By Alfredo Prieto
Like rap and hip-hop, the origin of reggaeton is linked to processes of resistance and cultural statements that allowed the marginalized and excluded to call attention to their very existence and life in the neighborhood. “For that reason,” once commented a musicologist friend of mine, “it’s so brash and aggressive.”
This musical expression -which for some is the bearer of a “new poetic art,” and for others is everything except art- made its appearance in Cuba in the 1990s, an epoch of change whose echoes reverberate even today.
It began being heard in alternative circles, and from there extended to street parties organized by youth unable to pay the cover for discos. These parties, free of charge, are called bonches: a group of youth get together at a house, put speakers outside on the balcony, and began to attract people like bears to honey.
It has swept across the island like a huge wave of plankton, infusing all social strata. Reggaeton is not only listened to at private parties, diners and all types of public establishments, but also in daycare centers and nurseries. In fact, since many attendants teach it to preschoolers, a national campaign was launched for the recovery of children’s music, of which Cuba has a long tradition.
What does this new musical form possess that draws and appeals to people so widely?
First: rhythm and hedonism. Listeners are induced to move their hips explicitly, something that Puerto Ricans (the originators of the genre) have christened “perreo.” People enjoy its unmasked sexuality, which is quite appropriate in these times in which the urge to not think is one of the hard drives of globalization.
Second is reggaeton’s repetitious and simplistic beat, aided by computer tracks. And third, like with rap and hip hop, it is accompanied by a style of dress that constitutes an identifying mark for adolescents, a fashion that has not been created anew but rather has mutated over time.
My mother used to tell me about the “chucheros,” who in the Havana of the 1940s used to show off their gold chains and exaggerated wide pants and shirts, imitating the flair of Mexican actor Tintan and Cuban singer Benny More.
Later, youth of the 1960s went for long hair, short skirts and the tight pants as a way of establishing their own image. They were dismissed as hippies or victims of “cultural penetration,” an expression now overcome but which sought to diminish the validity of all foreign influences at a time of peculiar sharpness in the conflict with the United States.
However, reggaeton’s weakest point is its lyrics. Overly simplistic. Overly street. Overly macho. Women are usually depicted as simple objects of desire. They are “mommies” – a word that I see as only the tip of an iceberg – while men are “daddies” and providers. This same circumstance occurred with Cuban “timba” music, which has now essentially gone out of style.
Contrary to what emerged in the world of Cuban rap and hip-hop, I still don’t know of anything that could be called “conscious reggaeton,” allowing dialogue around the social problems of the time. Rather, the opposite is occurring: the lyrics validate differences in social status, racism, luxury, and consumption – and not only, by the way, of goods bought in dollarized stores.
These are the children of “The General,” a Panamanian musician of my student days who basically did the same thing. He caused an uproar back then, but today is like the Kansas tune: dust in the wind. Reggaeton should not be reviled, nor should we try to eradicate it; it should simply be allowed to happen and pass.