Bad Bunny's Embrace of Femininity Comes with a Caveat
The Latin trap star is pushing against toxic masculinity while revealing the genre's limits of acceptance.
Screenshot via Bad Bunny's video for "Chambea"
There’s something different about Bad Bunny. He’s a trapero who raps into hot pink microphones, wears studded hoop earrings, dons short shorts, and gets lacquered manicures. The Puerto Rican trap artist and reggaeton singer has embraced a sartorial femininity similar to that of Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert, joining them as unlikely success stories in genres traditionally marked by hypermasculinity; the video for “I Like It,” his collaboration with Cardi B and J Balvin, has racked up almost 600 million views. Beyond his outward expressions of defiance, the recent FADER cover star often speaks out on issues that heterosexual male rappers typically don’t. In the past, he’s challenged unrealistic societal expectations for women’s bodies, gender norms, and inequality in sexual exchanges between men and women, breaking away from rigid ideas of manhood in favor of something more fluid, less fragile.
For the more hopeful of us, el conejo malo’s success is a signal that the politics of Latinx culture are changing and becoming more inclusive. Still, he occupies a delicate space. His embrace of femininity is conditionally accepted by the mainstream—the condition being that he emphatically prove his straightness, and that he do so as often as possible.
Latinx culture is, undoubtedly, deeply entrenched in traditional Catholic values, values that often go hand-in-hand with homophobia and misogyny—and Latin trap is no exception. That’s not to make a statement of comparison to other genres, but rather to acknowledge that the values and social context that produced latin trap—as with reggaeton and other genres born out of the Dembow sound, a rhythmic heritage named after Jamaican artist Shabba Ranks’ 1990 song “Dem Bow”— are the cultural inheritance of any artist who creates within it.
Almost three decades ago, Ranks, one of the pioneers of reggaeton, brazenly asserted in an interview that gay people “deserve crucifixion”—then invoked the bible to qualify his statement. More recently, Puerto Rican Latin trap artist Anuel AA released a diss song that included homophobic lyrics and the shaming of an HIV-positive model. Following fierce criticism and the cancellation of his first concert since he got out of jail, he issued a lengthy apology. Since his release, however, he’s collaborated with artists like Ozuna, J Balvin, Karol G, Arcangel, and most recently, 6ix9ine, who plead guilty to using a child in a sexual performance—suggesting that even though the homophobia that pervades the genre these days is less explicit that it once was, it is still very much an acceptable part of the culture.
In comes an artist like Bad Bunny, someone who presents in a way that is often read as queer but who by all means identifies as straight. He speaks out against sexism and is unafraid to be sentimental. On his piano ballad, “Amorfada,” he croons over a gentle beat, telling a story of heartsickness and betrayal: “Toas’ las barra’ y los trago’ han sido testigo / Del dolor que me causaste y to’ lo que hiciste conmigo / Un infeliz en el amor que aún no te supera” (“All the bars and drinks have been witness / Of the pain you caused me and all you did to me/ A wretch in this love thing who still isn’t over you”).
But his status as ambassador of Latin trap would not be able to coexist with his embrace of femininity if he were not straight, and further, if he didn't at times also embrace the sexism that pervades the genre—as many outwardly progressive men are wont to do when it works to their advantage. When asked about rumors surrounding his sexuality during an interview, Bad Bunny responded in a classically macho way by saying, “el que tenga duda que me traiga la mujer pa’ casa, para ponerlo a crear los hijos míos” (“Whoever has doubts can bring their woman over to my house so that I can make him raise my children”). As if such blunt declarations of straightness weren’t enough, his lyrics continually drive home the theme. Take, for example, his song “ Soy Peor,” where he sings: “Tengo la blanquita que me hace lap dance/La rockerita que se lo meto con to’ y Vans/Las prietas, las rubias, modelos y eso sin contar todas las fans” (I have the white girl that gives me lap dances/The rocker girl who I stick it in with my Vans on/The dark girls, the blonde ones, models and that’s not counting all the fans).
There may be room for some level of deviation from machismo in Latin trap, but in 2018, there are simply no openly queer artists experiencing mainstream success in the genre. Queer Latin trap and reggaeton artists, creators of the femme aesthetics that straight men like Bad Bunny have been praised for, have had to create lanes for themselves, namely through YouTube and social media.
Kevin Fret, a high-femme gay trap artist, has amassed an impressive social media following without the co-sign of any major artists; his recent single, “Soy Así,” has over 30,000 views since it released a few months ago. Mexican reggeaton artist Sailorfag started uploading freestyles on Twitter a few years ago, and has since released two official music videos; one of them is “Polo Acartonada,” which explicitly challenges homophobia and toxic masculinity in playful, bawdy ways.
Solomon Ray, another openly gay reggaeton artist, started out as an English-language rapper. In an interview with Into More, he talked about not being accepted in the hip-hop community and the gay community’s response to his music, “When my last single, ‘El Otro,’ came out I was actually shocked so many gay men were so supportive. So many people reached out saying how proud they were to have someone like them do this genre.”
Meanwhile, Bad Bunny walks the line of gender respectability. Though he often pushes up against toxic masculinity by embracing femininity and defying traditional gender roles, his story reminds us of the narrow parameters within which that is possible. Still, he’s expanding what it means to be Latino, male, and heterosexual for an entire generation of Latinx youth. Perhaps someday, he will help us reimagine Latin trap, or whatever iteration of Dembow comes after it, and the people it makes room for.
Follow Mariana Viera on Twitter.