Reggaeton. Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernan-dez (eds). Durham and London. Duke University Press, 2009.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4360-8 (hardcover), 978-0-8223-4383-5 (paperback)
RRP: US$89.95 (hardcover), US$24.95 (paperback)
University of Illinois at Chicago (US)
When certain products or practices attain a more secure place in a particular cultural landscape they tend to become naturalized in the minds of those who experience such landscapes; it is almost as if they had always been there, they become "authenticated". This seems to be the case with reggaeton. As I sit down to write this review I ask myself when I heard about reggaeton for the first time and I cannot find an answer. When pushing myself to remember anything related to what I now believe belongs to the reggaeton performance complex, a number of fragmented images and sounds come to mind. I remember El General in local, low budget shows from the Telemundo or Univisión TV networks in New York City and Boston in the early 1990s; then students asking me about the genre (and actually calling it reggaeton) almost ten years later in Chicago; finally, its explosion into the mainstream media in 2005, and its pervasive presence in clubs in Havana, Cuba, that summer. Although most of these memories are rather vague and patchy, what I do remember clearly is not being able to explain thoroughly what reggaeton was. The sounds and the images seemed to have always been there since the 1990s, but in fact, reggaeton was something relatively new, and as such, also somehow elusive.
Since the mid 2000s reggaeton has arguably become the most danced and talked about Latin music genre. It is omnipresent in Latin American and Latin media in the U.S.; yet, with few exceptions and disregarding its artistic success and its importance as a marker of the transnationality that characterizes contemporary Latino and Latin American experiences of identity, reggaeton had largely remained absent from academic discussion. Reggaeton, edited by Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernandez, is an appropriate, timely, and thorough response and reflection on the genre's popularity. The volume is an impressive collection of academic essays and artistic statements that deals with reggaeton's cultural significance and stylistic meaning, and the history of transnational migration, oppression, and racial struggle behind its production, consumption, and dissemination. The aesthetic, sociological, anthropological, and political complexity of the reggaeton phenomenon can only be seriously approached from a multidisciplinary perspective. Reggaeton offers a multi-logic reading where several disciplines and fields of artistic expression come together to answer questions that no disciplinary field could comprehensively answer alone. The demonstrated expertise in the fields of sociology, ethnomusicology and anthropology of the editorial team, as well as their commitment to the study of music through a transnational lens almost guaranteed the extraordinary depth and variety that this collection of essays, interviews, poetry and visual arts offers.
The book is divided into six sections. In the first section, "Mapping Reggaeton", Wayne Marshall offers a detailed study of the stylistic development of the genre. By focusing on the transformation of the sounds and rhythms that characterize today's reggaeton as they traveled historically through a cultural circuit that included Jamaica, Panama, New York and Puerto Rico, Marshall is able to explain the links between genres such as reggae, dancehall, rap, underground, and reggaeton, whilst shedding light on the discourses of "authenticity" behind them. The second part, "The Panamanian Connection", presents articles by Marshall and Christoph Twickel as well as interviews with singers Renato and El General; the combination of academic and journalistic writings alongside the artists speaking about their experiences gives the reader a rich description of the history of reggae and dancehall in Panama as well as the role of American culture in the slow development of a new style that would only be called reggaeton many years later. Part three, "(Trans)Local Studies and Ethnographies", is made out of articles that focus on specific issues related to local reggaeton scenes in Puerto Rico (Raquel Z. Rivera), Cuba (Geoff Baker), and Miami (Jose Davila), and a re-evaluation of the role of Dominican musicians and producers in the development of the genre (Deborah Pacini Hernandez). Rivera's chapter traces the transformation of underground into reggaeton in Puerto Rico in relation to questions of morality and censorship. This essay pays attention to the commercial notoriety of the genre and its transformation into a site for the continued struggles over the representation of racialised stereotypes about class and criminality, and social hierarchies of the island. Baker's essay on the political tensions between rap and reggaeton in Cuba is a noteworthy contribution that analyzes how both genres play a central role in the current imagination of the national and the global in a socialist country.
The fourth part of the book, "Visualizing Reggaeton", offers a collection of pictures by Miguel Luciano and Kacho López, and stills from a video project by Carolina Caycedo. This section shows readers the visual aspect of reggaeton culture as well as how artists engage that culture to reflect on issues of neocolonialism, consumerism, gender, sexuality, race, and "authenticity" that concern contemporary Latino youth. Caycedo's reads the hypersexualized perreo dancing style that characterizes reggaeton as an example of a new form of feminism that allows women to reclaim their sexualized bodies and use them to accomplish their own goals. Part five, Gendering Reggaeton, presents chapters by Félix Jiménez, Alfredo Nieves Moreno, and Jan Fairley that explore the role of reggaeton in reproducing gender values as well as contesting gender hierarchies as the genre moves transnationally between New York City, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Jiménez's essay compares the figures of Puerto Rican singers Glory and Ivy Queen to illustrate how different individuals might engage the gender stereotypes of reggaeton to solidify or question gender hierarchies in Puerto Rican society; while Nieves Moreno focuses on how the music and performance of Calle 13 challenge the stereotypes of hypermasculinity often associated with reggaeton. Fairley's contribution centers on the sexualization of the bodies in perreo dancing within the particular context of Cuba's reggaeton scene. One of Fairley's wise moves is her comparative analysis of the transgressive character of perreo in relation to earlier Black genres such as danzón, rumba, tango, or samba; thus interpreting reggaeton as part of the transnational cultural flow of African diasporic culture.
The final section of the book is entitled "Reggaeton Poetics, Politics, and Aesthetics", and combines poetry by Gallego and reflections on the relationship between hip hop and reaggeton and black pride by artists Welmo E. Romero Joseph and Tego Calderón with analyses by Alexandra T. Vázquez and Frances Negrón-Muntaner. Noteworthy is Vázquez's provocative essay on racial and gender performativity and Ivy Queen, providing as it does an insight into how to deconstruct contradictory and problematic moments in performance as pedagogical articulations.
Reggaeton is a truly important contribution to our understanding of the most pervasive and perhaps most misunderstood Latin musical genre at the turn of the 21st century. The blend of academic and journalistic writings with artistic statements, interviews and visual art offers the reader an extraordinary window into the complex landscape of reggaeton. As I was reading through the book I could not help thinking: "No wonder I thought reggaeton had always been here". The rich discussions presented in this volume allows the reader to have a clearer idea of the continuities that make this genre part of a larger cultural complex while defining its particularities as a rather new type of musical expression. As I put the book down I feel confident I could finally somehow explain what reggaeton is; however, I also understand that the vibrant and shifting cultural flows that make it meaningful will most likely challenge this assumption sooner than later. With Reggaeton, however, Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernadez have established the foundation for the rich and productive academic conversation that the genre will still generate.