White celebrity figures taking other cultures’ ideas for their own benefit is no new concept in the entertainment industry. Throughout past years, many white artists have come under fire for appropriating elements of Black culture, especially with the rise in hip hop’s popularity. But recently, white musical tycoons have moved on to Latin cultures as their new targets to appropriate.
Latin culture’s mass marketability in America first became apparent with the enormous success of Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonzi’s “Despacito”. The song was so catchy that it started to pick up play on English-speaking radio stations despite being mostly in Spanish, and it was so popular that it is still the most viewed video in Youtube’s history, with 6.17 billion views.
Mass success of Spanish-speaking artists in the US could be a positive sign of cultural integration. But then, a remix of the song featuring Justin Bieber was released, including an English verse and some embarrassing attempts at the Spanish chorus. A video even went viral of him trying and failing miserably to sing in Spanish live. Despite the embarrassing and deliberate attempt to hop on the Latin music bandwagon, the Justin Bieber remix was even more popular. It’s success revealed the dark underside of the pop music market in America; white consumers are still afraid of other cultures.
Once the familiar, white, Justin Bieber was singing in English in the song, white people found the music safer and more accessible.
White America’s newfound love for latin-influenced music has actually resulted in some more appreciation of previously ignored cultures. Spanish speaking rappers J Balvin and Bad Bunny have become well recognized figures in the American pop music scene, but they still became popular with the mainstream market when they were featured on white artist’s songs. The Latin-influenced music that becomes popular with white Americans is quite often a bizarre, almost fetishization, of Latin cultures; it seems that consumers want to enjoy the products of the culture, boiled down to an accessible point for them, without actually making any attempt to understand the cultures that the music comes from.
The typical Latin groove that’s incorporated into many of today’s pop songs is catchy. With appealing melodies and an infectious, dance-inspiring rhythm, it’s understandable to enjoy just listening to the music.
But the diluted, whitewashed version of Latin music now so prevalent in our pop music charts betrays the history of that music. ‘Latin music’ has become an umbrella term for music from Cuba to Mexico to Puerto Rico.
These are all different places where cultural music has evolved differently based on centuries of history. It’s infuriating to think that some white record executive will take those centuries of historical development and extract the basic, catchy elements to make big money.
The reason that this issue has come up again recently is the release of Madonna’s new single, “Medellin”, featuring Colombian singer Maluma. It is the single for her new album Madame X, in which she intended to draw on other cultural sounds for an overall global ambiance.
The song takes its name from the major city in Colombia, but Madonna only sings about Medellin as a place to take a trip to, drink and do drugs in, and “cha-cha” around. To its credit, a fair portion of the song is delivered in Spanish by a Colombian artist, but it also clearly crosses some lines with its portrayal of Latin music. It is really hard not to see it as cultural appropriation when you have a 60-year-old white pop star whispering “one, two, cha-cha-cha” and “slow down papi” throughout the song. This bizarre sexualization of another culture is a clear and desperate attempt by Madonna to use a different culture as a way to regain popularity. The song is pretty tactless overall, but it somehow didn’t receive much criticism. The song only got press over its augmented reality performance at the Billboard Music Awards.
It is surprising that in this day and age, people aren’t calling out artists for their blatant cultural appropriation. Madonna is idealizing a Colombian city as a place for her to go party and pretends to be culturally aware by picking out a few token Spanish words that her mostly white audience will understand. The fact that this song is wildly popular and relatively uncriticized says a lot about the nature of the current American entertainment industry. Hopefully the trend of Latin influence in pop music will eventually lead to a better understanding of the cultures behind the music.