Beyond electoral politics, protests, and manifestations, in which ways people engage in political acts?
According to Bad Bunny
The fireworks I remember from Santurce hiss and pop in the break, but they can’t drown out the deep moan of our collective tropical depression: “Maldito Año Nuevo,” he curses. Damn New Year. There’s a timelessness to this lament. In the long, low-grade crisis of life in the world’s oldest colony, what year is not cursed?
Now, in 2020, in this maldito año nuevo, he has given us a little something to take the edge off… He performs the expressive freedom we wish we could, clearing the global stage not only for the charismatic spectacle of our joy but also for the impossible demands of our grief.
Despite the packaging of reggaeton as global pop, a palpable tension remains between Puerto Rico’s subjugated political status and its boisterous, filthy, defiant, and now world-dominating music. This is especially true of the music Benito makes as Bad Bunny.
Oral presentation on the essay “The World According to Bad Bunny.”
In her essay, writer and translator Carina del Valle Schorske reads Bad Bunny as a figure of “defiant” politics but also asks to what extent “we’ve seized on Bad Bunny as a symbol and extracted more political meaning from him than he can take credit for himself”?
Observing Bad Bunny’s interventions within these categories: language, gender, sexuality, national identity, and/or creative autonomy, what do you think of this debate?
Reading Bad Bunny’s songs through historical events
He exploded onto the música urbana scene as Bad Bunny in 2016, when he was just 22, with the emo trap ballad “Soy Peor”: If I was a son of a bitch before, now I’m worse … because of you. That was the year the United States Congress passed PROMESA, the law that subjected Puerto Rico to a pitiless payment plan for its debt crisis.
Then, in 2017, Hurricane Maria hit, and nine months later Bad Bunny released “Estamos Bien,” the defiant anthem of battered dreamers: And if tomorrow I die, I’m already used to living in the clouds.
Estamos bien. No, really, we’re fine — that’s what they told us, but we knew it wasn’t true. Benito’s parents would not have electricity at home for three months after the storm. Along the shoreline, there are still so many palm trees with missing crowns.
In 2018, amid an epidemic of femicides in Latin America, he released “Sólo de Mí,” channeling his voice, in the video, through a woman’s bruised mouth: I’m not yours, I’m not anybody’s, I belong only to myself.
The song defends vulnerability as a sacred principle in all of us that should never be exploited
Benito often condemns gender-based violence on Twitter and live TV, but much of his advocacy takes the form of performance art: grinding in full drag in the “Yo Perreo Sola” video, wearing a skirt on “The Tonight Show” to publicly mourn the murder of Alexa Negrón Luciano, a trans woman in Toa Baja.
When Bad Bunny appeared with J Balvin on Cardi B’s smash hit single “I Like It” in 2018, the New York bugalú sample seemed to signal a major crossover moment… But this wasn’t really a conventional “crossover”: Bad Bunny cracked “the gringo market” (his words) without assimilating, without making the one concession that seemed unavoidable: his mother tongue.
Bad Bunny’s dialect — his highly particular Puerto Rican Spanish, as he mirrors, modulates, and maximizes it — inspires exultant proprietary feeling in those who understand it instinctively and desperate thirst in those who don’t. Then there are the shamefaced Nuyoricans texting questions to cousins they know will clown them for asking. I count myself among those who must embark on a program of cultural reclamation to follow his clever flow and hyperlocal allusions.
He is well aware of the politics latent in his language choices, and he performs this awareness slyly in his lyrics… the vocables of Indigenous revolt stay on the tips of our tongues, and generations of Black speech from Kingston to Brooklyn to Santo Domingo style our interjections.
Puerto Ricans have fought fiercely to preserve this supposedly cut-rate Spanish as the official language of government, schooling, and culture under U.S. colonialism. This syncretic, sidelong way of speaking — celebrated and circulated via popular music — archives histories of migration, resistance, and coerced intimacy barely audible elsewhere.
On salsa, Lavoe, and the jíbaro image
But his style made such a mark — his voice, his way of singing. Jíbaro, but modern. A jíbaro who wouldn’t let anybody play him.” It’s hard to translate “jíbaro,” a historically loaded word that Puerto Ricans use to describe humble rural people on the island, people who have been both abandoned by the national project and held up as symbolic of its noble essence. My Puerto Rican family on my grandmother’s side are jíbaros, and the same might be said of Benito and his family.
On Tego Calderón
A polymathic rapper and percussionist who infused Puerto Rican rap with sophisticated Caribbean rhythms — not just dancehall, but bomba — and Black Power consciousness. For baby Benito, Tego was his “favorito full,” and those mornings on the radio were his “moment” to key into the particular pleasures of his own generation.
On reggaetón and race
Benito came into the world with the mainstreaming of reggaeton, when a quirky, introverted kid from the country, with no taste for the streets, had access to the music descended from underground mixtapes once sold at pickup points in the projects and exchanged in San Juan’s high school parking lots. The music was still gritty, but it was everywhere, and it came to seem as though it belonged to everyone. In the early aughts, canny impresarios worked to rebrand reggaeton as reggaeton Latino, shifting away from its intimate associations with the emphatically Black genres of rap and reggae and toward the vague but profitable Pan-American possibilities promised by latinidad.
He has been able to take advantage of a much more hospitable pop landscape than the one his predecessors navigated, when the genre was dismissed as hood music. The market still seems to value versatility most highly in white artists. When I say “white,” in the Caribbean context, I’m departing from the rigid “one-drop rule” that still seems to determine most U.S. thinking about race. Many Puerto Ricans, including Benito, are racially mixed. But he consciously identifies as white in recognition of how he’s treated in relation to darker-skinned Puerto Ricans.
Given the hierarchies that organize modern society, it’s not surprising that música urbana has become whiter as it has been further subsumed by global capitalism, but this trend is hard to tolerate given the genre’s genesis in Black rhythms and diasporic solidarity.
It’s also true that many white artists in the Caribbean diaspora really did grow up collaborating closely with Black people, living, loving, and working in the same neighborhoods, in multiracial families, under intimately related forms of state violence, so that simple charges of appropriation sound off-key.
On the links between corruption and colonialism
Mainstream media outlets have portrayed the political cronyism in Puerto Rico as typical third-world shenanigans, obfuscating the role of the United States in fomenting the decade-long financial crisis by offering huge tax breaks to American corporations at the expense of local businesses, defunding public services including utilities and education and triggering a wave of out-migration.
The Telegram chat revealed what many of us already knew: Urban music was never to blame for the degradation of Puerto Rican society. The real degradation has always been Puerto Rico’s colonial condition and the nihilistic corruption it cultivates among local power brokers.