The Power of Reggaetón


One set of flamenco fingers can be seen twirling above all the other hands. The crowd is slightly less rowdy than for the previous performances. Rosalía enters the Virginia Beach boardwalk stage in bright red, high-waisted, leather pants and a floral blouse. She is surrounded by her usual girl squad beginning to dance in unison with their hip hop and flamenco infused moves. This is only her first show ever in the United States after recently partnering up with American producer and rapper, Pharrell, and reggaetón superstar, J Balvin. Small groups of Spanish speakers are belting her lyrics and although they are unknown to the majority, the entire crowd is captivated by her powerful vocals, unique sound, and entrancing way of moving.

Rosalía and J Balvin were both Latino artists headlining the Something in the Water music festival as many as 25,000 attendees and has been called the east coast’s version of Coachella[1]. These music festivals are at the “throes of globalization” and in a country like the U.S. “they represent the coming future of Latin and global pop where language is less a barrier than an invitation”[2]. These reggaetón artists, labelled “crossover stars,[3]” and the genre as a whole is being marveled at for its ability to cross cultural barriers and take over music charts internationally by collaborating with artists from different countries and languages on the same track. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Balvin says “The beautiful thing about ‘Mi Gente’ (one of Balvin’s first major hits in the U.S.) is that I wrote it in Spanish with Willy William, a producer from Paris . . . and it hit Number One [in charts] around the world. After Beyoncé jumped in [with] the remix, it wasn’t a strategy to make it bigger. . . It was for the culture”[4]. From the American prospective, Latino artists dominating charts, normalizing the use of Spanish, and headlining music festivals seems like a positive move towards changing the U.S. perception of Latino immigrant bodies. Bodies that are often seen as objects of threat and securitized by the U.S.[5] However, wherever there is globalization we often see the spread of European hegemony as existing structures continue to grow and traces left by a colonized world persist and Spanish was one of the main languages of conquest.[6]

I began to wonder if these advocates for marginalized Latino immigrants at the hands of U.S. imperialism were still operating within their settler spheres in a different regional context. Thus, in this paper I examine: Can non-indigenous reggaetón artists in the recently globalized music space do the work of decolonization? To what extent is this possible without continuing to operate within settler narratives? I will explore the three case studies of Colombian J Balvin, Spanish Rosalía, and the Puerto Rican group Calle 13. Rosalía and J Balvin, although both blend different styles of music to form their genres, are some of the most current lead names in the reggaetón industry internationally[7] [8]. Calle 13 is another group that blends different genres but is considered, above all, one of the most influential and political reggaetón groups in the history of the genre[9]


Tracing the origins of the genre of reggaetón is required when interpreting the actions of artists as either appropriation, simple homage, or genuinely honoring its indigenous roots. Reggaetón was created through the transnational flow of people, music, and traditions from the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States. It first began in Jamaican dance hall culture and then Jamaicans immigrated to countries throughout the Caribbean such as Panama and Puerto Rico and brought their beats with them. Jamaicans did not become independent from Britain until 1962 and dance hall culture originated in the late 1970s[10]. This travelling and evolving form of music then became “reggae en español” when the lyrics were translated into Spanish or written and sung over the reggae beats. It would circulate through informal and decentralized networks via cassette tapes and inside of “marquesinas” or home recording studios inside of “caseríos” or poor housing projects.[11] It became a mix between “reggae en español and underground.” The music was made for and by the younger generation and received criticism for being very crude and sexual. The basis for reggaetón was inspired by black Jamaican populations, their social inequality, and problems surround race-based conflict and this narrative carried on the other countries of the Caribbean. Similarly, to salsa, there are several countries that claim to be the birthplace of the genre, mainly Puerto Rico and Panama. However, the genre was not close to what it is today until it crossed transnational space and even rose to popularity in New York amongst once again immigrated Panamanians, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans. It was

The nature of music is borrowing, collaborating, and building off the sounds around you and of others that is why the conversation around appropriate is so challenging. Reggaetón may have not originated within an indigenous space, but a “transnational Latin-American space”[12] which is a product of lands being stolen throughout all of Latin America[13]. The theft of lands transversely had the same effect of stealing individualized identities throughout the region. Many immigrants that were forced or felt obligated to abandon their impoverished and corrupt homelands were left feeling like they abandoned their homeland and still not welcomed into their new culture, such as in the U.S.

J Balvin:

In 2016, the album Energia launched J Balvin to international stardom, featuring songs such as “Safari”, featuring Pharrell Williams. He reached full “crossover” success with his most recent album “Vibras”[14]. Balvin was born in Medellín, Colombia and moved to the United States as a teenager to learn English and returned to the club scene in Medellín and gained popularity there. Part of his cross-cultural fame is contributed to having simply spent more time in the U.S., when it is asked why out of multiple similar reggaetón stars, such as Maluma, did not reach the same level of fame as Balvin did[15]. He cites difficulty in being “accepted” by the reggaetón community, which is protective over its Puerto Rican roots, but he went beyond the odds even after being told that he would be unable to and is now a face of the genre[16].

Balvin’s most successful song is “Mi Gente” featuring the French artist Voodoo and a remixed version featuring Beyoncé. The lyrics reflect his mission using reggaetón as a way to unite people from all over the world through his music and promotes pan-latinidad[17]:

If the rhythm makes you move your head 
We got off on the right foot
My music doesn’t discriminate against anyone 
So we’re gonna tear it up

Everyone moves to my stuff…

In the third line, he is alluding to this international love and mutual respect through is music and it is a very fun and high energy song that is promoting to forget any concerns but dancing to his rhythms, perhaps forgetting political conflicts and ethical differences. The chorus also features three different languages:

Y dónde está mi gente
Mais fais bouger la tête
Y dónde está mi gente
Say yeah, yeah, yeah (Un, dos, tres)

And, where are all my people?
(But do move your head)
And where are all my people?
Say yeah, yeah, yeah (1, 2, 3)

The chorus and the rest of the song in its entirety are of course a metaphor but seem to just scratch the surface in the message that they wish to convey. Many of his other songs include more lyrics, for example in rap verses, but it seems that Balvin chooses simplicity for commercial purposes. The three languages that are used are Spanish, French, and English, all known as dominating languages tied to more educated, higher class, and Eurocentric citizens of the world. The featured artist on the track, Willy William, is the alleged owner of the main sound heard in the back of the song. However, it does not take a trained music ear to be able to hear that the beat was clearly borrowed from a previously released song by Heila Duila Nachfrom Bangladesh[18]. Many informal online blogs and forums make the same claims, and a majority of the comments in the music video of the Bangladeshi song reference its plagiarism[19]. While Mi Gente is about embracing difference and similarities across the globe, it is alarming that it is lacking recognition in its only non-Western influence.


 Rosalía is just beginning her journey of international fame but has been a huge hit in Spain and throughout Europe ever since the release of her album, El Mal Querer. She has crafted a new genre influenced by primarily flamenco, reggaetón, trap, and R&B. Rosalía is trying to bring back pride to Spain’s culture through love for flamenco, particularly in younger populations, through her new age music. Flamenco is a strict style of music, rhythms, and dance that requires many rules for it to be considered authentic flamenco. She studied for eight years at a Catalonian university under El Chiqui, a famous flamenco performer, and her album was the final product of her university thesis. Her album coincides with a book from the fourteenth century called Flamenca written by an anonymous author. The book is about a woman who is trapped in a tower by her abusive husband. Rosalía’s feminist album talks about women’s universal struggles against violence and oppression in relationships and particularly in the Spanish context[20]. The visual aspect of her album includes many images from her industrial town in Cataluña, Spanish traditions like bull fighting, the nazarenos from Easter holy week, and of course flamenco. However, she has faced a lot of backlash from certain Romani or gypsy scholars about her appropriation of gypsy culture.

Andalucía is the birthplace of flamenco where Rosalía is from Cataluña, the region famous for its recent bid for independence from Spain, there are many tensions that exist between the North and South of Spain. Catalonians tend to think of themselves as more European than the South that has a higher Arab population and therefore is showing their preference for their own whiteness. She has been accused of capitalizing on Southern culture, using their accent, and using words from caló (the Spanish Romani language), and dressing like a gypsy. “Flamenco is suffering a kind of institutional racism that whitewashes the art form and markets it like a piece of meat wrapped up in plastic,” leading Romani activist Noelia Cortés said[21]. Although she is helping Spain to progress in so many other facets, Rosalía’s response to these allegations have unfortunately neglected to recognize the truth about the origins of flamenco. It comes from India and included marginalized Arab populations that faced extreme racism and violence from Spaniard who cast them from society and considered the women as exotic objects of only sexual desire and all of the communities of gypsies as dirty, demonic, even as cannibals, where were all force allegations rooted in racism[22]. Due to Rosalía’s economic and ethnic privilege she will never be able to feel that pain that was felt by the gypsies even for expressing flamenco as their art form, that they claim to have lived and breathed as a part of their culture, and it is wrong for her to use it because she can dress like the people who are suffering but at the end of the day it is impossible for her to feel their suffering.

An argument in support of Rosalía was published by Alberto García Reyes presents an alternative where he says that her music should not even be considered a flamenco artist just because that is part of the music that she produces. He explains, “while Rosalía’s vocals often follow the melodic qualities of flamenco, they don’t maintain its strict pacing and rhythms”[23]. Therefore, if it is not flamenco, it cannot be seen as a threat to gypsy populations. His article also points out that flamenco artists in the past, such as Paco de Lucía, have not been so harshly criticized and he suggests that it is because Rosalía is a woman that she is facing such hard critics. But Rosalía insists that her music is, by the rules, flamenco and that her new innovative genre has never been seen before: “The music is connected with my roots, with my culture, but it’s also connected with the rest of the world,” she said[24].

Calle 13:

            The Puerto Rican musical duo comprised of El Residente and El Vistitante, references to their dual immigrant identity. The group has faced a lot of controversy for being very vulgar and bold in their lyricism but are also incredibly loved and respected by others. They are the opposite of the previous two examples, they are not as internationally famous but in no way have compromised their mission for capital gains. Some of their most powerful work was done after travelling all throughout Latin and Central America, where they produced the song and music video for “Latinoamérica.”:

I am,

I am what they left behind,

I am the leftovers of what they’ve stolen.

A hidden town in the summit,

My skin is of leather that’s why it withstands any weather.

I am a smoke factory,

Peasant labor for your consumption

Cold front in the middle of summer,…

I am the development in raw flesh,

a political speech without saliva.

The most beautiful faces I have ever met,

I am the picture of a missing person.

I am the blood in your veins,

I am a piece of land which is worthy

I am a basket with beans,

I am Maradona against England scoring two goals.

I am what supports my flag,

The planet’s spine is my mountain range.

I am what my father taught me,

Whoever doesn’t love their country doesn’t love their mother.

I am Latin America,

A nation without legs but still walking…

You can’t buy the wind

You can’t buy the sun

You can’t buy the rain

You can’t buy the heat

You can’t buy the clouds

You can’t buy the colors

You can’t buy my happiness…

 (We draw the path, we walk)

You can’t buy my life.


This other example of a reggaetón really shows what an artist who is trying to promote pan-latinidad can do with their lyrics and audience. Calle 13 actually references why Latinos should come together and acknowledges the robberies of their lands and how to operate within their new ones and the love and connection to the natural world that can never be taken from them.

Calle 13 uses rap and reggaetón as a cultural resistance and an anti-subordination praxis[25]. At the beginning of their career especially, they used “hidden” versus “public” transcripts to argue against dominant ideologies through cultural codes and critiques. An example of this is the musical hidden contract against the public narrative rampant about noncitizen voting as a problem in the United States. It is well summed up and connected with reggaetón as a whole genre when it is said that “Reggaetón, like rap, is a hidden transcript. It stems from an amalgamation of rap, rap en español, and Jamaican dancehall with strong Latin American influences. It uses native language, idioms, satire, and masked cultural codes to present a different perspective on the Latino experience in the United States.” Calle 13 does not just use empty phrases about all joining together to party and forget about the political climate but boldly address specific issues and historical events and political figures in order to capture the Latino experience in the United States. Their message of pan-latinidad is much different because they have themselves physically travelled across the borders and lived in communities to witness and compose songs about the joint Latino migrant experience. They say that it is for those who are not bound to just one country and the pan-Latino identity can be a solution for them.


In the 21st century, postcolonial studies have become multifaceted and “postcolonialisms” encompass the recent experience of the flows of migrants around the world[26]. However, some scholars suggest that decolonization seems to have become another word for any social justice project. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang warn us against allowing the concept to become a metaphor. Decolonization involves settler colonialism and the return of indigenous lands to their original owners and has recently been used to label what was previous called decentering settler perspectives. “When metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future.[27]” They argue that if decolonialism is what is actually to be strived for, it should not be comfortable, it should be unsettling, and if it is not the complete return of lands then it can still be positive analysis and move against the postcolonial condition, but it should not be called decolonization.

Within ethnomusicology, decolonization is not a new concept. In the Society for Ethnomusicology, it became a central topic in 2006. It also contains scholars suggest that it is just a metaphor for social justice efforts. Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds that “decolonization, once viewed as the formal process of handing over the instruments of government, is now recognized as a long-term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power[28].” After this more extensive research I would have revised my research question. If asking about the decolonization of reggaetón, it is impossible, decolonizing music is too broad of a concept to achieve true and complete decolonization which needs to be more tied directly to indigenous populations and land.

 Reggaetón is only comprised on non-indigenous artists because Puerto Rican or Panamanian artists are not entirely the owners of the genre, it had too many influences at the hands of migration for only one true owner of the genre to exist. Therefore, it is impossible for J Balvin, Rosalía, and Calle 13 to do the work of decolonization in addition to the fact that music is too abstract of a concept to attempt to decolonize. However, Calle 13 successfully shows how to decentralize the settler narrative by creating new spaces of belonging for Latinos living in the United States and all throughout Latin America while J Balvin bases his pan-latinidad in politics of erasure. Rosalía is separated in her own positionality on the reggaetón stage as a Spaniard but has the ability to pay homage and educate the world on Romani flamenco culture but instead chooses to take ownership of it despite the differences between Andalucía and Cataluña. Music can be a powerful platform to fight against the colonial sphere, but it is not within the realm of decolonization.

Works Cited

Brown, August. “J Balvin Led the Latin Pop Wave at Coachella.” Los Angeles Times. April 13, 2019. Accessed May 2019.

Cantor, Brian. “Rosalía, J Balvin & El Guincho’s “Con Altura” Enters Top 5 On Global YouTube Music Videos Chart.” Headline Planet. May 11, 2019. Accessed May 2019.

Coscarelli, Joe. “J Balvin Is a Man With a Mission: Making Reggaeton Global.” The New York Times. July 05, 2016. Accessed May 2019.

Exposito, Suzy, and Suzy Exposito. “J Balvin’s Latin Pop Crusade.” Rolling Stone. May 06, 2019. Accessed May 2019.

“Grammy Nominee Rosalía’s Flamenco Fame Is Questioned by Spain’s Roma Community.” Public Radio International. Accessed May 2019.

“Heila Duila Nach | Kona, Akassh | BIdya Sinha Mim, John | Anonno Mamun | Ami Tomar Hote Chai.” YouTube. December 14, 2016. Accessed May 2019.

Ingleon, Gary. “Decolonizing Our Music.” NewMusicBox. November 16, 2016. Accessed May 2019.

“J Balvin Drops New Album ‘Vibras,’ Redefines How Latin Artists Cross over to the U.S. Music Scene.” Accessed May 2019.

Languagesinconflict, Author. “Mi Gente’s Surprising Roots.” Languages in Conflict. June 04, 2018. Accessed May 2019.

Leight, Elias, and Elias Leight. “Meet Maluma: Colombian Heartthrob, Latin Pop’s Next Crossover Star.” Rolling Stone. July 09, 2018. Accessed May 2019.

Lovesey, Oliver. “Decolonizing the Ear: Introduction to “Popular Music and the Postcolonial”.” Routledge 40 (2016).

Molina, Melinda S. “Calle 13: Reggaeton, Politics, and Protest.” HeinOnline, May 2013.

Monroe, Julia. “A Historical, Theoretical, and Artistic Examination into the Securitization of Mexican Bodies.”

“Pan-Latinidad.” Pan-Latinidad – Latino Studies – Oxford Bibliographies. April 16, 2019. Accessed May 2019.

Parker, Stacy. “Pharrell’s Something in the Water Festival Plans for 25K People.” Pilot. April 10, 2019. Accessed May 2019.

Roiz, Jessica. “J Balvin Teams Up With Rosalia, El Guincho & Sean Paul for Epic Medley at Billboard Latin Music Awards 2019: Watch.” Billboard. April 26, 2019. Accessed May 2019.

Sherburne, Philip, and Philip Sherburne. “Get to Know Rosalía, the Spanish Singer Giving Flamenco’s Age-Old Sound a Bracingly Modern Twist.” Pitchfork. September 18, 2018. Accessed May 2019.

Sierra, María. “Cannibals Devoured: Gypsies in Romantic Discourse on the Spanish Nation.” Cambridge Scholars, 2015, 187-221.

“Simply… The Stolen Continent.” New Internationalist. January 15, 2018. Accessed May 2019.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 1st Edition. Moorpark, CA: Cram101, 2013. 98.

Stanley-Niaah, Sonjah Nadine. Dancehall from Slave Ship to Ghetto. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010.

Stephens, Alexis, and Alexis Stephens. “How Calle 13 Won the Most Latin Grammys in History.” Rolling Stone. June 25, 2018. Accessed May 2019.

The New York Times. “Latin Pop Thrives, No Bieber Required.” The New York Times. June 02, 2017. Accessed May 2019.

“UNICEF and Calle 13 Join Forces to Raise Global Awareness about Rising Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean, and beyond.” UNICEF. November 15, 2012. Accessed May 2019.

[1] Stacy Parker, Pharrell’s Something in the Water Festival Plans for 25K People, (Pilot, 2019)

[2] August Brown, J Balvin Led the Latin Pop Wave at Coachella, (Los Angeles Times, 2019)

[3] Elias Leight, Meet Maluma: Colombian Heartthrob, Latin Pop’s Next Crossover Star, (Rolling Stone, 2018)

[4] Suzy Exposito, J Balvin’s Latin Pop Crusade, (Rolling Stone, 2019)

[5] Julia Monroe, A Historical, Theoretical, and Artistic Examination into the Securitization of Mexican Bodies

[6] Gary Ingleon, Decolonizing Our Music (NewMusicBox, 2016)

[7] Brian Cantor, Rosalía, J Balvin & El Guincho’s “Con Altura” Enters Top 5 On Global YouTube Music Videos Chart, (Headline Planet, 2019)

[8] Alexis Stephens, How Calle 13 Won the Most Latin Grammys in History, (Rolling Stone, 2018)

[9][9] UNICEF and Calle 13 Join Forces to Raise Global Awareness about Rising Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean, and beyond, (UNICEF, 2012)

[10] Sonjah Nadine Stanley-Niaah, Dancehall from Slave Ship to Ghetto, (University of Ottawa Press, 2010)

[11] Melinda Molina, Calle 13: Reggaeton, Politics, and Protest (HeinOnline, 2013)

[12] Susanne Mühleisen, Contested Communities, Chapter IV, 239-270

[13] Simply… The Stolen Continent (New Internationalist, 2018)

[14] J Balvin Drops New Album ‘Vibras,’ Redefines How Latin Artists Cross over to the U.S. Music Scene (NBCNews)

[15] The New York Times, Latin Pop Thrives, No Bieber Required (2017)

[16] Joe Coscarelli, J Balvin Is a Man With a Mission: Making Reggaeton Global, (The New York Times, 2016)

[17] Pan-Latinidad (Oxford, 2019)

[18] Brian Cantor, Rosalía, J Balvin & El Guincho’s “Con Altura” Enters Top 5 On Global YouTube Music Videos Chart, (Headline Planet, 2019)

[19] Languagesinconflict, Mi Gente’s Surprising Roots (Languages in Conflict, 2018)

[20] Philip Sherburne, Get to Know Rosalía, the Spanish Singer Giving Flamenco’s Age-Old Sound a Bracingly Modern Twist, (Pitchfork, 2018)

[21] Grammy Nominee Rosalía’s Flamenco Fame Is Questioned by Spain’s Roma Community (Public Radio International)

[22] María Sierra, Cannibals Devoured: Gypsies in Romantic Discourse on the Spanish Nation (Cambridge Scholars, 2015) 187-221

[23] Sierra, Cannibals Devoured

[24] Philip Sherburne, Get to Know Rosalía

[25] Molina. Calle 13

[26] Oliver Lovesey, Decolonizing the Ear: Introduction to “Popular Music and the Postcolonial (Routledge, 2016) 40

[27] Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang, Decolonizing is not a metaphor, (Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society) 4

[28] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2013) 98

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