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American Media Still Doesn’t Get Música Urbana

The 'New York Times Magazine''s failure to recognize Spanish language hip-hop and pop in its "25 Songs That Matter" feature underscores the media's misunderstanding of a major movement.

by Gary Suarez
Mar 8 2019, 9:05pm

This week, the New York Times Magazine launched its annual music issue with a list entitled “The 25 Songs That Matter Right Now.” Across more than two dozen corresponding mini-essays from some of the finest music and culture writers around, the feature collected a wide variety of tunes from an eclectic set of artists, including Ariana Grande, Bruce Springsteen, and Tierra Whack.

In the newspaper of record’s endeavor to definitively capture and encapsulate this moment in our collective listening lives, you’ll find more idiosyncratic picks, including Quebecois electro-provocateur Marie Davidson, admitted child sex felon 6ix9ine, and Pinkfong of “Baby Shark” infamy. But absent from the Times’ very fine list are música urbana stars like Anuel AA, Bad Bunny, and Ozuna, all of whom had breakout 2018 singles in the U.S. that continue to soar in 2019. And while adding Catalan flamenco star Rosalía assuredly ticked some editorial inclusivity box, her appearance serves as a seemingly needless reminder that the factionally fragmented country of Spain is still in Europe and has not, as yet, floated its way to Latin America. It’s a glaring, though unsurprising omission, yet another instance of English-language media getting the story of today’s Spanish-language hip-hop and pop music so damn wrong.

Some two years after Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” topped the Billboard Hot 100, we’re well past chalking this up to an oversight. With the exception of a handful of outlets that have full-time Latinx editorial staff regularly covering this music, including Billboard and Rolling Stone, an institutional bias on the part of English-language media outlets like the Times persists, even as so many Spanish-language songs thrive on the charts. One of Drake’s biggest hits right now is performed entirely in Spanish, the Bad Bunny collaboration “MIA.” Clearly unbothered by any language barrier, French producer DJ Snake crafted a massive multilingual single with “Taki Taki,” which features Cardi B, Selena Gomez, and Ozuna. Both of these, alongside two Anuel AA songs, with Karol G and Romeo Santos, respectively, and Daddy Yankee’s Snow interpolation “Con Calma,” are currently charting on the Hot 100, a clear indicator of just how much this music matters in the contemporary American cultural zeitgeist.

The Times has covered some of the story before—with, for example, its early profiles of Nicky Jam and Ozuna— but it’s hardly the only organization fundamentally underestimating the importance of this incredible period in Latin American music. Close to a year since Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy Spanglish highlight “I Like It” transformed Bad Bunny and J Balvin into Hot 100 chart-toppers, outlets, including this one, continue to publish primers and other such attempts to decode the successes of Spanish-language artists that record exclusively in their native tongue. While the demand for such pieces has given Latinx writers some additional paid work, the apparent scrambling simultaneously reveals how ill-equipped the largely white and frequently male editorial teams at these publications are to grapple with the demographic realities that make Spanish-language artists into American pop stars.

The situation is hardly limited to the news media. Just last month, the Grammys attempted to make up for its categorical Latin snub by opening the show with a rendition of Camila Cabello’s “Havana.” The gaudy set piece played out like a panoply of stereotypes, its Broadway-level production standards making inadvertent light of the difficult conditions of Cubans under American embargo and the continuing Castro regime. Once J Balvin, Ricky Martin, and the rest left the stage, the awards ceremony was bereft of anything resembling Spanish-language music, with most of the popular acts not even in attendance.

What’s especially maddening about the Times’ urbano omission is just how much it embraced its biggest star only two months prior. Its pop music critic Jon Caramanica devoted an entire podcast to Bad Bunny’s X100PRE album, inviting a panel of three extremely talented Latinx culture journalists to dissect its charms and sing its praises. But in hindsight, that itself seems indicative of the institutional failings of English-language media: calling in the Spanish speakers for the Spanish segment, but failing to represent música urbana altogether on more general features about the music that defines this cultural moment.

At a time when being Latinx in the U.S. feels like a criminal act, with our loved ones and neighbors impacted or otherwise intimidated by the Trump administration’s inhumane immigration vendetta and the Republican party’s unceasing xenophobia, listening to music performed in Spanish by Latin American artists is inherently and undeniably political. In this deplorable period in the country’s history, simply speaking the language of our parents and grandparents in public opens us up to suspicion, humiliation, and brutality. As such, whether it be música urbana or any number of regional forms, playing Spanish-language music on the radio, in our establishments, or on streaming platformswhether boldly, in public, or in private, abutting potentially unfriendly neighborsposes a constant risk to our lives and livelihoods.

Given the state of things in the U.S. today, our consumption matters. Trump, who apparently didn’t even know that Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth until his bungling of hurricane relief shone an inconvenient light on his accountability as POTUS, is attempting to turn his odious campaign promises about wall-building into a cruel reality of family separation, unspeakable detention conditions, and treacherous deportations. Against that backdrop, listening to música urbana serves as an escape from our woes, a celebration of Latinidad, and an everyday act of resistance to the nefarious forces of Speak English Or Get Out in the country we call home.

With its constant reporting on issues related to U.S.-Mexico border policy and the abuses of the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, one would think that the Times would be attuned to the concurrent cultural component of Latinx people’s lives in this country. Instead, like so many of those who turn a deaf ear to pleas for the human rights of asylum seekers and migrants, American media seems content to tune us out.

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