Love it or hate it, you know it. The song ‘Despacito’ was played non-stop for an entire summer, shooting to number one in every Latin billboard. However, as with the BrewDog campaign which was the subject of my column last week the song has been the subject of widespread debate.
The song was widely celebrated as being positive, drawing attention to a genre of music not often found in the mainstream music scene. But it may not be quite as innocent as people think. The original song in itself was a success, but it wasn’t until a remix featuring Justin Bieber was released that the track rocketed to worldwide fame.
Bieber’s involvement in the song is a prime example when asking the question ‘What constitutes as cultural appropriation?’. While the reggaeton genre, and others like it, are thriving in certain areas of the world, it is not often found in the charts in most of the US and Europe. It begs the question, was it the song or the artist that made the song successful? Bieber, an English-speaking artist, sings in both Spanish and English. He also posted a video of him singing the song and during the Spanish parts of it is heard to be saying ‘burrito’ and ‘dorito’ and admitting he didn’t know the words, which is undeniably unacceptable. His good intentions can be called into question. Therefore, Despacito’s genre of music could be being used and commercialised to sell records and make money. Whether that’s the truth or not, Bieber exhibited a clear show of disrespect towards the culture he is involving himself in.
Cultural appropriation is a topic that many, including myself, struggle at times to navigate. While some forms are obviously deplorable (and therefore easily recognisable), others can be subtler and therefore harder to understand. Culture is something to be celebrated and shared. In my opinion, encouraging people from all over the world to experience as many different cultures as possible is commendable. However, when this shifts from innocently and respectfully partaking in other cultural practices to using and exploiting them it should not be tolerated. If people listening to the song are enjoying the music, it begs the question why are more songs like this not more regularly celebrated? Alternatively, if it simply because a white, male, Canadian artist is featured on the track it raises concern that this is not only unfair but also simply wrong.
Despacito is not the only song that raises these questions. Other artists have followed suit, creating a trend for these tracks, for example Little Mix’s ‘Reggaeton Lento’, and Demi Lovato’s ‘Echame la Culpa’. Are artists innocently in pursuit of a song that their audience will enjoy? Or, when considered from a more cynical viewpoint, is it a case of exploitation of another culture for the gain of the mainstream music industry? Less well-known artists could end up being overlooked, and a loss of cultural identity could ensue. Music of all kinds should enjoyed by everyone, but we also need to appreciate its heritage and the potential consequences in patent examples of cultural appropriation