On July 24, Puerto Ricans made history when, after nearly two weeks of massive public protests, Ricardo Rosselló finally resigned as governor. Puerto Ricans found increasingly creative ways to gather people in the streets to demand this change. They protested on horses, motorcycles, jet skis, kayaks, yoga mats and by banging pots. Yet it was the young people dancing provocatively on the steps of the oldest cathedral in the New World to the boom-ch-boom-chick-boom-ch-boom-chick of reggaeton beats that may have finally forced Rosselló out of office.
This “perreo combativo,” as dubbed by queer, trans and non-binary youth, used perreo, reggaeton’s dance style, to create a sensuous and liberated communal space that generated political power. After Roselló’s resignation, people on social media said: “El Perreo ganó” (perreo won) and “Sin Perreo No Hay Revolución” (There’s no Revolution Without Perreo), pointing to reggaetón’s dance as the knockout blow to the corrupt governor.
Yes, some of these comments were tongue-in-cheek, playing on the irony of music that arose from black and low-income communities unseating the highest elected official in Puerto Rico. But they were also tapping into the longer history of reggaeton and perreo, forms that have always been political. Through reggaeton, Puerto Ricans have expressed political critique, resisted state censorship and criminalization, defied racism and misogyny — and now fueled collective action.
Since the 1990s, when it emerged as an “underground” musical form, rappers used their lyrics to denounce social inequality, racism, police violence, marginalization and the hypocrisy of the Puerto Rican elite. Underground rap often took aim at the abuses and corruption of the government and exposed the harsh realities of vulnerable young people, especially those living in public housing. For instance, songs like Eddie Dee’s “Señor oficial” (Mr. Police Officer), Ivy Queen’s “Somos raperos pero no delincuentes” (We are rappers but not criminals) and Daddy Yankee’s “Abuso oficial” (Police abuse) criticized associations between underground music and criminality, as well as the stigmatization of poor Afro-Puerto Ricans. Unsurprisingly, this, along with sexually suggestive lyrics, made underground music a target of police and government officials.
Indeed, it is deeply ironic that Ricardo Rosselló could not withstand the power of the people’s perreo intenso, given that his father, former governor Pedro Rosselló, played a major role in criminalizing underground rap as part of his anti-crime initiative, mano dura contra el crimen (iron fist against crime). From 1993-2000, as part of that initiative, Rosselló deployed the Puerto Rican police department and National Guard to raid and occupy public housing and other marginalized communities as part of the fight against drugs and violence.
Through both rhetoric and practice associated with mano dura, people living in economically and racially marginalized communities were conceived as dangerous and in need of state intervention. Poor dark-skinned young men who dressed with an urban diasporic aesthetic were presumed to be violent criminals or drug dealers and encountered constant police surveillance and harassment. As a musical and cultural expression born from the experiences of low-income communities, which were framed as criminal by Pedro Rosselló’s administration, underground rap came to be regarded as one more node in a vast criminal enterprise threatening the “decent and hard-working” people of Puerto Rico.
When underground music started to move above ground, the genre became an object of intense state scrutiny. In 1995, police launched a series of record store raids resulting in the confiscation of hundreds of CDs and cassettes, as well as the arrests of several employees for selling “obscene” material that supposedly encouraged promiscuity and drug use. Politicians and police tried to censor perreo as well, arguing that the dance was pornographic and led to the corruption of impressionable women and children.
These repressive measures inspired artists and fans to fight back, using music to call attention to political corruption permeating the government. Eddie Dee in his song, “Censurarme” (Censor Me), for example, rapped that even though underground artists were criminalized and labeled as delinquents, no rapper had been accused of corruption, fraud and the rape of a minor like the former president of the Senate, Edison Misla Aldarondo.
And, so, despite a concerted effort by religious figures and conservative politicians to censure and criminalize reggaeton and perreo, the genre exploded during the 2000s and began its journey into the mainstream and the recognizable pop dominating the airwaves today worldwide. And reggaetón’s political ethos continued after it crossed over. For example, Ivy Queen has promoted women’s bodily and sexual autonomy during perreo dances and beyond, while Tego Calderón has used his music to decry racism, xenophobia, social inequality and poverty in Puerto Rico.
Prominent reggaeton and trap artists frequently joined demonstrators in the streets during the protests. Residente, iLe and Bad Bunny, in particular, alongside pop star Ricky Martin, played a vital role in amplifying the call of the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción for the National Strike on July 18, one of the largest demonstrations to take place in Puerto Rico’s history. In addition to the presence of artists at the protests, people also used reggaeton lyrics as chants. For instance, demonstrators frequently used a popular line from “En la Cama,” Daddy Yankee’s 2001 hit featuring Nicky Jam to call for Rosselló’s resignation. When a protester shouted “Yo quiero la combi completa” (I want the whole combination), which in the original makes reference to the various parts of a woman’s body, the crowd chanted in response “Qué? Ricky renuncia, puñeta!” (What? Ricky, resign, damnit!).
But the very open embrace of reggaeton’s often highly sexual dance itself has also emerged as an important act of defiance in a country where conservative, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic sentiments are expressed even by its head of state. Perreo, unlike other Caribbean dances, allows women to lead and control, to determine the intensity of the dance and to select how much or little contact she wants with her partner. It also defies society’s respectability politics and breaks taboos toward sex by allowing people to revel in their sexuality and opening up conversations about consent.
Recognizing these radical roots and potential, feminist and LGBTQ collectives in Puerto Rico have been organizing reggaeton dance parties for over two years. La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, the feminist collective that initiated the protests in La Fortaleza, organize a yearly celebration “Si no puedo perrear, no es mi revolución” (If I can’t dance reggaeton, it’s not my revolution). Other LGBTQ groups have been organizing similar events at El Hangar, a queer and trans-friendly venue in Santurce, all geared toward the intersections between perreo as an anti-colonial practice and queerness as a defiant identity.
When Rosselló’s resignation message, which was broadcast on Facebook Live, had ended, protesters in the streets rejoiced and celebrated. In addition to victoriously chanting “Olé, Olé, Olé,” they joined to sing the ultimate reggaeton breakup revenge song, “Te Boté” (I Dumped You). That night, triumphant and feeling the power of their collective action, Puerto Ricans sang “Te Boté” not only because they got Rosselló out of their lives, but because they knew their future would be better without him.