Latin trap music was born out of two genres created by Black immigrants – hip-hop/rap and reggaeton. For Latin trap to continue to thrive as a genre it needs to remember, acknowledge, and uplift the Black Latinx that laid the ground for today’s artists.
Looking at today’s class of reggaeton and Latin trap artists, you would think that the genre began with white Latinx like Bad Bunny, Nicky Jam, and Karol G. However, the reality is that Black Caribbean immigrants to Latin America created the genre of Reggaeton and it’s recent offshoot, Latin trap. However, Latin trap has a race problem. Being a Black Latinx person has its own unique experiences that non Black Latinx can not capture no matter how hard they try to. One must live a compounded marginalized life experience to create trap music that is truly by and for the trap. As it stands right now, the class of reggaeton artists overwhelmingly don’t appear to have that.
The Birth of Genres
The use of the Jamaican labor in the construction of the Panama Canal naturally led to the merging of Black Caribbean culture and Black Latinx culture in Panama. Jamaicans brought the music of Reggae to the country and thus it was mixed with Spanish speaking music like Salsa and the Bronx-born genre of hip-hop and rap. As a genre, reggaeton is one – if not – the quintessential Black African diaspora genres of music that has been born in recent history. To understand this statement, one must understand the birth of hip-hop, rap and the birth of Salsa.
Hip-hop was created by Bronx, New York resident DJ Kool Herc. Dj Kool Herc was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica until age 10 when his family moved to The Bronx. As a musician, Dj Kool Herc noticed that people loved the drumbeats and breaks during most songs but the break was often short and would fade. In order to keep the high energy that the drum breaks created he decided to try mixing the drumbeats on loop. This method proved to be a stroke of genius and in 1970 a new genre and style of music production was born, hip-hop. Using DJ Kool Herc’s beats as a base, Black people began to try to “sing” over the new faster paced beats. By 1980, people were singing over faster beats and thus rap was born.
While the origins of Salsa have been heavily debated, both schools of thought lead to Black people. One argument is that salsa was born in Cuba with its roots in African style footwork and drum beats brought over by the enslaved Africans on the island and mixed with indigenous music influences. The other school of thought believes that salsa was born in Harlem, New York by Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants that were heavily influenced by hip-hop and Rap. Whichever version you believe to be true can be brought back to the Black immigrant diaspora experience.
The Black Panamanian Experience
Cheap labor of primarily Black people was used to construct the Panama Canal. Many local Black Panamanians, Black Caribbean immigrants, and some Black people from the United States descended upon the region and began building not only their homes and one of the most used canals in the world but they also began to build what we now call reggaeton. The labor conditions for these workers were abysmal at best. According to the official Canal De Panama website, an estimated 30,000 people died of disease and or accident during the construction of the canal with the highest rates of death being West Indian workers.
Leonardo “Renato” Aulder, a Black Panamanian man, began singing about the conditions that Black residents in Panama lived in. He sang about the condition over hybrid Jamaican dancehall beats and hip-hop but in Spanish. Singing in Spanish made the music not only accessible to him but also the large majority of Spanish speaking residents in Panama City, Panama. Thus reggae in Español was born and made way for reggaeton.
Reggae En Español
Dr. Sonja Stephenson Watson holds a PhD in Hispanic Literature with a specialty focus on AfroPanamanian Literature. Her research findings conclude that, “reggae en español, is indeed linked to the hip hop movement. First generation reggaesero, Renato’s musical production, and personal narrative as a Panamanian raised in the U.S. Canal Zone, also point to the U.S. (hip-hop) influence on reggae en español as well as the general impact of transculturation on the genre’s trajectory and formation.”
Founder of Reggaeton con La Gata, Afro Panamanian musical correspondent Gata, breaks down the history of Reggae en Español and how the music was an act of rebellion and resistance. She goes on into complicated relationship between Black immigrant and local Black population in Panama and how this shaped the different styles of presentations of reggae en Español and reggeaton.
One can argue that reggaeton was born in Panama but was raised in the Caribbean in countries like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
The Spread of Reggaeton and the Reception
Early reggaeton spoke about the hardships of life, sex, beautiful women, and dancing in “sexual ways.” These lyrics of joy, resistance, and sex made some people uncomfortable, particularly elected officials in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican government felt that the genre of reggaeton would harm and ruin the youth of the nation with its lyrics. Thus, policing task force were formed in Puerto Rico with the sole purpose of raiding stores that sold and distributed reggaeton songs and or cassettes. Unfortunately for the government the violent and very public way they tried to stop the genre helped make it more popular.
Even in the states, reggaeton artists would receive a cold reception from Spanish speaking channels like Univision and Telemundo. Many felt that genre was too sexy and too controversial for their airwaves. This was further compounded by the fact that early reggaeton artista like Tego Calderon, El General, and N.O.R.E were dark skinned Black Latino men. It wasn’t until reggaeton artists began to be visually lighter – think PitBull – and collaborating with southern hip-hop and rap artists like Lil Jon and The East Side Boys, did reggaeton begin to get the widespread attention it deserved.
Modern Reggaeton and Colorism
Some believe today’s reggaton artists tend to continue the trend of white-washing the genre. Bad Bunny, Nicky Jam, J Blavin, and even Canadian artist Justin Bieber have received more attention and awards than darker artist like Ozuna.
And although governments aren’t actively trying to stop the spread of reggaeton anymore, the colorism the women in the genre face is still alive and well. Dark skinned Dominican artist Amara La Negra has received a lot of backlash for her dance moves, lyrics, and style of dress while white artists like Karol G do not receive half the hate and backlash while appearing in bed half-naked with fellow artist a now boyfriend Annuel AA. It’s no secret that Latin countries have a colorism problem and thus this appears in the genre of music as well. However, knowing it’s a problem isn’t enough to rectify the unequal attention paid to white reggaeton and trap reggaeton artists who receive more awards, airtime, and praise.
Trap music is music born out of hardship caused by white supremacy power structures. White Latinx do not share the same experiences that Black Latinx people do in the United States or in their countries. Reggae en español was essentially Latin trap. Without continuing the legacy of this work with Black Latinx people, modern Latin trap will essentially stay Latin Pop music. As Gata, founder of Reggaeton con La Gata says, “No hay reggaeton sin reggae.”