J Balvin

(Creative Commons)

When “Despacito” was unleashed on the world, it became the most streamed song of all time within six months.

The hit, by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, introduced millions of Americans to Latin urban music and sparked conversations about Spanish language and Latin culture entering the U.S. mainstream, but it wasn’t an isolated incident.

Over half of the top 100 most-watched YouTube videos in 2018 were Latin music. It’s now the 5th  most popular music genre in the U.S. by traditional song and album sales. In terms of music video streams, Latin is the 2nd most popular after hip-hop.

The rise of reggaetón — the genre that birthed “Despacito” — is fueling these numbers and taking over the U.S. Americans are bumping it in cars, clubs and bars all over the country.

At a time when the Trump administration's immigration policies are attempting to keep Hispanic people out of the country, U.S. citizens are listening to more Spanish-language music than ever before.

But what exactly is reggaetón, and why is it so popular? 

The genre has a nebulous history, but most people agree that it emerged from Puerto Rico in the late 1990s. 

The founding artists combined Jamaican dance hall rhythms, Puerto Rican salsa and U.S. hip-hop rhymes to craft their sound.

Reggaetón started as underground street music that glorified casual sex, drugs and violence; it was strongly censored by the Puerto Rican government over concerns regarding its harmful moral effects.

But since then, reggaetón has become more radio-friendly.

Lyrics are still sexual, but also often romantic. Artists now rap and sing about expensive parties and a luxurious lifestyle, even though reggaetón initially focused on lower-class joys and sorrows.

But the one thing that hasn’t changed about reggaetón is its core beat — the driving “Dembow,” a Jamaican rhythm that’s hard not to move to.

This beat is the key to the reggaetón sound. Lyrics are secondary, and this has probably contributed to its international success. People who don’t speak Spanish still love dancing to this music.

Reggaetón had everything it needed for world domination, but what sparked its explosion into the U.S. was streaming music technology, which democratized the music world. Mainstream music distributors and radio stations are sometimes slow to pick up new trends and foreign music – the internet accelerated the genre’s success.

People can now select music from their phones and laptops, regardless of where the music is from. And Americans are choosing to listen to reggaetón. Latin music revenues are steadily increasing every year.

Latin music is now more popular than country. It has only one percent less video stream market-share than hip-hop, and could easily become the top streamed music in the U.S.

But, is reggaetón American music?

A case could be made that it is. It was created in a U.S. territory. It has roots in stateside hip-hop. Americans can’t get enough of it.

Although many people don’t consider Latin music or culture as American, in 2017, 58.9 million people in the U.S. were of Hispanic origin. And even mainstream U.S. music is starting to pick up on a reggaetón: “X,” by Nicky Jam and J Balvin made the Top 40 chart last year. 

Latin music and culture still have a long road to acceptance into the U.S. mainstream, but millions of Americans dancing to J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” is probably a good first step.


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