Yo, What Happened To Tego?
Reggaeton is from Puerto Rico. I want to begin this conversation by simply declaring that point so that we can move on to discuss the emerging concern related to its apparent “whitewashing”. This is part of a larger conversation occurring amongst our community related to identity. It is a complex conversation that is often treated with an unfortunate mix of simplicity and cheap labeling.
Back in 1991, I convinced my mother to let me go to Puerto Rico for the summer so that I could attend Roberto Clemente Camp. At the time, Roberto Clemente was my idol. I was a young kid who loved playing baseball and Clemente was our greatest example. I recall one day sitting on a bench along with my brother waiting for our grandfather to pick us up after camp. We were sitting with a camp counselor who was a teenager from the neighborhood and at one moment a car pulled up blasting a sound I was not completely familiar with. It has sonics I understood such as Hip-Hop and a dancehall undertones, but the emcees were singing in Spanish.
I asked the counselor what that was and he said it was called underground. It wouldn’t be until 1998 that I would once again connect with a version of that when I heard Daddy Yankee, then going by Winchester Yankee, rapping alongside Nas on a Tony Touch mixtape.
I heard nothing again until the early 2000s when I moved to Orlando which was essentially the 79th municipality of Puerto Rico. Every since, reggaeton and I have been cool with each other. Not the best of friends, but we always say what’s up when we see each other on the street. The reggaeton artists I preferred were the ones that felt most like the island they were coming from and less the ones that were trying to sound and look like American rappers. I always wondered why they wore leather jackets in their videos. Like fam, it’s like 100 degrees outside.
A good friend of mine, Hector, would put on earlier DJ Playero, The Noise, and DJ Nelson tapes that he had collected growing up in PR. Between what was being played at the club, mixed with what Hector would blast in his Honda Accord on the way to the club, I received a good education in reggaeton .
It’s important to note I learned about reggaeton by experiencing it and not through something I read. This era was dominated by artists like Calle 13, Don Omar, Wisin & Yandel, Tito El Bambino, and my personal favorite, El Abayarde, Tego Calderón. Tego spoke most to me because he felt and resembled what I felt Puerto Rico is. I loved his blending of classic salsa songs, long-forgotten slang from my grandmother’s generation and most importantly his subject matter that challenged long-standing norms.
Puerto Rico has a long history of being African without stating it. When reggaeton was beginning to penetrate the sounds of popular Latin music, it was viewed by those in charge as “ghetto”. It was treated with a level of underlying racism and not accepted by much of society, particularly amongst the upper class and in countries where Black and Indigenous communities are often marginalized. However, in Puerto Rico, what is celebrated in pop culture is far more African in origin than European. Tego was able to state that powerfully while still allowing you to dance with whatever complexion stood next to you. That era was special until, as often occurs, the sound was polluted.
The dembow riddim was replaced with more generic laser sounds. Everyone starting singing about love and iced-out chains, and I turned away. Every once in a while a new song would remind me of what I fell in love with, but in general, I lost interest in the genre.
Then, one day while Uptown a car pulls up blasting a sound. Unlike back in 1991, I recognized the sound coming from the car. It was dembow but the accent wasn’t Puerto Rican. It was our neighbors from the Dominican Republic. Dominicans took the sonics of those early Playero and DJ Nelson tapes and breathed life back into the genre. Dominican dembow felt right. The sonics, energy, and look of the artist made sense. Soon artists from Puerto Rico would collaborate with Dominican artists and the dembow riddim once again began to populate the sounds coming out of Puerto Rico.
During this period, reggaeton made its way onto radio station and into clubs around the world and yet when turning on Spanish television, Eurocentric representation was greeting the Latinx community and reporting on culture. Afro and Indigenous Latinxs only appeared when it was time to make the audience dance.
In recent years, artists from more Eurocentric countries have come to dominate reggaeton. Instead of seeing Tego’s afro, we see Rosalía’s strands and the vibrancy of what first drew me to the sound has disappeared.
I find myself asking, “Yo, what happened to Tego?“