Daddy Yankee Is An Icon
He bulldozed the path for reggaton to enter the mainstream, amplifying and normalising the marginalised Latinx identity.
Ilustración: Esme Blegvad | Noisey
The first time I heard "Gasolina", it was blaring from the boombox at my local Cuban bakery in South Florida. Here, the station was always firmly set to El Zól 95 – the premiere Latin radio station in the area. I was sitting next to the Puerto Rican shop owner, Mauricio, who kept going on about this newly-tipped reggaeton artist, Daddy Yankee, who was apparently going to change Latin music forever with this new song. It was 2004 and I was a moody, unconcerned 12-year-old – the way I saw it, if it wasn't emo, I didn't care, and I was going to make that very clear. As I rolled my eyes, my mom shot me a glare across the room, as if to say, if you embarrass me by being rude, I'm going to give you hell at home. So I jolted up and listened to the song Mauricio promised would change everyone's life.
As the track played, with its quick-fire verses, pounding, combative beat, and almost infantile chorus, I witnessed the entire cafe get up and start dancing – including myself, the capricious pre-teen who rejected any kind of mainstream culture because I was just too alt for that shit. When the song ended, I asked Mauricio what the hell it all meant – what does gasoline mean here? Alcohol? Drugs? Sex? He explained that in Latin America, people used to tease women who went out with the guys who had the flashiest cars with the phrase "como le gusta la gasolina", which translates to "she loves gasoline". It was in this moment that something clicked within me – this simple phrase summed up what I loved about my culture; the ridiculous-yet-relatable phrases, the bold attitudes, the warmth of my people. I went home and downloaded the track on iTunes, burnt it onto a CD, and played it on repeat until I couldn't bear to listen to it anymore.
A few days later, I left Florida to visit my family in Venezuela. Unsurprisingly, "Gasolina" was everywhere – the airport, the radio in my grandpa's car, the bodega next door. Upon my return to Florida, I expected the song to be overlooked, played sporadically on the handful of Hispanic radio stations, fading away with time. But "Gasolina" never went away; in fact, it grew bigger each day, until it was at the top of the charts worldwide.
That year, "Gasolina" was the best-received song on the dance floor at my school disco. All of my very American, very Bible Belt friends were shouting words in broken Spanish as they attempted to grind on each other each time the chorus hit. Soon, my classmates started taking an interest in my background – these were kids who, at best, would assume I was Mexican by default because I was Latina, and at worst, had no idea that Venezuela was a country on Earth. Daddy Yankee managed to penetrate the American mainstream with such force that it shifted everyone's perception of not only reggaeton, but Latin America as a whole. Until then, reggaeton seemed to exist in its own bubble; what was previously seen as a subversive underground genre that was actively shunned by major labels – both Latin and worldwide – was now seen as a legitimate art form, and one of value.
Despite South Florida being one of the most heavily populated Hispanic areas in America, my immediate surroundings were not; my school, jostling more than 1,000 students, had a grand total of 12 people of colour. I had classmates whose pick-up trucks proudly waved the Confederate flag. I had classmates who doubted my grasp on the English language, as if being bilingual meant my use of the two languages was mutually exclusive. I had classmates who used to call me a Spic. Every day, your entire existence is based around questions you can't directly answer – 'what language is that?'; 'why do you celebrate Christmas on 24 December, not the 25th?'; 'why doesn't your grandma speak English – this is fucking America'. A Latino at the top of the charts answered all of those questions, through one simple action: representation.
Seeing Daddy Yankee pave the way for Latinx voices in music made me realise the deliberate dismissal of our culture in mainstream media. The closest thing we had to a superstar whose public identity was purely presented as Latin American was Mexican popstar Selena, and she was brutally murdered by her manager in 1995. Around the time of Daddy Yankee's initial success, pop critics on TV argued that Jennifer Lopez was already a voice for the Latinx community – despite her brand being heavily built around The Bronx – and that she was enough. Just like that, our very nuanced and diverse identities had been erased.
Even with the media's reluctance to accept Daddy Yankee as a rising cultural icon, his album Barrio Fino still went on to debut at number 1 on Billboard's Latin Albums chart – the first reggaeton record to ever hit that spot. It later became the top-selling Latin album of 2005, and the entire decade. He revived Latin music sales through reggaeton and ushered in a new era for urban Latin music and Latinx visibility. Something as seemingly trivial as a song purely created for slut dropping reminded me that I'm not alone in my experiences – it helped me understand that it's OK to be American and also only speak Spanish at home, that it's OK to struggle with identity issues, that it's OK to come from an ethnic background considered an "other". Daddy Yankee's mainstream success began to relieve the isolation of growing up around people who not only didn't understand my culture, but were largely intolerant of it.
With Latin America living in one of its most autonomous creative moments, fuelled by artists developing their own voices and musical culture, Daddy Yankee's pop breakthrough also triggered a reggaeton renaissance within the continent itself. Record labels began looking to Latin people for talent; Yankee led the way, but he lifted up everyone with him – artists like Don Omar, Arcangel, and Wisin & Yandel are still dominant reggaeton acts who kickstarted their careers down the path Daddy Yankee had bulldozed through the charts. Farruko, a rising reggaetonero from Puerto Rico, has previously spoken about how Daddy Yankee gave budding artists like himself the opportunity to collaborate with him on music – something that isn't often afforded to other genres, like pop, for example. The big guy helping the little guy come up in ranks not only signified a generational change but, more so, the attitudes towards kinship that characterises Hispanic people as a whole: as far as we're concerned, if you're one of us, you're family.
Daddy Yankee played a vital part in bringing glamour to the barrio and challenged the mainstream media's portrayal of Hispanic poverty in those neighbourhoods. The barrio was usually presented as a one-dimensional hellscape devoid of complexity, full of violence, deprivation and despair – and to some degree, that's true. The Hispanic barrio is a place of intense hardship, but it's also a place of affection, brotherhood, and understanding – it has nothing but still invites you for dinner; it helps your grandmother down the stairs; it gives your little sister a football handmade out of scraps found by the mountain stream. Daddy Yankee's music videos painted an uninterrupted picture of the joys of the Hispanic people: they featured garish colours, street parties, intimate dancing and, most importantly, illustrated a strong sense of community. Daddy Yankee transcended being reduced to a one-hit wonder and started a movement that sent one resounding message to barrio kids: if Yankee can, I can too.
Just as "Gasolina" launched his movement, "Despacito" has cemented his contribution to culture as more than a passing fad. The numbers speak for themselves: it's the most streamed song on Spotify of all time; it's the first Youtube video to reach more than 3 billion views and counting; it's the first Spanish-spoken song to top the charts since "The Macarena" in the mid-90s. "Despacito" was already huge before Justin Bieber jumped on the remix, but it highlights the foundation of collaboration that Daddy Yankee laid down from the start that continues to be so prevalent in reggaeton as a genre. It evolves, it engages with other musical styles, and it never takes its own uniqueness for granted. It's a genre that ticks all of the boxes in popular music today – the dembow beats, the one-word choruses, the pop melodies, the hip-winding appeal – it's extremely accessible, and it delivers its message to break down cultural barriers, one Spanglish word at a time.
Reggaeton is still as relevant and dominant as ever, providing space for Hispanic people to celebrate the multicultural experience, explore their talents, or just simply exist. Thirteen years after the initial release of "Gasolina", I'm 25 years old and still grinding to Daddy Yankee at house parties all the way in England. No one questions the song choice; no one interrupts me mid-song to ask what the words in Spanish mean; no one gawks at my sandungueo. And that's the eternal legacy of Daddy Yankee: he's demystified the Latinx identity and turned it into something that's seen as beautifully normal – which is exactly what it has been all along.