When talking about reggaeton’s history, most conversations begin in Puerto Rico, seldom acknowledging Panama’s crucial role in the creation of the genre. But it’s impossible to oversell Panama’s place in reggaeton’s history. The thousands of West Indian workers whose exploited labor forged the Panama Canal, also reshaped the cultural traditions of the country, infusing the landscape with among many other things, an inherent love of reggae and dancehall. Early Panamanian plena artists like Renato, El General and Nando Boom helped shape the sounds that eventually inspired Puerto Rican producers like DJ Negro to create reggaeton. These perrero purveyors rode the city buses rapping in Spanish over dancehall instrumentals, and planted the seeds for a movement they were largely excluded from.
And with his new video “Agua,” Panamanian rapper Nino Augustine hopes to bring the spotlight back to its rightful birthplace. “I think there should always be a special place for Panamanian artists in the genre, and that’s what I’m here for.” says Augustine.
“It feels great knowing that I'm from the place where this amazing genre was birthed, and to see how huge it’s gotten worldwide.” he adds. “I love what all Latino artists from all over Latinoamerica have done, and are doing for the culture, and I also want to give the love and respect to the ones that planted the seeds for the genre to get to where it is now.”
On “Agua,” the young rapper showcases his rapping skills while paying tribute to the Panamanian plena artists he grew up listening to. The song easily fits in with mainstream reggaeton, while keeping the stripped-down production of plena classics like Nando Boom’s “Fiesta” or Kufu Banton’s “El Madman.” And while Augustine’s sound and delivery harken back to a more stripped-down plena sound, the song’s succinct architecture creates a minimalist space for his natural talent as a rapper to emerge.
Sara Skolnick, founder of APOCALIPSIS (the Brooklyn-based label behind the single, and among other things, the first ever Boiler Room-sanctioned perreo function), explains that the imprint was built to give a platform to artists like Augustine. “With APOCALIPSIS, there’s a non-negotiable value to amplify stories that don’t fit neatly into the box of storytelling that’s prevalent around Latinx music and culture.” says Skolnick, who also DJs and produces as Riobamba. “Between his past singles and unreleased cuts, it was clear to me that Nino’s honed his craft as a songwriter to create something that’s truly a reflection of his personal experience, landing somewhere between New York, Panama City and Atlanta––another notch in the always-evolving story of música urbana.”
Augustine’s unique place in urbano’s history comes from his Panamanian upbringing, further molded by his immigration to the U.S., where Atlanta’s rich history of hip-hop finished informing his style. And with artists like Bad Bunny, Karol G and J Balvin dominating the urbano landscape, it makes perfect sense for an artist like Augustine to come in and claim space within the thriving genre.
“As a kid in Panama, Caribbean music was all around me.” Augustine says about the sounds that shaped his childhood. “I vividly remember early songs from Nando Boom, Renato, El General, Chicho Man, and Gringo el Original to name a few. But as I got older the Panamanian artists that really marked me and made me want to do this were El Rookie, and Kafu Banton. I remember when I watched Kafu perform for the first time at a soccer finals back in my hometown San Miguelito, Panama City, I knew music was what I wanted to do.”
He’s been busy from an early age—writing his first song at 8, recording at 13—and his focus has always been razor-sharp. On the song’s chorus, he raps “No me jodan que mi madre tiene que comer / y a mi me importa un carajo lo que piense usted." (Don’t fuck with me, my mother has to eat / and I don’t give a fuck what you think). This is a firm affirmation that displays both his confidence, and the sense of urgency behind his music. Nino Augustine is proudly planting Panama’s flag in música urbana’s new wave, and no one’s going to stop him.
Watch the video up above.
The release party for "Agua" is March 23 at Elsewhere Zone One in Brooklyn, NY. It's free before midnight with RSVP.
Eduardo Cepeda is an urbano music journalist and filmmaker. You can find him on Twitter.