PROVIDENCE, RI – Every summer I go up to a lake in Averill, Vermont, on the border of Canada and New Hampshire. The closest nearby town, Norton, VT has a population of 169 people. My high school gym class was not too many kids short of that. The largest town in the area, Colebrook, NH, has a whopping population of 2,301. I don’t leave the lake much to go into these towns. But when I do, it is always a startling reminder that most Americans don’t look like the kids I grew up with in my comparatively large, diverse, and affluent suburb. The people I pass by in the grocery stores up there are overwhelmingly overweight and white. In the past two summers I have noticed that the dilapidated houses, spread few and far between, are often ordained with “Trump” signs.
This summer, Despacito was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list for 16 weeks straight. It was hard to turn on the radio for more than ten minutes without hearing Despacito. Unless you spent the summer hibernating under a rock, odds are you now know exactly how Luis Fonsi does it down in Puerto Rico. But nonetheless I was shocked when, while driving to the grocery store during my annual week in the rural rejects of Vermont this August, Despacito came over the radio.
Up there, the “top 50” are typically much different than the “top 50” you’d expect in more metropolitan areas. You could listen to the radio for hours and never hear one line from Future or Lil Uzi Vert, there’s no Kodak Black and certainly no Bodak Yellow. Yet there it was, Latin pop had made its way to what is arguably amongst the whitest, most rural, parts of the country. A friend who had just come back from West Virginia noted that Despacito was equally as popular on their radio stations.
It’s hard to describe the slap in the face that is hearing reggaeton on the local radio as you drive past Trump flags. The same people who elected a president that wants to build a wall around Mexico and deport the children of undocumented immigrants are embracing reggaeton and singing chords in undoubtedly butchered Spanish.
Earlier I had been somewhat pleased and amused that Despacito and Mi Gente seemed to have taken over the radio, but here was the realization that it’s just another notch in the very American pattern of loving a culture but not its people.
Black and latino artists may dominate Billboard Hot 100 lists time and time again, but how many times do any of them actually win a grammy? When it comes to the grammy for “album of the year”, the answer is that only three black artists have won in the past twenty years.
I’ve been aware of the paradox regarding the glorification of black culture vs. the villainization of black people in America for most of my life. It’s a reality that’s near impossible to ignore if you’ve grown up black in America. But it was immensely unsettling to see such a clear, simple, example of the same exact thing being said for Latino people.
Finding out that Latin pop lyrics are flowing through the hills of West Virginia on repeat, the same summer that their klan-backed administration plots ways to dismantle DACA, was just another bitter reminder that all that glitters is not gold. All that reggaeton is not human rights. They might love your music, but until they learn to love your presence in this country it doesn’t mean a thing. As much pseudo-liberal intellectuals liked to hope Obama was the marking of a “post-racial” America circa 2008, he ended up uncovering just how racist America still is, becoming a catalyst for the white nationalist backlash that seized power in November 2016. Likewise, as much as for a fleeting second I had hoped Despacito was the start of mainstream American culture embracing the music of non-white countries— it isn’t. That embrace ends at the music and does not extend to the people. Daddy Yankee cannot save DACA.