Feature image: Bad Bunny holding the Puerto Rican flag during a protest in Puerto Rico in 2019. Photo by Eric Rojas for AFP via Getty Images.
PART II: Bad Bunny’s Contemporary Music and Art Speak About Politics, Colonialism, and Race
Disclaimer: ArtRKL reached out to Bad Bunny’s team in all the ways possible with no success in getting an interview with him for this story.
In Part I of Bad Bunny’s Puerto Rican cultural empire, you left off on how his contemporary music and art disrupt the United States’ cultural economy. You learned that everything that he creates is a disruption in every sense of the word. It’s music sung in Spanish in the United States. He’s taking space in the music industry as a Latin American artist that has broken records that no Latin American had done before and that not even artists from the United States and Europe have achieved.
Bad Bunny makes people uncomfortable with his art and music that explore severe social and political issues addressing colonialism and race. He talks about Latin Americans, a minority and vulnerable population in the United States that is often discriminated against and hated simply for existing.
According to Vanessa Díaz, a Puerto Rican interdisciplinary ethnographer, filmmaker, journalist, professor of the "Bad Bunny and Resistance in Puerto Rico" course at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and co-founder of the “Bad Bunny Syllabus Project,” Bad Bunny’s use of Spanish as a significant political disruption. She states that the use of this language in the United States is associated with racism against Latin Americans.
“It’s so strong how political it is to speak Spanish. Only that is a disruption because it’s not the language that this country says it should be speaking. I believe that is a huge and super important disruption,” Díaz said. “How do we have a country that’s so against immigrants that come from Latin America and have a [number one] artist like Bad Bunny that’s speaking pure Spanish? It’s a disruption.”
Reggaeton’s History in Puerto Rico
You must travel back in time to understand why Bad Bunny is such a disruption, which leads us to the history of reggaeton that started in the 90s in Puerto Rico. The relationship between reggaeton, politics, race, and colonialism is nothing new. It is the root of the genre.
According to Petra R. Rivera-Rideau, associate professor in American Studies at Wellesley College who teaches the course “Bad Bunny: Race, Gender, and Empire in Reggaeton,” author of the book "Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico," and co-founder of the “Bad Bunny Syllabus Project,” the emergence of underground music – later called reggaeton – in Puerto Rico in the 90s and early 2000s reproduced many racial and class stereotypes.
“In Puerto Rico, reggaeton was the target of two censorship campaigns. The one in 1995, they confiscated recordings from record stores. They said that they were peddling obscenities because of the lyrical content in reggaeton at that time,” Rivera-Rideau said. “That case didn’t go anywhere because as a colony of the U.S., Puerto Rico is governed by the U.S. Constitution, and so under the First Amendment right of free speech, they couldn’t penalize people for making the music.”
Rivera-Rideau argues in her book that the censorship campaign in 1995 was motivated by an understanding of the people and communities where reggaeton came from as inherently delinquent, which was part of the stereotypes that perpetrated racist ideas. She believes the Puerto Rican government blamed reggaeton for those issues rather than the government taking responsibility and dealing with the systemic problems that produce poverty and violence.
During that time, Puerto Rico was also dealing with a severe economic crisis where drug trafficking was out of control. According to Rivera-Rideau, the Puerto Rican government dealt with crime by creating a campaign called “Mano Dura Contra el Crimen.” Pedro Roselló, the island’s governor, then, spearheaded the campaign.
“Mano Dura targeted public urban housing developments. In Puerto Rico, they’re called caseríos, and it said: ‘This is the epicenter of all criminal activity.’ Their response was to increase policing in those communities,” Rivera-Rideau said. “And in a very dramatic way, the Puerto Rican police worked with the U.S. National Guard to occupy some of these public housing developments. They built gates around them to kind of isolate them from the rest of the community. They arrest a bunch of people and target a bunch of people who they think are involved in drug trafficking.”
Bad Bunny’s visualizer for his song “ACHO PR” featuring Arcángel, De La Ghetto, and Ñengo Flow. The song speaks about the barrios (neighborhoods) and caseríos in Puerto Rico.
A Censorship Campaign Turned Into Free Publicity
Rivera-Rideau stressed the importance of acknowledging that, at that time, drug use happened across all geographies and racial and class groups in Puerto Rico. Yet, the island's government targeted and blamed reggaeton, known at the time as underground, for the systemic issues.
That repression and censorship campaigns of the music created in caseríos backfired for the government, according to Rivera-Rideau. She states it gave the artists free publicity because they were always in the newspapers. To a certain extent, their publicity was spread by word of mouth thanks to the censorship campaigns.
“The whole point of having a censorship campaign is to stop the growth of the music, and instead, I think the opposite happened,” Rivera-Rideau said. “They taught the artists that they could have a market if they changed their ways a little bit, and other people who don’t know what’s going on in caseríos were curious about it.”
Establishing Reggaeton as a Legit Music Genre
During those times, renowned Puerto Rican artists like Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, and Daddy Yankee were at the beginning of their careers. According to Rivera-Rideau, they were part of a generation of artists taking certain risks to establish reggaeton as a legitimate music genre. In the case of Daddy Yankee, he created his own record label to professionalize the genre and the music’s distribution. Establishing reggaeton locally had its struggles, but internationally, it was more challenging to identify the popularity of Latin American music.
First image: Puerto Rican artist Tego Calderón. Photo by Alejandro Pedrosa via Rolling Stone. Second image: Puerto Rican artist Ivy Queen. Photo by Frank Baez via Billboard.
“A lot of Latin music in the United States, when we get CDs and stuff, were sold in stores that were not part of the Nielsen SoundScan. Every time you sold a record, if you went to a major record store, that record numbers would get tallied, and then they would figure out what was the top record of the week,” Rivera-Rideau said. “But if you’re selling most of your stuff informally or at the local bodega that’s not in that scan, then it looks like Latin music is not selling.”
Thanks to the work previously done by artists like Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, Don Omar, Daddy Yankee, and Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny became a global success, according to Kacho López Mari. ArtRKL previously interviewed him for another story. López Mari, a Puerto Rican film director and graphic designer, was next to some of reggaeton’s iconic moments. For him, seeing the music genre’s growth on a global scale was quite impressive.
“I started with reggaeton when it wasn’t even called reggaeton. It was only local music from Carolina, Puerto Rico. And now it’s become the world’s number one music [genre] along with Benito, Daddy Yankee, Tego, and Don Omar,” López Mari said. “I’ve been present seeing the evolution. It’s really impressive. It’s a phenomenon I didn't see coming, but I’m very thankful for being part of it and being a witness of its evolution.”
Kacho López Mari with Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, and Ricky Martin. Photos courtesy of Kacho López Mari.
That evolution is the cultural syncretism resulting from merging cultures and music from different Latin American countries, contexts, and social classes. The creation of a more concrete concept and movement of reggaeton was due to the Puerto Ricans’ ability to transform, redesign, and reinvent the genre.
“Reggaeton was born in Jamaica. It’s called reggaeton because of the Jamaican reggae. It went to Panama because of Jamaican migration for the construction of the Panama Canal. A new generation of Jamaican-Panamanians started to sing reggae en español because they learned the language there,” López Mari said. “They sang their music in Spanish, and then, the Panamanians’ interest in singing Jamaican dancehall in Spanish was born. Then, Puerto Rico came through. We converted it into reggaeton, a completely new genre. We started reggaeton in the 90s and made it a global rhythm now by substituting pop and things like that.”
All this history of migration in reggaeton plays a pivotal role in how the music genre is always strongly related to politics, race, and colonialism. Bad Bunny’s music and art explicitly speak about these subjects, and his global platform allows him to influence the world’s public discourse. The artists before him who established reggaeton were the ones who opened the doors for Bad Bunny to come through and experiment artistically.
Bad Bunny’s visualizer for his song “FINA” featuring Young Miko and using samples from Tego Calderón’s song “Pa’ Que Retozen.”
This opportunity allowed Bad Bunny to explore his abilities in fusing reggaeton with other music genres, including trap, hip-hop, salsa, bomba, dancehall, electronica, and bachata. It allowed him to create that cultural syncretism on a musical and conceptual level when he spoke about social and political issues.
“It’s also a generation of Puerto Ricans that have dealt with a lot. The past 30 years of Puerto Rican history have been very difficult. You have an economy that’s really in dire straits,” Rivera-Rideau said. “That the U.S. government winds up doubling down on its colonial regime and putting in this fiscal control board to run the Puerto Rican economy when Bad Bunny’s like in college.”
Bad Bunny: the Spokesperson of a Generation
For Rivera-Rideau, it’s a generation of Puerto Ricans that have dealt with many significant crises and sought new solutions. That’s why it’s so natural for Bad Bunny to speak to his audience about those issues in a relatable manner.
“They’re saying: ‘the actions that have been available to us thus far have not worked. We need to be able to imagine something different. And I think he, perhaps not on purpose or not because he intended to, became kind of a spokesperson for this generation,” Rivera-Rideau said. “He’s of a generation that’s really frustrated and not afraid to speak out about these problems that they’re seeing around them. The shift in the generational kind of being very forthright about what’s happening and dealing with these crises.”
First image: Bad Bunny and Kacho López Mari in the behind-the-scenes of “El Apagón - Aquí Vive Gente.” Photo courtesy of Kacho López Mari. Second image: Bad Bunny and Kacho López Mari in the behind-the-scenes of “El Apagón - Aquí Vive Gente.” Photo courtesy of Kacho López Mari.
That freedom to speak about those social and political issues is evident in Bad Bunny’s songs “El Apagón” and “Compositor del Año.” The first one talks about colonialism and gentrification in Puerto Rico. Both the song and music video turned into a documentary for “El Apagón,” telling the story of Puerto Ricans not wanting to leave their land. The video specifically focuses on wealthy foreign developers, mostly from the U.S., displacing the community of Puerta de Tierra. With this song and video, Bad Bunny created an artistic piece that is relatable to all Latin Americans, according to Díaz.
“Everyone saw “El Apagón – Aquí Vive Gente,” and everyone can understand those struggles. It’s humanity. It’s the struggle to live. The struggle to fight for your native land,” Díaz said. “In a lot of Bad Bunny’s work, he’s speaking about the realities of Puerto Rico and other parts of the world. About Latin America as well. That’s the way you get to people: through art. That’s how we connect with people.”
Bad Bunny’s music video turned into a documentary, “El Apagón - Aquí Vive Gente,” directed by Kacho López Mari.
Defying the Status Quo Through Art
Díaz believes Bad Bunny is breaking many records by defying the status quo through his art and rejecting what is expected of him as a globally renowned artist and celebrity.
“He’s speaking about racial topics. He’s speaking about racism in many of his songs. He’s speaking about imperialism in many of his songs, and that’s not obligatory,” Díaz said. “And I think he’s full of solidarity with marginalized people. With colonized people because he was raised under colonialism. We can’t underestimate the effects of that on a person. As an artist, we even see a rebellion and rejection of conformity in his art.”
That solidarity with marginalized people is also quite evident in his song “Compositor del Año.” For this song, Bad Bunny takes a sample from Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” song and explicitly speaks about racism and police brutality in 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests and George Floyd’s murder.
“I use that song in my classes. I spoke about that song when I did the podcast with NPR. I think it’s one of his most important songs. That song is strong. That same year, he also placed a mural in San Juan that says Black Lives Matter,” Díaz said. “He’s doing a lot culturally and politically. As an artist and public figure, he’s impacting the public discourse on a global level, but particularly in regards to Puerto Rico. We have to take it very seriously because we’re living this historic moment of Bad Bunny’s unique success.”
According to Rivera-Rideau, bad Bunny's impact on the world's public discourse is the result of various factors that have led him to his global stardom and influence. She states that a combination of the advent of streaming, his talent for lyricism, songwriting, and performing, his authenticity, and relatability are some of the reasons that have led him to be number one and create his Puerto Rican cultural empire.
“It’s very difficult to pinpoint one reason why he’s the one that’s so popular and not someone else. I really think it’s a blend of these social and economic factors and then his own artistic vision,” Rivera-Rideau said. “The bigger the stage, the more Puerto Rican he is. He’s not trying to tame down his Puerto Ricannes in order to expand his audience. He’s like: ‘Oh, you want me to be on Coachella. Well, great. Then, I’m going to be on Coachella, and I’m going to tell the history of salsa in the middle of my concert.”
He's not taming down his Puerto Rican and Latin American roots. He’s embracing them and showing the world what being Puerto Rican and Latin American are all about. Even if that implies speaking about uncomfortable subjects like racism and colonialism, which Díaz states are closely related to reggaeton’s history in Puerto Rico.
“Reggaeton comes from the caseríos in Puerto Rico, where the poorest people lived. A lot of Black people from Puerto Rico or maybe people with darker skin. This association cannot be avoided,” Díaz said. “It’s all that history, that it doesn’t matter who Bad Bunny is because he’s representing a genre that has that history. I think that the strong hatred [and prejudice towards reggaeton] is about racism. However, you want to identify Bad Bunny, he’s making Black music. He’s carrying that history with his music, and people evaluate it like that.”
To learn more about Bad Bunny’s vigorous exploration of social and political issues that reflect on the human condition, stay tuned for Part III. There, you’ll explore how his contemporary music and art speak about gender and sexuality.
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