Recently a group of friends recounted to me a scene at a party involving an argument over who got dibs on the aux cord. “I keep trying to tell hispanic girls that they have to mix up the Spanish music…you can’t play two songs in Spanish in a row,” proclaimed one girl, who wanted to play more hip hop songs in English. “If you’re going to play more than one song in Spanish in a row, at least put on a twerking song.”
This scene is representative of what happens when people from different cultures (especially ones that speak different languages) come together to listen to music and dance. The impulse to be united and enjoy each other’s company often gets impeded by our differences. And yet that friend’s comment about Spanish-language “twerking music,” by which she meant to refer to the Dominican genre “dembow” (which is rapidly rising in popularity), revealed a fact that is too often overlooked: so much of the popular music that dominates the US and Latin American charts originate in sounds coming from the African diaspora.
I couldn’t help but think back to this student’s remark–and its loaded cultural, historical, and political implications–after seeing a viral video of the Puerto Rican reggaetonera Ivy Queen floating around the internet, in which she shouts out to her audience, “Latina’s don’t twerk!” She called out the line again, waiting for the crowd to respond, “No!” in unison. “We hula…como [like] hula hoop,” she continued, as she began whining her hips to the rhythm of the backing track.
Though the intentions of her comment were likely benign, in addition to being mildly humorous, it rang with a slight racial charge in my ears. Twerking is more generally associated with black American hip hop–trap, to be specific, while hula (whining) and “perreo” are usually associated with dancehall and reggaeton. In reality, it’s hard to draw such precise lines of demarcation between dancehall reggae, reggaeton, dembow, hip hop, and even Brazilian funk, and the styles of dancing that go along with them. Their rhythms and percussion patterns are undeniably black, as they find their roots in sounds that were brought over to North and South America through the transatlantic slave trade.
Ivy Queen’s insistence on this distinction echoes the efforts of major corporations and State-backed programs to construct a notion of “latinidad” as something distinct from, and even superior to, negritude, or “blackness.”
Reggaeton first developed when Jamaicans started immigrating to Panama in the 1980s in pursuit of work opportunities, bringing along with them a faster paced style of reggae known as dancehall. Many Panamanian artists (who were mostly black) began recording Spanish versions of these dancehall tracks, creating the subgenre known as “reggae en español.”
As Panamanians and Jamaicans began immigrating to Manhattan, they started to collaborate with Nuyorican (Puerto Ricans living in New York) music producers, who recorded full mixtapes combining the new sound with elements from New York hip hop. They then brought these “reggae marathon” mixtapes (which led to the name “reggaeton”) with them when they visited Puerto Rico, thus garnering interest among youngsters living on the island. It was one of the artists featured on the Playero 37 mixtape, Daddy Yankee, who went on to become the first reggaeton artist to bring international attention to the new genre with his 2004 hit “Gasolina.”
Quickly, major record label executives rushed to sign more and more reggaeton artists in hopes of capitalizing on the new craze. But something was missing from the whirlwind of reggaeton’s mainstream success: the majority of the artists getting record deals were of a lighter skin complexion. Ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall points to popular songs like “Oye Mi Canto” and “Reggaeton Latino” as further examples of how record labels tried intentionally to market reggaeton as a strictly “pan-Latin American” cultural phenomenon, with the intention to sever it from its connections to Afro-Caribbean and African American cultures via reggae and hip hop, respectively.
This is part of the reason I caught a whiff of a concerning racial charge behind Ivy Queen’s comment. Mind you, she said this while the “bam bam” riddim (Jamaican dancehall beat)–which was made famous by Pliers and Chaka Demus’ “Murder She Wrote” (and went on to be sampled by Latin American artists like Bad Bunny in “Safaera” and Pitbull in “El Taxi”)–was playing in the background.
Ivy Queen’s own public image was heavily influenced by this shift away from blackness toward the construct of “latinidad.” In an essay on Ivy Queen’s style, Felix Jimenez explains how when her earlier tracks had more of a hip hop edge to them, her style emulated rappers from New York–which many criticized as masculine and not glamorous…and ultimately not “latina enough.” Her label pressured her to change up her style, eventually getting implants, wearing wigs, and donning heavier make up, in order to market her as a distinctly latina artist.
We can find parallels in Brazilian (or favela) funk, which emerged in the late 80s when DJs started mixing Freestyle (a style of dance music that combines hip hop, salsa, and house), Miami Bass, and Candomble (traditional Afro-Brazilian religious music). Most early funk MCs were black. But few of them gained visibility once mega-producer KondZilla brought mostly lighter skin funk artists to international audiences in the early 2010s.
The attempt of major corporations to separate negritude from latinidad runs concurrent with State-sponsored attempts by Latin American nations to alienate Afrolatinos, and in the case of the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo dictatorship, to exile and even kill their black citizens.
The commonalities between the rhythms and percussion patterns of hip hop, dembow, reggaeton, reggae, dancehall, and funk speak to the unity among descendants of the African diaspora…which is a unity that transcends national and ethnic boundaries, despite attempts of corporate and State power to erase these bonds.
Though Ivy Queen may insist on the distinction between black American twerking and the “hula” of Latinas, the role that hip gyration plays in the many rhythmic forms of Afrodiasporic music is undeniable. Many condemn any form of hip gyration as overtly sexual and indecent. While surely one can easily recognize the connection between hip gyration and the conjugal act, such condemnations beg the question of what constitutes “indecent” or “overt” expressions of sexuality. How much of it is the intention of the dancer and how much of it is the gaze of the audience? Similarly to discourses on dress, bare skin isn’t inherently “sexual”–it depends on the intentions of the dresser, the gaze of the viewer…but also the cultural ethos that they find themselves in.
In numerous west African fertility cults, hip gyrations have a sacred, and even liturgical, significance and is not seen as sexually explicit. Rather, this expression of sexuality is integrated into the understanding of the body as a gift with a generative capacity that is to be used to give honor to the Creator. Removed from this type of cultural and liturgical context, one can understand why someone might be scandalized by such styles of dancing. There is a clear difference between dancing for the sake of enjoying and honoring the body as a gift from God, versus dancing for the sake of pure instinctive arousal, thus making an idol out of the body itself.
But even such distinctions are hard to make in a cultural context like the Americas after the slave trade, where enslaved Africans’ God-given dignity was robbed of them, and their bodies were beaten and raped into submission. The ethos of the body and sexuality as gifts oriented toward unity and co-creation with God was erased.
Dominican author Junot Diaz comments on how enslaved peoples’ “new world cosmology” ascribed a mystical significance to the body and sexuality. This was in some ways an attempt to reclaim the dignity of the body as gift: “We had, for centuries, no rights to our bodies and that all of the traditional pleasures and all of the traditional freedoms of human agency were forbidden to those of us of African descent in the New World…”
Diaz continues, “for people who come out of the African Diaspora in the New World, simply to fall in love, when you have historically been denied love, the right to just connect to the body which you have chosen and that has chosen you, means that an act of love is not only revolutionary, it’s not only transcendent, but it is the deific. It is Godlike. It is a taste of the omnipotent.” Thus even instinctive expressions of sexuality can be a step toward a more spiritual understanding of the body when living under such oppressive conditions.
Further, the parallels within styles of music and dance amongst cultures of the diaspora send a powerful ontological message about human nature that has universal implications.
Brazilian music journalist GG Alburqueque claims that the philosophical underpinnings of Western humanism have only served to legitimize the dehumanization of non-Western peoples and delegitimize their spiritual and cultural contributions. “The idea of ‘humanity or civilization’ is precisely the ideological façade that legitimates the looting of precious metals in the Americas, the enslavement of black labor in Africa, and how Europeans know themselves: fully human—though, in the eyes of other peoples, not so fully—civilized versus savage, co-opting other peoples into already ‘civilized’ colonial models.”
He indicates that Descartes’ separation between the mind and body privileged those whose pursuit of truth manifested intellectually, deeming more “rational” or “human” than those who engaged in manual labor or whose pursuit of truth was more embodied than purely rational. He cites the afroperspectivist philosophy of Renato Noguera, which aims to “decolonize” the body and relegitimize its ability to speak spiritual truths, thus creating what Albuquerque calls an “incorporated” or incarnational philosophy. This point of view “goes in the opposite direction of the [Western] philosophical tradition and its devaluation of the body, presenting the idea of the body as the mortal room of an immortal soul.”
Though Albuquerque acknowledges that European Christianity’s appropriation of post-Enlightenment cartesian dualism served to rationalize their dehumanization of black bodies in the slave trade, his afroperspectivist, incorporated philosophy restores the theological significance of the Incarnation, and thus sheds light on the connection between afrodiasporic music forms like funk and Christian spirituality.
He goes on to cite the writer Kyra Gaunt who highlights how the African drumming patterns demonstrates the body’s ability to speak truth:”the body is a technology of black musical communication and identity…The social body as a tool or method of artistic composition and performance, however, continues to be overlooked in the study of music, just as the black vernacular body continues to be overlooked in dance history. Drums or any other forms of musical ‘technology’ are but extensions of things the body and voice can do. The striking of body parts and cavities, the resonating of the singing voice, and use of verbal and nonverbal language, manufactured codes, identiﬁcations, and ideas about music and life through the ‘systematic’ (re)production of an embodied phenomenology.”
Ivy Queen’s comments about Latina’s and twerking speak to the attempt of cultural and political powers to silence the rich and powerful history behind music of the African diaspora, which above all speaks to the universal desire for artistic, political, and existential liberation and fulfillment inherent to all human beings.