Roots of Reggaetón
Section Synopsis: Reggaetón’s origins are hotly debated and difficult to pinpoint. What is certain is that reggaetón would not exist without multiple streams of migration and cultural exchange across the Caribbean basin. Reggaetón also wouldn’t exist without the musical innovations of youth in Panama and in Puerto Rico in the 1980s and 1990s.
Reggae en Español from Panama
Section Synopsis: In the late 1970s, Panamanian youth began taking Jamaican dancehall records and rapping over them in Spanish. Thus began the reggae en español movement. Artists like Renato and El General were descendants of West Indian laborers who had migrated to Panama decades earlier to build the Panama Canal. Their music spoke to their experiences as Black people of West Indian descent in Panama. Without their innovations, what we know as reggaetón would not exist.
“The Panamanian Connection” shines a light on how the migration of West Indian laborers to Panama set the stage for the genesis of reggaetón. Descendants of these laborers such as Renato and El General combined genres like reggae, calypso, and dancehall with Spanish lyrics and a unique sound that produced reggae en español. It also examines how stars like El General and Nando Boom started captivating the attention of Puerto Rican artists who were inspired by this sound, transforming the name of the genre from “Reggae en Español” to “Reggaeton”. The chapters of this section of Reggaeton include interviews with groundbreaking Panamanian artists Renato and El General.
Sonja Stephenson Watson analyzes how singers like Leonardo Renato Aulder, better known as Renato, were instrumental in expressing their Black and Panamanian identities in ways that countered the dominant rhetoric of mestizaje in Panama that often rendered blackness invisible. Renato’s songs such as “La chica de los ojos café”, which celebrated Black beauty, or “El D.E.N.I.,”, which critiqued police brutality, highlighted the distinct struggles with antiblack racism that faced both Afro-Hispanics and English-speaking West Indians in Panamanian society.
Underground in Puerto Rico
Section Synopsis: In the 1990s, Puerto Rican youth in the low-income urban barrios and caseríos created underground, a unique blend of dancehall, hip-hop, and reggae en español. DJs like DJ Negro and DJ Playero performed and recorded with crews of MC’s - including Daddy Yankee and Ivy Queen - at local parties and nightclubs. Despite government attempts to censor underground, the music grew more popular throughout Puerto Rico, eventually transforming into reggaetón.
This book chapter examines the moral panic surrounding “underground”, the precursor to reggaetón in Puerto Rico that emerged from low-income, urban communities, led to a censorship campaign targeting the music in 1995. The explicit nature of underground’s lyrics was perceived as impure and obscene, prompting the Puerto Rican government and elite to justify policies like Mano Dura that further criminalized and stigmatized poor, and often Black, communities who were already systematically marginalized.