If you’ve been in a public space with access to Top 40 radio in the past month, you’ve heard the “Despacito” remix. Crafted by Puerto Rican hitmakers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee—who brought reggaeton to mainstream America with his 2004 hit “Gasolina”—“Despacito” (in English, the “Slowly”) has been a huge hit in America, Spanish-speaking countries and various parts of Europe since its release in January of this year.
In May, a remix of the song featuring Justin Bieber topped the Billboard Hot 100, welcoming its popularity stateside. Seven weeks later, it's still No. 1. Bieber sings in Spanish (that he doesn't know), with some English thrown in; Fonsi translates one of his own verses for an Anglophone audience, in an effort to create balance between the two languages. The unavoidable success of "Despacito" inspires two reactions. The most common is straightforward celebration, since it’s the first mostly-Spanish song to top the charts since Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” in 1996. The other is more complicated.
Because “Despacito” only enjoyed this sort of universal success after Bieber jumped on, the discourse has turned to cultural appropriation. What does it mean about Top 40–listening Americans if the only way a Spanish-language song can hit No. 1 is if it has the blessing of a popular white, English-speaking artist and its lyricism is altered to reflect that, even though Latinos are the fastest growing minority population in the country? Is “Despacito” an oddball hit? And it’s not that it’s barely scraping the surface of popularity, either: in the video’s first 24 hours on YouTube (a video for the remix with Bieber hasn't been released yet), the track acquired over 20 million views—the biggest music release on the platform this year.
That is not to say it has climbed to the top controversy-free. Two weeks after “Despacito” became the most popular song stateside, video footage hit the web of Justin Bieber at New York City’s 1OAK nightclub singing along to the track and forgetting his Spanish verse—rapping “I don’t know the words so I say ‘poquito,’” and throwing in “dorito” and “burrito,” which many fans found exploitative. It is, and it’s also pretty racist. (For what it’s worth, burritos aren’t even a Puerto Rican dish—a revision Bieber thought he was making in jest really conflates and marginalizes crucial ideas of Latinidad.) Fonsi came to Bieber’s aid, telling Rolling Stone, “That chorus is not easy to sing, even for fluent Spanish singers like myself. It’s got a lot of lyrics, it’s kind of tongue-twisty.”
He’s not wrong. The verse isn’t the easiest to sing. But by giving Bieber an out, Fonsi stifles further exploration of what the song has to tell us about language, nationhood, and identity—even in a joyful pop song.
Unlike some of Daddy Yankee’s recent work, “Despacito” is more reggaeton-pop than reggaeton—there’s less rapping, for one, and the song’s message is sensual, not overtly sexual—it doesn’t present with a certain vulgarity, a hallmark of reggaeton that kept it an underground genre for the first decade of its existence. “Despacito” is written to work both in the club and on the radio. A Bieber co-sign only enhances its accessibility (and therefore, its chances at commercial success), and pointing out Bieber’s faults could jeopardize that.
Reggaeton, however, has always been a political music. In an interview with the Atlantic, Petra Rivera-Rideau, author of Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, raises some crucial questions surrounding the genre’s political origins. Reggaeton became popular when it was targeted by Puerto Rico's government for obscenities and evolved into a political music against a largely racist anti-crime initiative in the 1990s. As Rivera-Rideau explains, Puerto Rico’s identity is predicated on “the island’s trinity of races—black, Spanish and indigenous,” which has sometimes given the island a false image that it's “harmonious society with no racism.” But that isn’t the case—Afro-Latinos are discriminated against, and reggaeton is music that represents Puerto Rico’s racial diversity. She points out that before “Gasolina,” the biggest mainstream reggaeton hit was Tego Calderón’s “Loíza,” an attack on institutional racism in Puerto Rico. The fact that “Despacito” has no explicit political aim explains its success—but also feels unusual given the genre. That “Despacito” is a simple song about having a good time is unique, in some way.
One of the best-selling active Puerto Rican artists is Residente, of popular hip-hop group Calle 13. After releasing his self-titled debut LP in March of this year, the rapper took a DNA test to trace his genes, information he then used to write his record. By better understanding (and mining) his own genetic diversity, he was able to frame his Puerto Rican identity—where heritage can be the source of discrimination. He told Rolling Stone, “Growing up in a colony, it's impossible not to be even a little bit political, to have that in your blood…The situation of Puerto Rico is kind of complicated for some people; for me it's simple. We are a colony and we don't have any rights. Our president is Trump even though we can't vote for the president. We have two flags all the time. We are a small island in the middle of the Caribbean. We don't cause trouble or bother anyone but we go to war. In exchange we get a passport.” This isn’t the language of “Despacito,” but it’s the identity of Puerto Rico, of the island that built the carefree song in a time of real political turmoil.
On June 11, Puerto Rico voted for statehood—97% of those who participated were in favor—but most citizens did not vote at all, abstaining from what many viewed as a flawed referendum. Those who support independence boycotted the vote, while PR’s governor Ricardo A. Rosselló voted in support of becoming the 51st state to end what he referred to as “500 years of colonialization.” If Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory largely ignored in the midst of social and economic crises (the island is bankrupt, with a debt exceeding $74 billion) forfeiting more of its national identity in exchange for federal support feels fatalistic.
The No. 1 song in the country was made by two Puerto Rican men and enjoyed real success—only reaching the next level stateside when given the OK by a popular white North American artist. This isn’t an attack on Bieber—if anything, it’s a cause for celebration that the song resonated with him and with the country at large. But it does say something about Spanish-language pop music in America. Trump is our president and talk of "The Wall" permeates everyday life, but the biggest song in the country is one that celebrates its own Latinx identity (albeit in a way that isn’t totally in line with the more explicitly political roots of the genre it comes from). Next time you listen to “Despacito,” or any song built within modern day colonialism, ask where it came from, what was sacrificed to make it, what freedoms were potentially robbed, and what changes need to be made in the future and how we can sustain them.
We need songs like “Despacito” to remain hopeful, but in many ways, we need songs like “Despacito” to be representational—to remind others that Puerto Ricans are supposed to be treated like Americans, but often aren’t. Puerto Rico deserves better.