Colombian-born, East-London-based vocalist Valenciz. Photo: Kevzprod
“Pe-pa-agua pa la se-ca / Tol mundon pasti-yas / En la discote-ca.” This was a text that I sent to my friends as we all power-walked through South London en route to a recent night of start-to-finish reggaeton. “Pepas”, the chart-topping, experimental reggaeton anthem of last summer – by Puerto Rican artist Farruko – isn’t easy to sing along to if you’re not a Spanish speaker, so their attempts, read off their phone screens from these butchered lyrics, were a mangled, phonetic approximation of the chorus. They wanted to be prepared for singing along when the inevitable moment it was played arrived, but they also knew it wouldn’t matter one bit if they couldn’t. They were unlikely to be in the minority.
Reggaeton has seen a boom in worldwide popularity over the last few years. At the close of 2021 Bad Bunny, a 27-year-old from Puerto Rico, was named as Spotify’s most-streamed artist on the planet (for the second year running) with 9.1 billion plays, while amongst British audiences the genre’s success is can be gauged by the fact that, in London, you can take your pick between reggaeton nights at mainstream nightclubs on any given weekend. Its newfound commercial popularity doesn’t paint the whole picture of the genre’s status in this country, though. A vibrant, underground scene has been cultivating this music in London for the best part of two decades and, having now developed a bubbling young scene of homegrown Latinx artists, London isn’t simply riding the wave that is making reggaeton the sound of global pop - it’s contributing to it. According to the latest report by Trust for London, the Latin American population in London is one of the city’s fastest growing migrant populations, numbering around a quarter of a million. Colombians account for approximately a fifth of this community, with Mexicans, Ecuadorians and Venezuelans also making up significant proportions. Over the years, two major hubs for the community have emerged in Seven Sisters and Elephant and Castle (in North and South London respectively), the latter being the bigger cultural centre, albeit one at the centre of London’s gentrification debate.
Latin music nights in London haven’t always been what they are today. That is: Sold-out, 2,000 capacity venues that heave with the syncopated, three-beat pulses of reggaeton’s infectious dembow rhythm; spaces where most of the Spanish spoken emanates from the speakers rather than the attendees; tour stops for reggaeton royalty like Daddy Yankee and Maluma.
“The music was confined to the fringes of society,” says Caracas-born Jose Luis Seijas, who today directs the UK’s leading Latin media and events company which draws crowds of up to 40,000 to Finsbury Park for the annual Latino Life Festival. When he first arrived in England at the turn of the millennium, Seijas found that urban Latin sounds were limited to private parties, pirate radio stations and underground clubs - so he decided to make them more accessible to London’s own youth. In 2006, Seijas set up La Bomba at Elephant and Castle’s Ministry of Sound, London’s first reggaeton residency at a major nightclub. “That was seminal for our community. Suddenly, you saw the Latino kids bringing their mates and you could see the pride in them. It was this iconic venue known for house music and suddenly we Latinos were out there, representing and taking over at a time when people didn’t know what reggaeton was.”
La Bomba was the first reggaeton event that Brixton-born Luciano Pinto, whose parents are from Chile, ever attended, and something clicked. “I grew up how a kid in the UK would grow up,” says Pinto. “When reggaeton came around, it reminded me of who I am. Before that, Latin music wasn’t represented well here, so reggaeton helped me big-time in identifying myself.”It wasn’t just the music that didn’t get the best representation in Britain. Latin America’s grisly drug wars resulted in young Latinxs over here having to navigate bleak media portrayals of their countries, an effect which Seijas saw reversed by reggaeton. “When I first came here, their role models were the narcos. Pablo Escobar, those guys. 15 years later, their role model was Nicky Jam. Now, it’s J Balvin. So it has had a positive impact.”
For rapper William Davila, known professionally as Guala, reggaeton was the soundtrack to his early years in Ecuador, but it was at school in Tottenham that he began to integrate it into his own musical style. “I remember doing it in the playground, just emceeing when I started picking up English properly,” says Davila. “People had never heard anything like it before, the fact that I could mix both languages. They were encouraging me to keep doing it because, to them, it sounded really good.”
What Davila was doing – marrying the sounds of his Latin origins with those of his London upbringing – was indicative of a development that would continue for the next 18 years, not only in his music, but in the work of his and Pinto’s contemporaries. His ‘Spanglish’ sound, similar to that of artists such as P. Man, Fluffy Original, Dukus and Mike Kalle who have inhabited the scene alongside him, is a unique amalgamation; almost like a reggaeton cake that has been baked in a grime oven and laden with hip-hop buttercream, drill icing and some afrobeats sprinkles. “We grew up here, so we’ve got a London touch,” he says.A younger cohort of up-and-coming Latinx artists have now joined Davila and his coevals in the scene and are, like them, creating music that is both native to London and simultaneously true to its Latin roots. Whether it belongs to Colombian-born, East-London-based vocalist Valenciz, the R&B-infused releases of musician Sachellys, or British-Chilean singer Amber Donoso’s dulcet tones over a dembow throb, the sound flows effortlessly between English and Spanish both in language and style. While it is unmistakably reggaeton, it is not imported. It is a new reggaeton born of the experiences of Latinxs in London. “There’s been a scene, but as artists we had to create the scene, because no one was opening doors for us,” says Davila. “We had to kick doors in and create our own thing, invest our own money.”
While underappreciated for a long time on home soil, this UK-based reggaeton movement has not gone unnoticed by the international music community. In an historic partnership with Atlantic Records, now-business-partners Seijas and Pinto have recently co-founded Candela Records; the UK’s first urban Latin music label, and their mission is clear; to create the next sensation, “the next Bad Bunny” as Seijas puts it. With the backing of one of the world’s foremost labels, the establishment of Candela Records marks a new era for the music of the Latin American diaspora.The Latin community has not been given many opportunities for visibility in this country. There is no “Latinx” box to tick on most official forms to acknowledge their shared identity, while Elephant and Castle, a place formerly bustling with Latinx-owned independent businesses, is now a building site for luxury apartment blocks. It is almost unrecognisable from the area that hosted La Bomba and which gave Pinto that sense of belonging, but the reggaeton scene that these artists are part of offers a powerful alternative focal point. “The area defined the community for a long time,” says Seijas, ”but it doesn’t define us anymore.”The musical ecosystem that has been quietly built amongst a small collective of reggaeton lovers offers self-sufficiency for the burgeoning urban Latin music scene in Britain. For the budding artists stepping into it, there is now an audience waiting to listen – an established space into which they can progress. Events all over the capital are clear evidence of the appetite non-Latinx Londoners now have for mainstream reggaeton and its international megastars, so there is no question that the city is fertile ground for the grassroots scene - with its own distinctive flavour - to thrive on. Next summer, Seijas and Pinto will fill Finsbury Park again for a festival of British-fostered reggaeton acts. Pinto tells me that he was recently asked, “’Why don’t you guys bring Bad Bunny to the festival? He’ll shut it down!’” Seijas interjects: “We’ll shut it down without him.”@nuriaamaya_