Feature image: Frame from Bad Bunny’s music video “La Noche de Anoche” featuring Rosalía and directed by Stillz, via Bad Bunny’s YouTube.
PART I: Bad Bunny’s Contemporary Music and Art Are a Disruption in the United States Cultural Economy
This is the story of how Bad Bunny built his own Puerto Rican cultural empire by being a disruption in the United States’ cultural economy with his music and art in Spanish from the streets of Latin America. Here’s how he did it.
Disclaimer: ArtRKL reached out to Bad Bunny’s team in all the ways possible with no success to get an interview with him for this story.
Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, 29, popularly known as Bad Bunny, is a globally renowned Puerto Rican artist, rapper, singer, and songwriter. He’s best known for his reggaeton and trap music that knows no boundaries. He’s also known for his life mantra of yo hago lo que me da la gana, the name of one of his solo studio albums, which translates to doing whatever he wants.
This carefree attitude led him to build his own Puerto Rican cultural empire. An empire disrupting the United States’ cultural economy with his contemporary music and art in Spanish that comes from the streets of Latin America.
He’s created an artistic reign with which he’s broken so many records that it would be impossible to name them all. Some of those most transcendental ones include becoming Spotify’s most streamed artist for three consecutive years in 2020, 2021, and 2022, having his most recent album, “Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va A Pasar Mañana,” become 2023’s most streamed album in a single day on Spotify, hosting Saturday Night Live’s first bilingual show, being the first Latin American artist singing in Spanish to headline the Coachella music festival, and having his album “Un Verano Sin Ti” nominated as the first ever all Spanish language album in the 2023 Grammy’s Album of the Year category. He also grossed more than $230 million on tour in 2022.
But all of these achievements do not exist in a vacuum. Bad Bunny's music and art exist in the context of the orange economy, which, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), can be understood as an economic approach to culture. This economic theory suggests that culture emerges from empires of the mind, regenerating a society's social fabric and empowering minorities as a beacon of economic progress.
First image: Frame from Bad Bunny’s “Callaíta” music video. Courtesy of Kacho López Mari. Second image: Frame from Bad Bunny and Aventura’s song “Volví.” Courtesy of Kacho López Mari.
Bad Bunny’s Empire of the Mind
According to Colombian economist Felipe Buitrago, Colombia’s former Minister of Culture and co-author of the IDB’s book The Orange Economy: An Infinite Opportunity, the empires of the mind concept is a reference to Winston Churchill’s phrase stating that “the empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”
“At the end of the 1940s, he [Winston Churchill] said that the empires of the mind were the future empires. Understanding empires as what they were before territorial empires,” Buitrago said. “The empires that placed their power through military forces was not the way anymore. What was really coming was a competition of ideas. Today, we speak about ideas and movements.”
With that clear concept, Buitrago believes that Bad Bunny created his empire of the mind based on cultural syncretisms, meaning that the Puerto Rican artist blended various cultures and music genres to create a new idea, practice, or philosophy, resulting from that cultural mixture in the form of reggaeton. For Buitrago, it’s pretty clear that Bad Bunny’s cultural syncretism resulted in his music and art that speaks to many different cultures, societies, and populations.
“The empire of the mind here is the capacity of speaking around cultural movements and generate a mass mobilization around an artist, a music genre, and an aesthetic and cultural trend that generates a unification,” Buitrago said. “Bad Bunny has his own brand. He has generated a hub around his music by attracting an important quantity of artists. He became, without even wanting to, the leader of reggaeton in the moment. And in that order of ideas, he establishes himself as the head of that empire of the mind that reggaeton is.”
With his pop culture kingdom, Bad Bunny disrupts the United States’ orange economy, which Buitrago describes as an economy that “covers the cultural and creative industry with an approximation of very strong markets that has a very solid participation of art and heritage.” Bad Bunny disrupts this established economy mentioned by Buitrago with his music and art in Spanish through the cultural syncretism he created.
“By coming up with a rhythm and a musical voice that’s easy to adapt by the local population, the language becomes a disruptive element. But it’s not that new,” Buitrago said. “Spanish does generate a disruption in the United States’ music markets, but in reality, it just reinforces the dialogue that was already happening between music and languages.”
Bad Bunny’s Spanish as a Symbol of Rebellion
For Buitrago, the Spanish disruption is not that huge of a novelty. According to the Hispanic Council, by 2060 the U.S. is expected to become the world’s second country with the biggest Spanish-speaking population right behind Mexico. Also, the United States does not have an official language, meaning that English is not their official language on a federal level, and the nation is multilingual.
Yet, for Ana Canepa, a Mexican academic researcher of reggaeton and founder of the digital magazine Perreo Intelectual that explores the literary and cultural value of reggaeton, Bad Bunny’s use of Spanish plays a huge role in his disruptive music and art.
“He has people who don’t know how to speak Spanish wanting to sing and speak Spanish. That’s a great impact for the culture. No one has achieved that,” Canepa said. “We now have people who speak English wanting to speak Spanish and it’s all thanks to Bad Bunny and all these artists. In the end, language is part of the identity. All of us who speak Spanish, except for Spain, share being colonized. We share on a global context, never being the world’s main character. Taking back that protagonist role is very incredible.”
Not only has Bad Bunny powerfully embraced singing in Spanish as a sign of a strong Puerto Rican and Latin American identity, but he has also used it to his advantage as an artistic craft. Canepa defines him as a language artist and poet.
“He does a lot of references: to himself and places. He’s able to create an image with these references and creates an imagery of reggaeton,” Canepa said. “If there’s something you don’t understand about what he’s saying, you look it up, and it’s a whole world in four lines. He’s a language artist. He’s great with playing with words, which is something in poetry and songs. He also does these references that land his songs within a context.”
Reggaeton, Latin American Identity, And Bad Bunny’s Contemporary Art
Just as the language plays a huge role in Bad Bunny’s creation of identity, his music serves the same purpose, according to Canepa. She believes reggaeton is currently the face of Latin American culture and music with a broader purpose of identity.
Bad Bunny’s music video for his song “Callaíta” directed by Kacho López Mari. “Callaíta” has more than one billion views on YouTube and serves as a strong symbol of Latin American identity.
“Music has always been very important [in Latin America]. The origins of reggaeton, which come from Afro-Caribbean music, has a lot to do with social rituals. Not necessarily religious rituals, but in weddings, baptisms, and quinceaños, people dance,” Canepa said. “It’s something that’s very linked to what’s social, and what’s social is very linked to the identity of each person. People make it their identity. Reggaeton has become the face of Latin American culture and music.”
With that strong creation of identity, Canepa also states that Bad Bunny’s reggaeton is contemporary music and art. She classifies it that way because it’s a direct reflection of the Latin American people and context from the twenty-first century expressed through contemporary mediums. Even Bad Bunny describes himself as art in his song “NADIE SABE” when he sings “soy una obra de arte, Mona Lisa, Última Cena,” which translates to “I’m an artwork, Mona Lisa, The Last Supper.”
Those contemporary mediums, which are social media, the Internet, and different streaming platforms, helped Bad Bunny during the COVID-19 pandemic with the creation of his Puerto Rican cultural dynasty. In 2020, he released – in a fast pace – three albums: “Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana,” “Las que no iban a salir,” and “El Último Tour Del Mundo.”
The Creation of Bad Bunny’s “Cult” in the COVID-19 Pandemic
Buitrago believes that the singer, who probably accelerated the process of his album releases, was one of the few artists who understood how to handle the context of a global pandemic to generate a genuine human connection with his community.
“He read the need of reactivating the connection through music. However, today an artist like Bad Bunny doesn’t limit himself to music. I think his great success is there. He read the needs of his community, and that helped him. His community became the main multiplier in bringing new converts, in a positive sense, to the cult of Bad Bunny,” Buitrago said. “You can say he was selling optimism in a moment where everyone was thinking negatively. He sold hope, and I think he connected very well with the audience precisely because of that.”
2020 and 2021 were the years when the global pandemic was at its worst, and also the years when Bad Bunny started breaking his records and gaining major global stardom. They were also years in a broader context, where, according to Buitrago, culture and entertainment became of sole importance for people on a human level. Those were times that he believes evidenced the need for connection in which a collective isolation generated a profound crisis of loneliness.
“It was evident for everyone that we need a lot of culture to understand that we’re not alone. To identify ourselves. To feel part of something and give us purpose. To help us heal the moment that we were living,” Buitrago said. “To allow ourselves to make catharsis of what we were living. To re-signify the spaces where we work and live and the way we face problems.”
That understanding of culture as a tool of natural longing for human connection and meaning during the global pandemic was then reflected in a broader global context in 2021. That was the year that the United Nations declared the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development at its 74th General Assembly.
Bad Bunny fits perfectly in this context because he created that human connection with his audience through his contemporary music and art. It led him to rapid growth as an artist, which transformed him into a very impactful economic force after 2021. For Buitrago, the fact that Bad Bunny has become an economic force that moves governments goes along with Churchill’s initial concept of empires of the mind.
“That’s what Churchill was talking about. When there’s such great value behind an idea and movement, that public policy and societies’ political representatives adapt to the needs. They adapt with these movements,” Buitrago said. “You’re now seeing it with Bad Bunny, but that happened in its moment with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and U2. Where sometimes a positive tension and sometimes a more negative tension is generated between authorities and artists because the movement’s force generates that type of conversation.”
For Buitrago, Bad Bunny’s great idea and movement that resulted in the creation of his Puerto Rican cultural dominion is an example of a commercial expression in the short term. It has changed the perception of Latin American music and its capacity to adapt to a more modern world in the medium and long term.
“If you go 20 years back, the debate in music was: will Latin America at some point have great movements on a global scale? Some said [it would happen] if we only made Latin American rock. And no. Rock did not take us to the world,” Buitrago said. “Reggaeton took us [there] because it’s a different expression that has elements of rock. It has other elements, but deep down, it’s more autochthonous because it’s a purer expression of identity. More popular. More from the base. It represents something that the world didn’t know about Latin America.”
To learn more about Bad Bunny’s purer expression of Latin American identity, stay tuned for Part II. There, you’ll explore how his contemporary music and art speak about politics, colonialism, and race.
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