A tough question led one woman to create the first Puerto Rican reggaeton archive
Radio Ambulante is NPR's Spanish-language longform podcast that tells uniquely Latin American stories.
For Patricia Velázquez, reggaeton isn't just a musical genre — it's a time machine.
The song "Gata Celosa'' always has a way of transporting her back to her abuela's home when she would watch music videos on TV. Growing up in Puerto Rico, the music became the soundtrack to her life — until one question shifted everything.
"How can you be a feminist and listen to reggaeton?" a fellow college student asked Velázquez one day. Velázquez considers herself to be 100% a feminist. The more she learned about feminism in college, the more it resonated with what she believed.
She had previously heard about the critiques of the genre being machista and objectifying women. But up to that point, she had never questioned whether feminism and reggaeton could coexist in her life. This question would eventually lead Velázquez to dig deeper into the origins of the genre and create an archive to cement its historical impact.
A genre forms in Puerto Rico
The origins of reggaeton aren't always agreed upon. Some say it was born in Jamaica, Panama, New York City and, of course, Puerto Rico. In truth, all of these places were fundamental in evolving the genre.
The style of reggaeton that emerged in Puerto Rico in the '80s came out of the marginalized areas of the island. The genre fused American rap with the aesthetics of Jamaican and Panamanian reggae and was often heard in neighborhoods with public housing for low-income families.
It was raw and confrontational and often talked about what was happening in the streets of Puerto Rico. But above all, it made reference to the social conditions of the country.
In the '90s, the genre became known as "underground." Artists recorded their songs with DJs who were in charge of producing and distributing multiple copies of CDs in clubs, at workplaces and in their neighborhoods.
It was around this time that the word "reggaeton" was used for the first time on the island. According to DJ Playero, who is considered one of the fathers of the genre, Daddy Yankee used it in a song he recorded with him in 1994.
From indecency to "Gasolina"
As the music gained popularity, some associated it with a criminal subculture because of its origins and lyrics. A conservative group called Morality in Media even led a campaign against reggaeton on the island. Puerto Rico's police and the National Guard raided six record stores in the San Juan area in 1995 and confiscated hundreds of underground cassettes and CDs for violating local obscenity laws.
Many of reggaeton's music videos were also inspired by rap videos from the U.S. and featured women in bikinis and thongs dancing perreo, a dance style involving dancers grinding against each other.
The genre was critiqued for being misogynistic, but artists like Ivy Queen sought to dismantle that.
She broke through the machista noise and released her first album En mi imperio in 1997. Ivy Queen wanted to offer a new perspective in the genre — one that connected with women and identified with their lived experiences. She even spoke about gender-based violence on the island. Ivy, however, was the exception.
In 2004, reggaeton took center stage as Daddy Yankee's song "Gasolina" spread like wildfire throughout the world. Hip-hop labels began creating Latin imprints. And by 2006, reggaeton records were selling so much that several artists received one of the most important recognitions in the music industry: gold, platinum and double platinum records. The genre also reached the Latin Grammys that year, where the Puerto Rican group Calle 13 won three awards.
Velázquez grapples with the question
In her teens, Velázquez was not aware of the hypersexualization of women in reggaeton songs. It wasn't until college that she began to dissect what some of the lyrics were saying back to her, starting with "Mujeres Talentosas" by Luigi 21 Plus.
In it, he says in Spanish, "If Eve hadn't eaten the apple, life would be without malice and much healthier. But since that b**** ate the fruit, that's why there are sluts today."
In the days that followed her college classmate's question, Velázquez had a bit of an identity crisis and began to question whether she was less of a feminist for being a fan of the music.
While pursuing her master's degree, Velázquez's professor told the class to write about a topic that angered them and then investigate it. She chose to investigate how Puerto Rican women related to reggaeton, and how they saw themselves represented in that music.
She didn't find much on that topic. But the research for the project led her to a realization about her reggaedom fandom and the genre's issues of sexism.
Much like how proponents of hip-hop in decades past had argued that violence depicted in lyrics was not promoting or creating violence in real life; rather, it portrayed the violence that already existed. The same was true of reggaeton, she thought.
"There is no gender-based violence because reggaeton exists, rather gender-based violence exists and is reflected in reggaeton, and in many other aspects of society," Velázquez said. "Not in music, but on television everyday, in the newspapers, on Instagram. We see gender-based violence everywhere."
She also believes that the women depicted in reggaeton songs are not passive, but sexually active. Ultimately, she says that whichever relationship a woman decides to have with the genre is a personal one.
"My feminism precisely allows me ... to decide what I like, what I listen to, what I dance to, what I don't dance to, and it gives me that authority over my body and my decisions," she says.
A digital archive is born
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Hasta ‘Bajo Project (@hastabajoproject)
Velázquez had come to terms with her internal conflicts over reggaeton. But the class project had exposed another lingering issue she felt driven to address: There wasn't that much research out there about reggaeton. Everything she found was critical of the genre. Articles called it simple, repetitive, offensive and lacking in quality.
But Velázquez strongly believed that reggaeton is an important part of Puerto Rican culture. If no resources existed, she would have to make one herself.
Years later, while interning at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C., Velázquez met Ashley Oliva Mayor, a historian and curator of Latin music.
One of Mayor's goals was to expand Latino representation in the museum's music collection. And while the archives reflect music history, reggaeton was not a part of it.
After viewing many of the Smithsonian's Latin music items, Velázquez was inspired to create a collection of objects that reflect the history and milestones of reggaeton. In November 2019, Velázquez launched the Hasta 'Bajo project, which is named after one of the most shouted and sung phrases at reggaeton parties.
It began as an Instagram account with a mission to highlight the genre's value in Puerto Rican culture. At first, Velázquez looked to other reggaeton fans to help her build out a digital archive. With the hashtag #SomosHastaBajo, she asked people to send photos and stories of concerts, cassettes, flyers or any other reggaeton objects they had saved.
Once Mayor caught wind of the project, she wrote to Velázquez asking to be a part of it. The two began meeting on Zoom, and were soon conducting virtual panels about reggaeton and perreo.
One such panel was even dedicated to talking about reggaeton and feminism called, "Without women, there is no reggaeton." It was very well received, Velázquez recalled.
A reggaeton museum on the horizon
After their audience continued to grow on social media, people soon began asking if they could donate their physical objects. One of those people was Juan Arroyo, the founder of Reggaeton World, a website dedicated to disseminating music and its lyrics. Arroyo donated over 300 magazine articles, CDs and press kits.
Velázquez and Mayor collected the items and rented a large acclimatized warehouse to store all these objects. This was just the start of a physical collection that now includes concert tickets, posters, magazines, movies and concert DVDs.
There are now eight people dedicated to the upkeep of the archive. The group gives talks at schools, universities and have even spoken at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico.
And while the archive is still in its early stages and is continuing to expand its physical archive, Velázquez hopes this is all just the start of a larger reggaeton museum one day.
So in the future, when someone like Velázquez wants to discover more about the history of reggaeton, they can turn to Hasta 'Bajo as a helpful resource.
Listen to Radio Ambulante on Spotify or Apple Podcasts to follow more Latin American stories like these.
Escucha a Radio Ambulante en Spotify o Apple Podcasts.
This Radio Ambulante episode was produced by Lisette Arevalo. It was edited by Camila Segura, Natalia Sánchez-Loayza and Daniel Alarcón and fact-checked by Bruno Scelza.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.