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

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 create the blueprint to a transnational sub-culture that raised many Latinx millennials. Although it was considered “underground” throughout the early ’90s, it later became officially known as reggaeton as it gained popularity in the caserios (public housing areas) of Puerto Rico.

Tego discovered the sound as a child when he moved from Puerto Rico to Miami with his parents. When he began making music, he took cues from N.W.A. and other rap artists, using his music speak on the troubled relationship between race and society in Puerto Rico. “I felt an emptiness as a Black Puerto Rican when I first started in the genre,” Tego said during his first TV interview in 2002. “Leaving the island made me realize that I was Black first and Puerto Rican second.”

That same year, Tego released his debut album, El Abayarde. One of the few mainstream irbano albums, it expressed the Afro Puerto Rican struggle by challenging racial discrimination and human rights violations — and minted a generation of fans in the process. “El Abayarde makes me feel special,” Panamanian MC Nino Augustine says of the album.” I instantly felt that there was room for a kid to dream of being like him one day.”

In Latin America, a common claim is that the mixing of races creates a racially peaceful society. As a result, nationalism prevails as the most common way for Latinx people to identify themselves: “I am not Black; I’m Puerto Rican.” But this messaging also turns a blind eye to the privileges that exist for White-presenting Puerto Ricans: access to education, economic advantages, and political representation. Tego sought to undo such thinking. On “Loiza,” he rhymes, “Me quiere hacer pensar/ Que soy parte de una trilogia racial/ Donde to’ el mundo es igual, sin trato especial.” The translation: “They want to make me think that I’m part of a trilogy of races, in which everyone is the same.”

Long before the concept Afro Latinidad became a mainstream discussion, Tego reimagined Blackness, challenging Puerto Rican identities and empowering Black youth. “Tego became a voice for Black kids like me,” Nino Augustine says. “He made me proud to embrace my Latino and Black culture.” As reggaeton continues to evolve globally, it’s critical to honor the music that first gave voice to the Black experience — and support artists who continue that work.

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.

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