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HomeWorld NewsIn Puerto Rico, Reggaeton Means Struggle, Resistance and Having a Good Time

In Puerto Rico, Reggaeton Means Struggle, Resistance and Having a Good Time

PUERTO RICO — In this region, urban music is made in dark rooms. That’s just how recording studios are set up. The artist slips on headphones and steps up to the microphone that will amplify their message. The producer waits at the console, ready to play the track. Recording time is limited, and their goal is to create a song before they leave.

Reggaeton is one of the world’s most popular musical genres and in Puerto Rico, it pulses through shared spaces. In Latin America, five of the top artists of 2023 made urban music — a hybrid of popular genres like hip-hop, reggaeton and variations of R&B. Among them is Bad Bunny, one of today’s most popular performers. The music, its lyrics and its rhythms are inspiring a new generation of artists. While the need for a stable income keeps them from dedicating themselves exclusively to their art, they use “fronteo,” a rule-defying attitude, to tackle topics from community displacement and beach restoration to reaffirming racial identity and sexual liberation.

Rubén Rolando, Julio del Hoyo and Paula Andrea Rivera Sánchez (known as Baby Pau) are three of these artists. They write songs, record and perform, even as they hold down paying jobs, searching for ways to pursue their dreams and stand out in an increasingly popular industry.

Reggaeton is the result of people circulating between the Caribbean and the United States, but the genre has been commercialized in Puerto Rico since the 1990s. In its early years, it was censured for sexually explicit lyrics and accounts of everyday violence, as its biggest stars sang about their experiences as heterosexual men from impoverished urban communities.

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

Baby Pau poses at the entrance of her home in Carolina, Puerto Rico.


I look in the mirror and I’m surprised
Wow but how cute, and even though

you don’t understand, my self esteem is fucking good
Since I was little I knew that I was far above

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

Julio del Hoyo poses in his studio in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, where he makes music at least once a week.

TRUKITO by Julio del Hoyo

I keep questioning my language of affection
To avoid causing harm without meaning to

I don’t pretend that you are a Tinker-Bell
But if you have anything left, let us fly

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

Rubén Rolando reviews lyrics at Casa Archivo in Manatí, Puerto Rico.

TIROTEO by Rubén Rolando

Towing our dreams
The environment makes us more skillful

in the face of the danger of losing ourselves
in the uncertain

That’s why artists like Ivy Queen, one of the first women to make waves in the genre, became a beacon of inspiration for Rubén Rolando, 34, an interdisciplinary artist and cultural manager who identifies as nonbinary and uses “they” as a pronoun. “I identified with that feminine force and power [of Ivy Queen],” says Rubén Rolando, whose first brush with music was singing in a church choir as a child. They also explored poetry performance, graphic art and cinematography before embracing the urban music genre in 2018, because it was “where I felt most comfortable singing, performing and writing.”

Other innovative artists like Tego Calderón, known for his fusion of Afro Antillean rhythms, salsa, hip-hop, rap and bomba — an Afro Puerto Rican musical genre — have also influenced younger generations. “I think it’s those rap songs, reggaeton songs — they’re the inspiration, the reason I make music,” says Julio del Hoyo, a social worker and emerging artist inspired by Calderón’s style.

Baby Pau, 27, a nail technician and trap artist who recorded her first song in 2022, had a similar experience. Music by Arcángel and Cosculluela accompanied her through adolescence. The artists says that, one year shy of graduating from college, “I cried [to my mom] and told her I didn’t want to study anymore. I wanted to make music.”

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

Baby Pau, who sings about her experiences as a woman in love and sex, says that pursuing her dream has been expensive, but she keeps doing it because she is passionate about performing.

Inspiration doesn’t ask for permission

Ideas for lyrics and melodies can strike at work, in the car or during conversation with friends. Other times, artists stick to a disciplined writing routine. That’s how Baby Pau came up with the line, “Me dijeron que te gusta la mujer pendeja, pero te topaste con una que no se deja” (“They told me you like dumb women, but you bumped into one who won’t take it”), from her song “Guille de Dios.” “A lot of men are bothered by my music,” Baby Pau says. “I tell the truth. If they don’t want me to write about it, they shouldn’t treat me badly.”

Her lyrics affirm her power in defiance of the sexism typical of reggaeton. “My singing is very sexual because I really own my sexuality,” she says.

Baby Pau recounts her experiences as a woman exploring relationships and sex from a place of power and pleasure. Similarly, Rubén Rolando shares their experiences as a queer, nonbinary person. In 2004, during their adolescence, they explored their sexuality by ducking into dark clubs to dance with other men.

“That was impossible, and today, it’s much more visible,” Rubén Rolando says.

Coraly Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Rubén Rolando sees reggaeton as a way to make themselves known and make their team’s work visible as well. They think of their music as a tool to make sure queer and nonbinary stories are being heard and that people within that community are respected.

Queer people’s presence in the genre is nothing new. Lisa M., a rapper and reggaeton artist, came out as a lesbian in a Facebook post in 2010. However, other artists have gained more visibility: Trans woman Villano Antillano’s album Sustancia X landed on Rolling Stone’s list of the best albums of 2022. Young Miko, who sings about lesbian experiences, was the first Puerto Rican woman to perform at Coachella. RaiNao writes about both men and women and has nearly 1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify. And Ana Macho has 18,378 monthly listeners, along with two albums and multiple singles and EPs.

Now, Rubén Rolando sings lines like, “Tiene un hickey de otro jevo, pero yo no soy celoso” (“They have a hickey from another lover, but I’m not jealous”) and “Constante y peligrosa, cuando siento miedo brillo de coraje” (“Tireless and dangerous, when I feel fear I shine with courage”) in their songs “Cheribón” and “Brillo de Coraje,” respectively. “I use music as a tool to raise awareness, to share stories, so people respect us,” they say.

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

Julio del Hoyo and part of the band Las Quenepas rehearse in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico. Aurelio Adasme plays guitar and Daniel Muñoz plays congas while Javier Tirado plays bass.

For Julio del Hoyo, the social worker, it’s impossible to separate his music from his environment. “I make music for the people I spend time with, [about] our conversations, about what I learn in the field and at my job.” Social justice and anti-racist messages like “los que mandan siempre tienen pieles blancas” (“the people in charge always have white skin”) appear unexpectedly among songs about love and joy because “the processes of struggle and resistance go hand in hand with having a good time.”

The cost of making music

The process of putting a song together can be lengthy and complex, the artists say. Getting paid takes even longer. For those who aspire to dedicate themselves to the genre without musical “godfathers” or “godmothers” — people who finance their career — the money comes in dribs and drabs. “Making music is expensive,” says Baby Pau, who confesses that she’s had to change her diet to self-finance the production of her releases.

“A good low-budget production can easily cost 800 [United States] dollars,” she says. That amount includes cover art, the video, recording, mixing, the track and the accessories the artist wears. Baby Pau can pull together that amount in two weeks of work, but she has to divide her funds between music and personal expenses.

The federal minimum wage in Puerto Rico is 9.50 dollars an hour and will increase by one dollar in July. At this rate, an artist looking to break out in the genre has to work 84 hours to earn the amount cited by Baby Pau. The trap artist explains that her collaborations with other artists, like Mr. HumA and Ave María José, have been helpful in offsetting the financial burden because they can split the cost.

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

Baby Pau reviews a notebook of songs from her adolescence in Carolina, Puerto Rico.

But a return on investment isn’t immediate. A song must reach at least 1,000 streams per year to generate income on Spotify, and at this stage in their careers, performances are not always well paid.

“We have to take on a lot of roles to produce here in Puerto Rico,” says Rubén Rolando. It took them a full year to make their first EP, “Brillo de Coraje,” which includes five songs. But for them, time doesn’t matter: They dream of making a living from music. “For us [queer people], everything is work and everything is commitment and everything is sacrifice. It’s not strange for me to have to work really hard for our dreams,” they say. “Nothing has been given to us.”

Some artists find other ways to reduce costs. Julio del Hoyo’s bedroom is only a few steps from his studio, a room lit with little blue lights on the walls in the Río Piedras neighborhood of the capital. There, he gives himself over to his music. “An industry studio gives you higher quality, but they charge by the hour. Here [at home] it can sound good, too, and I don’t depend on anyone else,” he says.

Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

Julio del Hoyo works in his home studio in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico. He dedicates time to creating music in this space at least once a week.

Imagining the future

“Making a living from music is unthinkable at the moment,” Julio del Hoyo says. “[I] have to pay bills, have to do things, and right now, I know making music is not enough.” The artist, who also has a college degree, hopes to continue his career in community social work alongside his art. For Rubén Rolando, music is a strategy. “I’m making music because I’m passionate about it, but beyond my passion, it’s also a way to make noise, to make myself visible in a more universal way.”

This universality includes “drawing attention to the work done by my team and the people who have been producing by my side this whole time,” they say, sitting in the kitchen of Casa Archivo, a cultural center in the town of Manatí, in northern Puerto Rico.

In Carolina, Baby Pau sits in the chair where she does her clients’ nails. “I go to concerts and instead of enjoying them, I want to be down there, I want to be the one singing,” she says. As she recalls the order of her songs, she says, “It’s been a process where I’ve told my story.” Baby Pau sometimes feels the urge to cry onstage, thinking of the days she lived on rice and eggs to save money to pay for her productions.

When Baby Pau asks the audience to sing the chorus, they obey, reminding her that here, onstage, is where she belongs.

Reggaeton is a means for these artists to share their experiences in small doses. To reach a wider audience or fill a stadium, they have to keep going back to the recording studio. In the dark room, they don headphones and sing over the track to create something new, believing it could be the ticket to everything they dream of.

Coraly Cruz Mejías and Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

Baby Pau performs at an event in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico.

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