Despacito Will Not Save Us

The hit song and its production reflect everything that is wrong with the music industry and how it exploits the cultural production of communities of color.

Still from 'Despacito' music video

Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” is now the world’s most streamed song ever. Many view this as a triumph for Afro-Latino culture. We disagree. Sure, the production is flawless, the hook is catchy, the bass gets your body moving no matter if you’re in the club or the car. However, for us it reflects everything that is wrong with the music industry and how it exploits the cultural production of communities of color.

Originally stigmatized, reggaeton is a genre that emerged in the 1990s in Afro Latino communities located across the Caribbean and its diaspora. Thousands of Latino artists of African descent, from Panama’s West Indian communities and Puerto Rico’s caseríos, to urban immigrant enclaves in the US Northeast, worked hard to sustain the genre, eventually bringing it into the Latin American mainstream. “Despacito” was built on the backs of these artists and their communities.

Today, the only people who really profit from the success of reggaeton’s global appeal are a handful of superstars like Daddy Yankee, or white and middle class “safe” artists like Luis Fonsi, J Balvin, or Enrique Iglesias and the large media monopolies like Universal, Sony and Warner who dominate the industry. Artists like DJ Playero, Los Rakas, Munchi and many others have toiled for years to popularize this sound yet receive no credit, and have to struggle at the margins of the industry to earn enough to live. What’s more, in recent years non-Latino artists like Justin Bieber and Diplo have helped boost their global appeal by appropriating Afro-Latino and other African Diasporic musical genres. It is the perfect example of the gentrification of a culture. It is the insult to the injury of the fact that the genre’s nominal birthplace, Puerto Rico, is suffering from imperialist-imposed austerity that has pushed 10% of the population out in the last decade and promises another decade of pain.

For millennia, music has entertained, moved and inspired people. Many societies included special castes of musicians and artists, like the griots of West Africa. Culture, inherently, belongs to a collective of people, to a society at large. It is an essential element of human expression. Music in much of the West, however, has stopped being the collective expression of a group of people, and has become a product to be bought and sold by corporations for profit. Today that means the emergence of lifestyle brands who use music and its surrounding culture to sell sugary, over-caffeinated beverages or gas-guzzling cars.

What’s wrong with a little corporate money entering into the music scene? It’s just another way for artists to get paid right? Well, recently on this site, Chief Boima provided one example in the New York-based Latin-oriented electronic music party Que Bajo!?:

Money troubles eventually led to in fighting and we realized that the temporary influx of capital only served to draw a wedge between members of our community rather than uplift it.

Jay-Z in (the aptly titled) “Moment of Clarity” describes the pressures that artists face well:

I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars
They criticize me for it yet they all yell “Holla”
If skills sold truth be told
I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense (But I did five Mil)
I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
When your sense got that much in common
And you been hustling since, your inception, fuck perception
Go with what makes sense
Since I know what I’m up against

More recently, Trinidadian-Dominican New York breakout star Cardi B gets even more direct as her bilingual versions of ‘Bodak Yellow’ climb the charts:

You gotta follow the trends, it is what it is. At the end of the day, you need to be with what sells. Sometimes it kinda crushes me because I wanna do music like how I like, but if it’s not selling and it’s not gonna work, then I’ll change my sound.

Ultimately, the music industry rewards excellent sales not thought provoking lyrics; it aims for great profits not great art. It takes; it doesn’t build.

Like many sectors of our capitalist economy, the music industry is an oligopoly where three companies dominate the market. These companies keep the majority of the profits from selling music, while the producers get less than 20% on average. The same top-heavy structure present in the distribution of music is also replicated in its production. The little bit of the pie that does go to artists goes only to a small number of superstars, 77% of earnings go to the top 1% of musicians. So a small group of artists and corporations “privatize” a music and its surrounding culture, they turn it into capital – money trying to become more money – for a small group of owners, while the rest of us, are essentially dispossessed.

The commodification of music is put into the greatest relief when we remember that much of the highest earning forms of cultural production today, have their origin in economically and politically marginalized communities. However, the system is designed to do this, and has been doing this for centuries. The origins of capitalism are in the taking of resources that belong to the collective, like land (see: Native Americans in the US) and turns them into private property. The music industry engages in a constant process of enclosing the cultural and spiritual commons.

Which brings us back to Despacito. The success of its remix featuring Justin Bieber is a perfect example of all the “big-word” problems we have been discussing: commodification, monopoly, gentrification and appropriation. And sure enough, Jesus Lopez, head of Universal Music Group’s Latin America and Iberia division assures us that “The song would never have been as big a hit without Bieber.”

Bieber belongs to a tragically long history of white artists stealing black music. Not only does he make reggaetón songs without attribution to Latino culture or artists, but the one time he does do a collaboration with Latinos, he cannot even remember the lyrics and instead ridicules the people and culture that have helped make him a millionaire.

As Remezcla Music Editor Isabelia Herrera explains,

When Bieber mocks the song, he’s showing us that he can capitalize on Latinidad without actually experiencing any of the oppression that comes along with that identity. He doesn’t have to live in a culture of fear, be treated as a second-class citizen, or experience exotification.

So, “Despacito” will not save us. But wait! Isn’t it great that amidst the racism and xenophobia of the Trump era, people all over the world (including more than a few Trump voters) are shaking their butts to Despacito? Fonsi told NPR that:

The timing is quite perfect, you know, in this environment we live in … I don’t want to turn this song into a political environment, because it’s not. It’s a great song to make us feel good. But in the times that we live, where some people want to divide and want to build walls — we’re going through a lot of change, so it’s quite lovely that a Spanish song is No. 1 right now.

Except there’s this little thing called history, and it tends to repeat itself. The Mambo craze of the 1950s that sent many Cuban songs to the top of the charts did not end racism and poverty so why should we expect the current moment to be any different? Neither did the Latin explosion of 1999. Despacito, and the imitators that it will inspire, will do nothing to improve the cultural, political or economic status of Afro-Latinos. As Jezebel Culture Editor, Julianne Escobedo warns, “Don’t let Bieber play you!”

What is the point of decrying the many ways the music industry exploits Afro-Latinos when nothing can be done (and we haven’t even touched on the obvious problems of sexism in reggaetón and the music industry)? Capitalism is so entrenched, you may as well be tilting at windmills. Except, there is a growing movement to build a new, more democratic economy that empowers producers, including cultural producers, to control their production. Groups like Sol Collective in Sacramento and Rhythm Conspiracy in New Orleans are experimenting with cooperatives and other forms that allow artists to cut the middlemen, the gatekeeper publicists and the record labels. This means they fully own their music; from its production, to how it gets distributed and promoted. Resonate is building an artist-owned streaming service to give artists a much better deal than the current oligopoly in music streaming — dominated by Apple, Tidal and Spotify. Listen to this interview with Noémi Giszpenc of the Cooperative Development Institute if you want to learn more about these efforts.

Music is a public good like education and healthcare, which is why capitalist markets do such a terrible job of providing the world with great music. Therefore, we should defend current forms of public funding for the arts like the National Endowment for the Arts that are currently under attack. But we should also explore more innovative proposals for public arts funding, like Artistic Freedom Vouchers, where individuals get to direct government money to their favorite artists. Let’s work towards a more democratic and equitable music economy that ensures that artists get paid, and Diasporic communities can own their cultures and their spirits.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.