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Flag-waving and the Latin pop moment

It’s clear that unlike previous waves of Latin crossover, the current moment, being led by the likes of Bad Bunny, is something different, in both its nature and its scale.

Two Bad Bunny tours in 2022 pulled in a gross of $434.9 million. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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If there’s one enduring image from Bad Bunny’s all-conquering tours in 2022, it’s the flags. Over 43 shows across the two Americas, every Bad Bunny crowd had flags by the dozens: Colombian, Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican. They were on the stage too—“Queen of Reggaeton” Ivy Queen wore a bodysuit in the Puerto Rican colours for her guest appearance in Los Angeles, while Bad Bunny and his dancers often ended sets holding up a massive Puerto Rican flag. It’s as if the artist and his Latinx cohort had watched Eddie Izzard’s classic bit about flags (“just sail around the world and stick a flag in”) and decided that it was a great way to stake their claims to the world of popular music.

To say Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio—the artist popularly known as Bad Bunny—had a spectacular 2022 is a bit like saying the sky is blue. Released in May, his fourth studio album, Un Verano Sin Ti (“A Summer Without You”), spent 13 weeks atop the US Billboard Top 200 and became the first all-Spanish album to top the Billboard 200 year-end chart. A tastefully curated melange of Latin and American music—including cumbia, reggaeton, bachata, bomba, merengue, trap, r&b, psychedelia and indie pop—it also became the first Spanish album to be nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy, striking a big blow against English’s hegemony over American—and global—pop music. Oh, and it also reached 10 billion streams on Spotify, the first album by a Latin artist to do so.

If you think that’s impressive, we haven’t even gotten to the tours yet. Two of them—World’s Hottest Tour and El Ultimo Tour Del Mundo—pulled in a gross of $434.9 million (around 3,560 crore), the highest ever for an artist in a calendar year since Billboard launched its Boxscore charts in the late 1980s. Along the way, Ocasio broke over a dozen local ticket sales records in some of the world’s biggest touring markets. His dominance was so complete that even Drake had to acknowledge it, rapping “Bad Bunny numbers, it’s a robbery” in last November’s Major Distribution.

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Nor is he alone, though with a 5% share of all Latin music streams in the US—according to the 2022 mid-year report by the entertainment data analytics company Luminate—he’s the undisputed leader of the pack. Last year showed that Latin pop’s recent trajectory is less crossover than takeover. According to Luminate, Latin music (an imprecise term with messy Anglocentric baggage that we just don’t have the space to unpack) streaming grew by 33% in 2022, briefly surpassing country as the fourth most popular genre in the US. Three Latin artists numbered among the top 25 grossing tours of last year, with the number growing to 22 among the top 200. In Bloomberg’s latest Pop Star Power Rankings, there are eight Latin stars in the top 25 (Bhojpuri star Pawan Singh comes in at No.22, somewhat surprisingly).

The talent pool is deep and diverse. There’s reggaeton pioneer Daddy Yankee, whose 2004 hit Gasolina first introduced global audiences to the genre; he just capped a 20-year-plus career with a $140 million grossing victory lap tour. Also out of Puerto Rico, we have the woozy reggae-synth of Rauw Alejandro and the Latin trap of Ozuna. Further afield, there’s the flamenco-meets-bachata-meets-jazz of Spanish singer Rosalía, Colombia’s Lucrecia Dalt and her sci-fi reimaginings of classic Latin American forms, or even the visceral physicality of Venezuelan avant-pop provocateur Arca. And leading them all is the hard-partying, flag-waving, politically subversive commercial juggernaut that is Bad Bunny.

It’s clear that unlike previous waves of Latin crossover—the 1999 Latin explosion with Ricky Martin, Shakira, Marc Antony taking over American airwaves, the 2004 Gasolina craze—the current moment is something different, in both its nature and its scale.

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Unlike the Latin explosion, these artists aren’t re-recording their songs in English. Some of them, like Ocasio, even do their interviews in Spanish, not making any concessions at all to an English-speaking audience. And while streaming and strategic cross-cultural collaborations are big factors in its success, there’s something deeper going on than just an algorithmic cross-pollination of audiences, as plenty of Global South record labels with world domination dreams are finding out.

I keep coming back to those flags and the visual of an American baseball stadium with a crowd straight out of the Copa América. A flag symbolises national pride, identity, history—so much of the undercurrent that is driving this Latin pop moment.

But this isn’t the flag-waving of the nationalist reactionary. Instead, this pride in one’s identity is rooted in more progressive, internationalist ideas of cross-cultural solidarity. So while Ocasio flies the Puerto Rican flag and lambasts the US mainland for its maltreatment of its unincorporated territory, his music draws connections between musical traditions across national and continental borders.

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His peers and he infuse their contemporary pop and dance creations with the rich history of American indigenous cultural resistance and the rich cultural hybridity of both post-colonial Americas. They give generous nods to their predecessors, leaving breadcrumb trails for new fans to discover those legacies. With their increasing commercial and critical heft, they are renegotiating the enduring contract of global pop music—one in which the English-speaking Global North is the universal default, and everything else is ethnic or exotic. Latin pop isn’t angling for a spot as the dominant “other language” piece of the global pop pie, it’s competing for the whole baked dessert.

Meanwhile, other global scenes are watching and taking notes, and I am not just talking about K-pop. South African styles like Amapiano and Gqom are already taking over dance floors all over the world, while Afrobeats and Naija pop are making their own inroads into the pop mainstream. Plenty of Indian artists and labels are also dreaming the same dream, though their path to crossover success may still have a way to go.

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Regardless, as we look forward to 2023, the future looks increasingly bright for those of us who would like a global pop music industry that’s actually global and not just, like, the US, the UK and the rest. As the old protest slogan goes, “Bad Bunny tum aage badho, hum tumhare saath hain (keep going, Bad Bunny, we are with you)!”

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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