Reggaeton Is Poppier and Paler Than Ever — But Tego Calderon Made It Eternally Black

Nearly 20 years ago, the genre-defining artist found the Black power in Puerto Rican identity

Jennifer Mota
LEVEL
Published in
4 min readJan 17, 2020

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Tego Calderon. Photo: Omar Vega/Getty Images

WeWe already know that reggaeton is a thriving multimillion-dollar business dominating global charts. Colombian superstar J Balvin and Spanish up-and-comer Rosalía continue to gain momentum, and even on Top 40 stations you’re liable to hear a reggaeton-inspired song at any given moment. Yet, that visibility has its limits. While artists like Balvin and Becky G score crossover hits and Bad Bunny nabs Drake features, those who aren’t light-skinned or don’t fit European beauty ideals enjoy considerably less exposure — especially Afro-Latinx artists.

Though artists like Afro-Panamanian singer Sech provide vital representation, the whitening of reggaeton is a valid concern as the genre continues to go more “pop.”

This unfortunate whitewashing is exactly why Black Latinxs keep Tego Calderon in heavy rotation. Tego, one of the first Puerto Rican artists to make reggaeton popular, prioritizes his Blackness over his Puerto Rican national identity while simultaneously honoring the roots of reggaeton — and has consistently inspired a generation of listeners and artists to do the same.

Make no mistake: Reggaeton may be in Spanish, but its origins are Black, and the art form has evolved alongside dancehall reggae since the early ’80s. In the early 20th century, a wave of Jamaican workers came to Panama to construct the Panama Canal; decades later, their descendants created “reggae en Español” as a way to embrace their roots in a time of pervasive bigotry.

Make no mistake: Reggaeton may be in Spanish, but its origins are Black.

The cross-cultural effect continued. In New York City, Panamanian immigrants, like Nando Boom and El General, recorded tracks covering dancehall songs in Jamaican-owned New York City studios; “Son Bow,” El General’s twist on Shabba Ranks’ 1990 hit “Dem Bow,” became a massive hit in its own right. Over time, immigrants in the U.S. and the Caribbean mixed the ingredients of Jamaican dancehall, Panamanian reggae en español, and hip-hop influences to…

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Jennifer Mota
LEVEL
Writer for

Jennifer Mota’s work focuses on topics relating to music, fashion, and Afro-Latinidad. As a writer, she’s worked for VIBE, TIDAL, and Remezcla among others.