Latin Trap: It’s a Trap!
By Eddy Varela
Latin trap stars like Bad Bunny, Cardi B, and Anuel AA have produced wildly successful songs, including I Like It (2018), Estamos Bien (2018), and China (2019). Although these artists have seemingly pioneered the art of Spanish rap over 808 bass drums, hi-hats, and reggaetón rhythm, giving rise to the now popular Latin trap genre, they have not. Importantly, Arcángel & De la Ghetto are credited with producing the first flavors of Latin trap over a decade ago in 2006. However, the Puerto Rican duo did not then achieve the levels of success enjoyed by today’s Latin trap artists. This post will argue that many of today's artists are successful because they have whitewashed the themes of black struggle, and overall feel of trap music, thus making it safe for non-black, non-Latinx consumption.
I will analyze lyrical and thematic trends in various songs to explore the trends of trap music and how the new Latin trap genre contributes to Afro-Latinx erasure. Specifically, there will be an emphasis on how the genre’s popular artists do not produce music around blackness and black struggles while being racialized as non-black Latinxs.
Origins of Trap Music
According to rapper T.I.,“There was no such thing as trap music, [I] created that, [I] coined the term, it was my second album, Trap Muzik” (T.I. Interview, 2003). Although T.I. claims to have coined the term in 2003, the origins of trap music predate these claims.
Before discussing the characteristics and origins of trap music it is important to define what the “trap” is. The trap, “used narrowly, is a place where drug deals are made.” However, it can be used in a broader sense to capture the experience of “long term employment as a drug dealer” (See Who owns trap?). Trap music is characterized by artists rapping about gang life, drug dealing and living a life of crime because they were marginalized to the point where this was the only way to make ends. Trap music originated in Atlanta, where producers partnered with local artists like OutKast, Dungeon Family, and Lil Jon to make tracks about their life in the trap. Many of the songs highlighted topics related to black struggles such as unequal treatment of black bodies under the law, living a life of poverty, and dealing drugs to make ends meet. More explicitly, the “war on drugs that disparagingly incarcerates people of color (black and Latinx individuals) with long sentences compared to the inaction experience by white counterparts for the same offenses” (Provine 115). For example, B.O.B. (Bombs over Baghdad) a song by OutKast, has several lines that characterize the life of young black hustlers in Atlanta during the 90s:
Get a life now they on sale
Then I might cast you a spell
Look at what came in the mail
A scale and some Arm & Hammer
Soul gold grill and a baby mama
Black Cadillac and a pack of Pampers
In these lyrics, André 3000 references a turning point in the protagonist's life where they shift from being a young hustler to a conventionally responsible adult. André highlights being a young hustler by insinuating involvement with dealing drugs because of his reference to Arm & Hammer (baking soda) and a scale. The Arm & Hammer insinuates dealing drugs because baking soda is a base ingredient for crack cocaine. Conversely, André highlights a conventionally responsible adult with a reference to a pack of Pampers as a symbol of domestic life and a Black Cadillac as a symbol of status. With these lyrics, André hints at the forms of racism that prevent people in the black community from holding good jobs compared to their white counterparts. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), black people have historically suffered the largest unemployment and underemployment rates.
For example, many Black people may be unemployed due to various factors like “new forms of segregation, economic shifts/automation, and right-leaning politics developing laws against Black participation in unions” (Marable 29).
Thus, some Black people, faced with high unemployment or underemployment, may turn to dealing drugs and other forms of making money to provide for their needs and those of their family. Therefore, André 3000’s protagonist might have had good intentions as a young hustler but was constrained by oppression. Ultimately, the themes of trap as a genre are tied to getting out of the struggle characterized by different forms of oppression faced by black people.
Themes of Trap Lyrics and Music
The initial forms of trap could be characterized as an underground music genre where black artists from Atlanta had the freedom to rap about the struggles they faced over “booming 808-style sub-bass kick drums, twitchy sixty-fourth-note hi-hats, dive-bombing tom fills, and chilly cinematic strings” (Who owns trap?). Initial forms of trap were niche to Atlanta clubs and neighborhoods, however, in the mid-2000s, trap music started gaining traction with rappers like T.I., Young Jeezy, and Gucci Mane. These artists popularized the genre by producing records and mixtapes that were distributed across the country. Some claim that the rise in popularity of trap music was due to accessible distribution channels like the internet (From the Blues to the Trap: The Evolution of Black Music). Artists and record labels had more access to distribute albums across social media networks like Myspace and online sales like iTunes. As trap music reached wider audiences, different listeners from Puerto Rico experimented with Spanish rap and reggaetón. According to Ozuna, an influential Latin trap artist, Arcángel & De La Ghetto, both phenotypically black, Latinx artists of Puerto Rican and Dominican ancestry, were influential in the creation of Latin trap (Billboard).
Latin Trap: Origins and Similarities
During an interview with Billboard, Ozuna credits Arcángel, De La Ghetto, Randy, and Yaga & Mackie with producing the first Latin trap song, El Pistolón in 2007. Before 2007, De La Ghetto claims that he encountered significant pushback from his audience when he experimented with Latin trap. In the same interview, he states, “Many critics of early Spanish trap wanted to hear music that was softer and more tropical and less like rap.” De La Ghetto also says he wanted to produce “R&B or hip hop music similar to what the Americans were creating but just for the Spanish crowd.” Like trap music from Atlanta, early forms of Latin trap were crude, underground, and shared many of the themes of street life, or life “en la calle.” In the chorus of El Pistolón, De La Ghetto and Arcángel rap about how they do not fear the streets because they were heavily armed.
Frontea por que anda con un pistolón
Abusan por que andan con un pistolón
Cuando los pillan no pueden sacar el pistolón
They explain feeling safe because they are hanging with “un pistolón” or a strong shooter. These songs highlight the similar narratives of poverty, violence, and institutional oppression of black communities in Puerto Rico and Latin America more broadly. I argue that these black struggles faced by Afro-Latinx individuals living in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries are similar to the racism faced by Black people in places like Atlanta.
Unfortunately, many of these early Latin trap songs failed to take off because they were about gang violence and drug dealing, and they had a lower quality music production. Furthermore, since Latin trap and reggaetón was first popularized in Puerto Rico, distribution to other parts of Latin America became another barrier to becoming mainstream. Ozuna claims that Messiah was one of the first artists to start experimenting with mixing reggaetón with Latin trap. This hybrid genre of trap and reggaetón, trapetón, resembles more closely the mainstream Latin trap music that is heard today. Trapetón is characterized by 808 bass drums, Spanish rapping, and underlying reggaeton musical themes of “hypersexuality, partying, and drugs” (Rivera-Rideau 42).
Messiah claims that “for a long time [Latin] trap music was a thought, an underground movement but today, it’s what we have always wanted it to be, a recognized genre” (Billboard). In this quote, Messiah recognizes Latin trap’s shift from being relatively unpopular and niche in the Latinx community to becoming a mainstream genre in its own right. Today’s mainstream Latin trap genre receives more attention and publicity while complicating the existence of blackness in the Latinx community.
Latin Trap Takes Off Globally
Bad Bunny, Anuel AA, and Cardi B are among the leaders of the new Latin trap wave, however, these songs have stripped away themes of black struggles found in trap music like violence, drug dealing, and the difficulty associated with social mobility. Instead, many of these songs relate to popular reggaetón themes like drug consumption, becoming wealthy, or romantic drama/sexual flings.
Compared to early Latin trap artists, Bad Bunny, J Balvin, and Cardi B have acquired major success and global popularity through numerous awards from well-renowned music ranking organizations like Billboard, MTV, Latin Grammys, and AMA (Wikipedia artist awards).
However, I want to problematize the categorization of the music produced by these artists as “Latin trap” because they deviate from trap themes and tendencies towards less nuanced representations of the Afro-Latinx community. Furthermore, I want to argue that the popular category of Latin trap contributes to an anti-black Latinx imaginary.
Spanish Rap in the 90s
Although the genre is named after trap music produced in Atlanta, today’s Latin trap is far from the style of songs produced in Atlanta. For example, today’s Latin trap artists do not produce songs with “political commentary about issues facing marginalized youth in Puerto Rico’s caseríos (public housing),” like Vico C’s original Spanish rap songs in the 90s (Rivera-Rideau 52). Vico C pioneered the field of “Latin Hip Hop” with his sophisticated lyricism and flow, and Vico produced tracks that were similar to early forms of underground trap. Known as the “Philosopher of [Latin] Rap” Vico C’s songs “Tony Presidio, La Escuela, and De La Calle were about the dangers of gang life, the importance of pursuing an education to get out of poverty, and how Vico belonged to the streets.” (Sun Sentinel).
In Tony Presidio, Vico C raps about a fictional character, Antonio Pérez, who wanted to be an architect but instead had ambitious dreams so, instead, he chose to pursue a life of crime.
Tony, así le dicen a Antonio
El tiempo lo ha convertido en demonio
Su biblia es un .357
Su oficio (*disparo*) y cobrar por billete
La palabra paz él no la entiende
These lyrics highlight how Antonio’s time on the streets has turned him into a “demon” and he does not know the meaning of “peace.” Furthermore, Antonio’s bible is a .357 Magnum that helps him execute his job as a hit-man. In this excerpt, Vico C raps about analogous themes and struggles faced by many of the trap artists in Atlanta. Artists like Vico C, Residente, and Tego Calderón produced songs that were politically critical and shared many tropes with American trap. Although both Vico C and Calle 13 are non-black artists, the content of their music relates to black struggles that are aligned with the music that was being produced in Atlanta. In this way, Vico C and Residente are similar to Latin trap artists like Arcángel. Conversely, artists that popularized Latin trap were non-black but whitened Latin trap because none of their songs were about black struggles and oppression.
Latin Trap and Reggaetón Today
The key players of Latin trap/reggaetón today, according to Spotify monthly listeners, include artists like J Balvin (53 M), Cardi B (35 M), Bad Bunny (34M), and Ozuna (32M) (as of November 2019, Spotify). To uncover the difference between original Latin trap and today’s Latin trap, we will analyze the lyrics of songs produced today to uncover the themes of the now popularized genre. Furthermore, this analysis will provide insight on the popularity of whitewashed forms of Latin trap.
NI BIEN NI MAL by Bad Bunny & Miky Woodz has over 180 Million streams on Spotify. In this song, Bad Bunny is rapping about a failed romance where the main premise is how he’s not doing well nor bad without his previous partner.
Fui uno más de tu colección
No sé, entre tú y yo ya no hay conexión
Pa'l carajo el perdón, no hay reconciliación
Ahora te toca llorar en tu habitación
(Porque ni por Dios cojo una llamada tuya)
Yo nunca forzo, dejo que todo fluya
(Te pasas en las redes tirándome puya')
Quieren mi vida y no pueden con la suya
I was just another one in your collection
I don’t know, between us, there’s no connection anymore
Screw the apologies, there’s no reconciliation
Now it’s your turn to cry in your room
(I swear to God, I won’t answer your calls)
I never force things, I just let it flow
(You’re all over social media, talking shit about me)
They want my life but they can’t deal with their own
(Translated by author)
In these lyrics, Bad Bunny is notably hurt about a girl leaving him, but he tries to be strong claiming that now it’s “[her] turn to cry in her room.” The only political song produced by Bad Bunny was Afilando los Cuchillos in June of 2019. Collaborating with Residente, Bad Bunny used his popularity to expose the corruption behind Ricardo Rosselló’s governance in Puerto Rico. All other songs produced by Bad Bunny talk about failed romances, partying, or other lighter topics.
Unfortunately, none of the songs that Bad Bunny has produced have been about black struggles in the Afro-Latinx community. This is problematic because the majority of white “interactions with diverse groups are likely to come in the form of vicarious contact via media; in effect, substituting for the lack of direct experience” (Gunter 52). As a result, many non-Latinx individuals do not associate Latinxs with blackness.
Within the Latinx community, the perceived absence of blackness in popular media of Latinxs perpetuates notions of “‘blanqueamiento’, or the process of racial whitening” (Busey and Cruz 38). This happens because non-Latinx white populations become comfortable with the notion of white Latinidad, thus benefiting the white Latinx individual. Unfortunately, this promotes a racial divide between Latinxs who get racialized as white and those who get racialized as black. Unfortunately, this divide reinforces ideas surrounding racial stratification and beliefs urging black Latinxs to “‘improve [whiten] the race’” (Busey and Cruz 38). Therefore, as Bad Bunny has gained so much visibility in non-black and non-Latinx communities, he must be aware of how he influences his fans’ perception of Latinidad.
As of the writing of this blog post, I Like It by Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin has nearly 1 billion streams on Spotify and was ranked No.1 on Billboard’s Top 100 in the United States. This accolade is “groundbreaking” because “Latin music in Spanish, by virtue of being in another language, has mostly stayed in its ‘Latin’ lane in the charts” (Billboard). When analyzing the lyrics (in English), one can categorize this song as a party anthem because it’s related to making money, romantic interests, and artists celebrating their levels of success. For example, here’s Cardi B talking about “signing million-dollar deals” and spending it on jewelry and designer shoes, Balenciagas:
I like million-dollar deals
Where's my pen? Bitch I'm signin' (Signin')
I like those Balenciagas (Those)
The ones that look like socks
I like going to the jeweler
I put rocks all in my watch (Cha-ching)
And here’s Bad Bunny talking about his impeccable fashion sense and how he moved the Gucci store into his house:
Trato de hacer dieta, pero es que en el closet tengo mucha grasa
Ya mudé la' Gucci pa' dentro de casa, yeh
Finally, J Balvin is rapping about his fame and how people must have seen his face on the cover of Billboard magazines:
Pa-Pa-Paparazzi like I'm Lady Gaga (Wuh)
Y no te me hagas (Eh)
Que en cover de Billboard tú has visto mi cara (Eh)
Before achieving these levels of fame, Bad Bunny was a bagger at a supermarket, Cardi B was a part of the Bloods and a stripper, while J Balvin worked illegally in the United States as a roofer and house painter. Therefore, the excitement enjoyed by these artists towards making it out of the struggle and reaching such high levels of fame is understandable. However, these artists do not rap about their origins, some of which relate to themes of trap music. As a result, songs produced by these artists are more attractive to a wider (read: whiter) audience, because their themes of success appeal to conceptions of “the American dream” with narratives of social mobility through hard work. However, they fail to acknowledge how this social mobility is more difficult for black communities because of “the inequity faced in labor markets and higher education” (Marable 59).
Furthermore, I Like It is a recreation of a 1967 song I Like It Like That, performed by Pete Rodriguez as the head pianist of a Latin boogaloo band from the Bronx. Cardi B’s I Like It samples the underlying melody while adding a reggaetón/trap twang of 808 bass drums, dramatic trumpets, ad-libs, and Spanish lyrics. Although Pete Rodriguez is a Puerto Rican artist, he produced a song that was part of the Latin boogaloo genre entirely in English hoping to gain widespread adoption. Conversely, I Like It was ranking #1 regardless of the entangled English and Spanish lyrics. As of May 28, 2018, “of the 4,799 singles that have reached the Hot 100’s top 10, only 17 have been performed primarily or fully in a language other than English” (Billboard).
This highlights a pivotal moment where music performed in Spanish is becoming recognized as popular music. This visibility allows Latin trap artists to use their influence to inform their fans of the antiblack racism in Latin American countries like Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, many of today’s popular Latin trap artists leave out the African-diasporic components of trap music in their forms of Latin trap and, as a result, “Afro-Latin[x] populations, have often been left out of conceptualizations of the African diaspora, despite the presence of substantial African-descended populations, histories of black resistance, and African-based cultural practices” (Rivera-Rideau 56). Instead, these artists should use their popularity in music to highlight the oppression and racism that exists within the Latinx community towards Black Latinx individuals. Furthermore, they can follow patterns set by artists like Tego Calderón “who articulates a diasporic blackness that links Puerto Ricans and Dominicans together” (Rivera-Rideau 56). I believe that these artists should still have the freedom to produce party anthems, songs about becoming successful, and other themes they enjoy but they should be cognizant of the effects associated with labeling the music they produce as Latin trap while stripping away the black origins of trap music as it was originally produced.
Eddy Varela is a senior at Williams College studying Computer Science, Math, and Latina/o Studies. He was born in Santa Clara, Cuba and was raised in Hialeah, Florida (right outside of Miami). In his his spare time, he enjoys traveling and playing video games. He can be reached via email at email@example.com
Follow Eddy on Instagram @eddyvs_ or on Twitter @eddysitooo
Busey, Christopher L. “Who Is Afro-Latin@? Examining the Social Construction of Race and Négritude in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Teaching and Learning African American History, edited by Barbara C. Cruz, National Council for Social Studies, 2017, pp. 37–42.
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Marable, Manning. How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society. Haymarket Books, 2015.
Mastro, Dana. “Why the Media's Role in Issues of Race and Ethnicity Should Be in the Spotlight.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 71, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–16., doi:10.1111/josi.12093.
Provine, Doris Marie. “Racial Discrimination in the Eyes of the Law, Race in America's First War on Drugs.” In Unequal under Law: Race in the War on Drugs. University of Chicago, 2007, pp. 15–60.
Rivera-Rideau, Petra. "Iron Fist against Rap." In Remixing Reggaetón: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico. Duke University Press, 2015.