war on crime,” targeting housing projects across the island, in hopes of bringing down the crime rate. This war was known as Mano dura contra el crimen. During the early 2000s, other political officials engaged in anti-pornographic propaganda in the name of law and order to achieve the island’s goal of “moral correctness.” The anti-pornography campaign, along with the enforcement of mano dura, resulted in police raids throughout Puerto Rican housing projects like Luis Lloréns Torres located in San Juan and Residencial Dr. José N. Gándara in Ponce.

Underground Reggaeton artists and producers became the main target for these policies. It was believed that Reggaeton promoted and incited criminal activity. Police would confiscate or destroy cassettes and equipment, removing any semblance of Reggaeton away from the public, which strategically erased any trace of Blackness and evidence of colonial violence that reflected negatively back onto the government. Reggaeton was a threat to Puerto Rican whiteness. While it is obvious that the Puerto Rican government was unsuccessful in suppressing the genre completely, it did facilitate its whitening process. Following the mid-2000s, Reggaeton’s content began to shift when artists like Don Omar went from rapping about his “bandit” lifestyle with Tego Calderón in their song Bandoleros to focusing more on sex, pleasure, luxury, or love. The criminalization of Reggaeton forced the genre to adapt to a reality that would further remove itself from Blackness and poverty, while positioning itself toward white consumption. The transformation in Reggaeton music created an opening for artists removed from housing projects, barrios, or Black experiences. This shift, emphasizing aspirations and goals, is found in the music of artists like Daddy Yankee, whose recognition thrives on the themes of love, women, sex, luxury, and partying. In actuality, Daddy Yankee changed his image from Winchester Yankee (his former stage name), whose music once focused on his reality of living in a low-income Puerto Rican neighborhood, to reach white audiences and achieve global recognition. Nevertheless, the war on crime and the anti-pornography campaign served as a turning point for blanqueamiento ideology in Reggaeton.

Listening to Reggaeton today generates questions about the genre’s evolution and whitening. It is difficult to listen to Reggaeton because audiences see artists like Rosalía, J Balvin, Bad Bunny, and Daddy Yankee on international stages, but the Black artists who pioneered the genre, like Tego Calderón, Don Omar, and Eddie Dee, are overlooked and left in the shadows. While many argue that having Bad Bunny as the face of the genre is a win, it is important to remember that Puerto Ricanness does not replace Blackness. Bad Bunny, a fair skin/white Puerto Rican man, did not grow up or navigate the world as an Afro-Puerto Rican artist like Myke Towers. Similar to Daddy Yankee, Bad Bunny’s whiteness gives him the privilege to become one of the biggest Reggaeton artists in history. However, unlike Rosalía and J Balvin, Bad Bunny admits in his music and interviews that he is far removed from the socio-economic realities originally portrayed in Reggaeton. J Balvin, Rosalía, and other white artists profiting from the genre rarely acknowledge how vastly different their origin stories are from the original cultural roots of the genre. Instead, they sell an “acceptable” or “tolerable” Reggaeton; a white Reggaeton that uses Blackness as an interchangeable costume and only focuses on riches. The strong presence of white Reggaeton artists is a result of years of societal stigmatization, criminalization, moral panic, and anti-Black racism ingrained in Puerto Rican society. In the future, it is possible that more white artists will continue to be crowned as the face, the game changer, and the money maker within Reggaeton. For more than 30 years, Reggaeton has proven it is here to stay, however it is important to remember that Reggaeton’s origins are Black and will always be remembered as such.

  1. Marco Antonio Chávez-Aguayo, “The Reggaeton of Cultural Policy: It is Latin America speaking! (and dancing)” in XI Annual ENCATC Education and Research Session: Cultural management and policy in a post-digital world—navigating uncertainty (30-43): 2020.
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Nina Vazquez

Nina Vazquez is a curriculum specialist for the Connecticut Museum of Culture and History and a program coordinator for Wesleyan University's Upward Bound program. Holding a Masters degree in Latin American, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican Studies from the University of Connecticut, her work has been featured in prominent media outlets like REMEZCLA. Beyond the classroom, Vazquez serves as an educational specialist for Puerto Rico's Reggaeton archive, Hasta 'Bajo Project where she actively contributes to the preservation and promotion of Puerto Rico’s musical heritage, ensuring that the vibrant cultural tapestry remains alive and relevant for future generations.

Comments on “The Erasure of Blackness in Reggaeton

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    Yes, thank you for saying this in 2024. I had to respond because growing up in the era and knowing the truth it is very disheartening that we yet again have been erased and robbed of our jewels of creativity and money. Also, I see no one else has responded because no doubt because your are telling the 100 percent truth about blanquemiento, illustrating the damage cultural appropriation causes in particular for black people.

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    I also agree this is a really detailed illustration of the situation. I have always wondered how reggaeton became so white. The bass and the rhythm are rooted in Caribbean vibes but the ones who are the face are not black at all. A lot of Spanish speaking people even look down on you when you say you listen to reggaeton. I listen to it because it reminds me of dancehall and I always knew it was influenced by that, not for the sexual references. Again dancehall is not all about sex in the beginning it was about life and the struggle… it’s awful so governments interfere and try and change the narrative. They succeed too until people speak out like you have in this article! Well done Nina!

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