Despacito: Reggaetón, Rhythm, and Relationships

I’ve got to be honest: when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” was released in January and took off in the late spring, all I heard was a particularly successful link in a long chain of Latin pop-reggaetón and Spanish music in general. But don’t get me wrong: I love pop-reggaetón and its recent rise in mainstream popularity. 

While Spanish language music has been in the current US since the Spanish founded the first European settlements in 1565, Petra Rivera-Rideau suggests that the recent rise of pop-reggaetón like “Despacito” has broken racial barriers and brought people together. So it was with me.

I heard about the musical genre reggaetón for the first time while visiting a hospital patient whose fingers had just been cut off. Ricardo was 18 and had recently moved from Puerto Rico. He was fixing a machine in a factory near Chicago when, all of a sudden, it started up again. The blade came down on both of his hands, severing them in two. After the doctors sewed everything back together (apparently you can do that) and placed leeches at the tips of the dead fingers to draw blood up to them (apparently you can do that, too), I asked the teen, “So… ¿qué te gusta hacer?” He smiled, turned his face towards me, and said in a voice that betrayed the high dosage of painkillers he was taking, “Reggaetón. Me gusta escuchar reggaetón.”

I had no idea what reggaetón was, so that evening I returned home and typed it into Youtube. There was stuff from Ozuna, J Balvin, and Daddy Yankee. I remember listening to “Ginza.” The beat entranced me. The drops were insane, and the bass’ rhythm hit me with a fit of euphoric intensity. It was like nothing I had heard before. The lyrics were, well, explicit, but my love for the sound overpowered my disgust towards the message.

The next day I returned to the hospital eager to speak with Ricardo. We exchanged saludos and immediately launched into a discussion of the music. The convo left him laughing and smiling–probably mostly because he was intrigued by the idea of a young “priest” who liked the sound of reggaetón. The music connected us. By sharing it, he had opened a part of his soul to me, and my reception of that piece of him gave him the confidence to share more. It ignited a beautiful heart-to-heart about other things that were important to him.

From that time on, I’ve continued listening to reggaetón.  And especially this summer, hearing the sound of “Despacito” took me back to Ricardo.

Music is all about relationship and memory. I hear an old song, and my mind races back to the past. I think of related people and places. Give me the name of a friend, and I will give you the name of a song. Name a place, I’ll name a song. The same is true of genres. Country is Jim. Rap is Sara… And pop-reggaeton will always be Ricardo.

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