• Carmen Arribas

On reggaeton, freedom and Spain's youth

Zúmbale el mambo pa' que mis gatas prendan los motores is probably the most famous opening verse in any song in Spanish ever. These words, which open the legendary reggaeton anthem Gasolina by Daddy Yankee, are not only a sign that the following 3 minutes and 13 seconds are going to be a blast but are also the hymn of a whole generation. I am going to boldly make the statement—and I’m positive I will not be wrong—that every single person born in Spain between the 1990’s and the 2010’s knows every word in Gasolina. No matter if you’re more of a rock person, or prefer pop melodies, or are drawn by the powerful lyrics in rap songs, you will definitely know the words to Gasolina.

Reggaeton was born in Puerto Rico back in the 1990’s as a fusion of Jamaican reggae, Latin American melodies and rhythms and American hip-hop. It started out as underground music, being recorded in carports and distributed in the streets. The lyrics of reggaeton songs, often dealing with explicit themes such as sex, drugs and violence, appealed to the Puerto Rican youth, and little by little, the rest of the Spanish-speaking world too. There are a lot of political social issues that justify the importance and relevance this type of music has had for the Latin American youth, and I invite you to read the extensive literature there is on the topic.

That’s not what I came here today to ramble about, though. What I really want to talk about is how reggaeton music is an intrinsic part of today’s Spanish youth. If you ever travel to Spain and are up for some partying, reggaeton is what you will find in every single club you step in. I’m sorry if you travelled all the way here to immerse yourself in the melodious strums of the Spanish guitar and the passionate lyrics of flamenco, but the only place you’ll hear that type of music is probably in organized shows in which they’ll rip you and another thirty foreigners off. I’m not trying to diss flamenco here —I love flamenco and it’s definitely an important part of my culture— but if you really want to get to know the real Spain of the 21st century, then go ahead and stream reggaeton. Even though it is not originally Spanish music, Spain and Latin America have always been sisters, and it’s inevitable to find ourselves in the upbeat music and daring lyrics of reggaeton.

I still remember being twelve years old, listening to Purpurina, Entre la playa, ella y yo or Una Vaina Loca with my friends on our first phones, hiding from our parents because there was no way they could find out we were listening to that type of music. We went through a phase, later on, in which we repudiated reggaeton and criticized its simplicity and vulgarity —I am deeply ashamed of my snobbery of that time, but I believe most of us have gone through a time like this— only for our love for reggaeton to come back full-force a couple of years later. When adults from previous generations roll their eyes or twist their faces in scandalized grimaces at the lyrics or videoclips of reggaeton songs, I truly ask myself: how could we not love it?

Are you sad? Vibe to some slow reggaeton ballads. Are you happy? Blast some nasty dembow bops and shake that body to your happiness. Preparing for a night out? Warm up with some old school hits while you make that eyeliner sharp as a knife. Honestly, it’s no surprise reggaeton is slowly but surely gaining followers outside of Spanish-speaking countries, too. Reggaeton is a lot more than its lyrics: it’s a way to let go, to shake and rage and dance even when you don’t know how to. As much as our parents and grandparents like to call us “the glass generation”, I think there has been no generation as daring as ours, as prone to speak up and fight and complain when something is not right, as quick to kiss and hug and stand close.

This is the reason, I believe, why an originally underground genre such as reggaeton has been transformed into the mainstream for today’s Spain’s youth, and I hope the freedom and energy it embodies will continue to represent us for many years—and parties!—to come.

This article on the relevance of reggaeton music for today's Spanish youth is a staff submission by Carmen Arribas.

Header by Carmen Arribas.