R&B en Español is dominating the Latin American music industry. This year, Kali Uchis’ smooth vocals on “Telepatía” debuted in the top 10 of Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart where it reigned for four weeks. Hardly a fledgling genre, R&B en Español’s mainstream popularity can be chalked up to its dark sub-base and ambient instrumentation. In an era when pop and commercialised reggaetón are dominating the charts, R&B en Español is creating space for melodious deep thinking and floating sensations. But, yet again, a Black-rooted genre in the Latin music industry still has few visible mainstream Black artists.
"Being a Black Latino and creating this type of music in the Latin industry is challenging," GioBulla, a Dominican artist blending R&B into traditional Latin genres, tells Refinery29 Somos.
Part of the problem is that R&B en Español has been difficult to catalogue. "Genres based in Black elements are habitually categorised as ‘urban,’ and it's a shame considering the lack of recognition of all of its versatility,” reggaetón historian Katelina Eccleston says. By labelling Black-rooted music as “urban,” the industry pigeonholes artists regardless of the genre of music they create. Moreover, by ignorantly lumping Black-rooted genres under one umbrella category, it also creates little visibility for Black artists.
A product of Latin America’s racial caste system, mainstream media and music industries in this region have traditionally upheld European standards in beauty and popular entertainment. As such, Black artists are often erased from the sounds and genres they created. Meanwhile, the racialisation of identities like Latinx, which is an ethnic category rather than a racial one, allows music executives to elevate white Latinx artists as “people of colour.” “The Latin industry must recognise, at full length, that it has a problem with recognising different races due to its branding of Latinidad as one race, which is simply false,” Eccleston says.
Expunging Black people from Black genres similarly erases the resistance struggles that birthed these sounds. In the Caribbean, Black people held on to their African traditions, culture, language, and Afro-spirituality at a time when European colonisers attempted to completely strip them of their heritage. Caribbean Black people took these elements and, in Caribbean dialects of Spanish and English, created what would later be known as global genres like reggaetón, reggae, dancehall, bachata, and salsa.
Some of these sounds can be found in R&B en Español today. In the late 1800s, the first Afro-Cuban sound was exported internationally in the form of the contradanza, also known as the habanera, a rhythm that would revolutionise music. It follows a four-beat unit that skips the second pulse and sounds on the second half-beat; it’s a unique anticipation often used in other Afro-diasporic genres in Latin America, such as samba and tango, and would later become the foundation for African-American styles like jazz and R&B. The cultures would come full circle in the late ‘60s when New York-based Puerto Rican and Cuban youth would lead the rise of boogaloo and Latin soul — a fusion of Cuban styles like mambo, guajira, and guaracha paired with R&B vocals and notes.
"In R&B en Espańol, we tend to dabble in the roots of R&B with other genres. We tend to explore and expand upon that concept of R&B. The chords usually fall around the same range, but we try things out more,” says GioBulla, who often merges bachata, merengue, dance hall, and other Caribbean rhythms with traditional R&B runs and melancholic emotions. The blending of Black Latin, Caribbean, and American sounds are common in the genre. According to Eccleston, R&B en Español can incorporate vallenato, popular folk music from the Caribbean region of Colombia; Bachata guitar instrumentation; and other Latin American genres.
But music journalist Jesús Triviño Alarcón, TIDAL's senior director for Latin music, says R&B en Español is also closely related to ‘80s and ‘90s Latin freestyle. In fact, popular acts, such as Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, often worked with R&B group and beat-makers Full Force. It also finds ties to the rise of Latin trap, particularly the multi-genre wave of trap soul and R&B found in Bryson Tiller's music and the alternative, contemporary R&B of artists such as The Weekend and 6lack.
“R&B in Español is rare. It's like a rare diamond," says Anmily Brown, a Dominican Republic-born singer-songwriter who infuses electronic and hip-hop in her sounds. "It's a challenge, but there's a lot of people that are finally saying, ‘You know what? I'm just going to start doing my art because that's what I love.’”
However, there is one barrier that has been cleared for R&B in Español artists that their predecessors had to deal with: the requirement to perform in English. Artists like Harlem-born Melii can smoothly transition between English and Spanish, using cultural-specific street codes and phrases in both languages. Late Night Jiggy shares this aptitude. He pairs his Trinidadian roots with his upbringing in Dominican and Salvadoran communities, creating an Afro-Caribbean sound that encapsulates many musical styles. "My mission is to connect with everyone and try to connect everyone," he says. "I don't want to change anything that was here before me. Respectfully, I want to bridge the gap."
With reggaetón such a dominant force among Latinx listeners, Triviño says it was only a matter of time before the industry started looking for what’s next — and R&B en Español is it. In 2018, after identifying the ways Latin trap and reggaetón artists were adding soulful influences to their music, TIDAL created Sentimiento, a flagship R&B en Español playlist. Trivino cites the new wave of talented Black Latinxs creating R&B en Español as those able to raise the genre’s authentic profile, naming artists like María Isabel, Immasoul, Anmily Brown, and Chicocurlyhead.
Despite their presence, those of a lighter hue still gain visibility faster and easier within the genre. "Being Black and Caribbean, I can connect with Latin Caribbean people easily because most look similar to people in my family," Late Night Jiggy says. However, when it comes to connecting with those within the music industry, it’s a different story. "In the Latin market, I'll never be considered one of them, just someone who appreciates the music. But if a Latinx person does hip-hop or R&B, we consider them one of us.”
Music is nothing if not political. It’s been the critical foundation in various forms of Black protest, resistance, joy, and survival — throughout the diaspora. The industry’s efforts to strip R&B en Español of its Black roots is not only white-supremacist erasure and appropriation, but it also denies listeners from the soundtrack of our own lives.