The first time I heard Colombian pop singer Maluma’s “Mama Tetema,” featuring Tanzanian singer-songwriter Rayvanny, I was writing a script for VEVO’s weekly video roundups. The afrobeats record sounded oddly familiar to me. In fact, it sounded just like Rayvanny’s original “Tetema” song, only with a Spanish-language verse. That’s because it was. But it was now being touted as Maluma’s anticipated next big hit, with its original creator reduced to a guest feature on his own track. I knew how this story would go.
Chief among the reasons why this disturbed me as much as it did is the long history of Black erasure in music. A byproduct of Latin America’s caste system, the Latin American music industry customarily upholds European standards in beauty and mainstream culture. We see the continuation of this today in the rise of R&B en Español, with artists like Kali Uchis as the face of another genre with Black roots. We see it as Black women are consistently pushed to the shadows of the reggaeton and reggae en Español movement, despite having been a requisite component since its inception. But if done right, Spanish-language and Caribbean afrobeats doesn’t have to follow this trajectory. Instead, it could be a diasporic bridge and stands to be one of the most brilliant and necessary displays of and intentional acts in Pan-Africanism—but we must decenter whiteness to realize this.
There is no shortage of incredibly talented Afro-Latinx musicians and recording artists today, but this reality hasn’t stopped white artists from appropriating and benefiting from Black music and culture, including the global success of afrobeats. In November 2021, Maluma brought Rayvanny out on the MTV European Music Awards stage and world-premiered the live rendition of their new song. A sound and energy so clearly Black debuted on a European stage with a white Latin American singer who was backdropped by majority white dancers. The visual treatment to “Mama Tetema” featuring the white Colombian singer has earned nearly 15 million in YouTube views in as little as two months. In comparison, Rayvanny’s “Tetema” music video boasts a smidgen over 60 million since its debut in February 2019.
Just a month after Maluma released “Mama Tetema,” the African Entertainment Awards USA had the gall to crown another white Colombian, J Balvin, Afro-Latino Artist of the Year. Balvin accepting and celebrating the award, and Maluma rebranding a popular afrobeats song as his own, simply make the men the latest keepers of a very old tradition. As was with rock and jazz, hip-hop and reggaetón, afrobeats is poised to be segregated from its struggling Black pioneers while white artists go on to pocket millions as the new face and purveyors—at least on this side of the hemisphere.
“The Latin music industry borrows heavily from Afro-Latino cultural practices but privileges and prioritizes white Latino artists to perform them, and that’s a historical pattern we’ve had,” Petra Rivera-Rideau, Associate Professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and author of Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, told Rolling Stone.
Watching the success of Maluma’s whitewashed version of “Tetema” also felt like yet another missed opportunity for rising African artists to be seen collaborating with Afro-Latinxs—or other Black musicians and creators that rep the millions of Afro-descendants dwelling throughout the Latin American continent. Cuban disc jockey and historian DJ Jigüe has long engaged in afrobeats music in the vibrant Black communities of his native Santiago de Cuba. Where afrobeats is hijacked in songs like “Mama Tetema,” Cuba’s bakosó has long paid homage to the genre’s origins. Bakosó is Cuban-made afrobeats, and Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi’s 2019 film of the same name beautifully captures the faces and places that birthed this style of music. According to Jigüe, who narrates the music doc, the Latin music industry, and the music industry at large, plays a principal role in the way music moves and to whom visibility is given—and it’s no different with the foray of afrobeats in Latin America.
“The industry doesn’t require the vast majority of these mainstream artists, who are also really young, to assume any cultural or historical responsibility when it comes to the music they are producing,” he tells Refinery29 Somos over Zoom from his Havana home. “Too often the artists in question know absolutely nothing about the roots, cultural fabric, or artistic value of a song and dance, and are simply imitating what they see or doing what they’re told.”
While afrobeats is not native to Latin America, it is a joyous genre anchored in West African music styles (including highlife), some of the same rhythms and genres that inform the very sounds and culture we know and love in places like the Dominican Republic, Panama, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Puerto Rico, and many others. Considering the cultural and spiritual impact these musical styles have had in the way Afro-descendents move and show up in the world, far more than capital is at stake when Blackness is erased.
“First and foremost, music is political. It's societal. It’s resistance. It’s survival. Black people and Afro-descendents from all countries in Latin America have held on to music and dance as a means for joy and liberation,” music journalist Jennifer Mota tells Refinery29 Somos.
Currently living in her parents’ native Santo Domingo, Mota paints a daunting picture of the influx of white Latinx artists coming into the barrios of the Dominican capital to have their music produced by local and underground artists. Her image further corroborates the current trend of non-Black and non-Caribbean Latinx recording artists co-opting the Black Caribbean diction and vernacular heard on today’s most popular so-called urban songs in genres like reggaetón, dembow, and now Spanish-language afrobeats.
Yet, there are more and more Spanish-language afrobeats cropping up in beautiful ways that pay righteous due. Chocquibtown’s “Maria,” at the helm of Nigerian producer Mystro, is an excellent example of the sonic (and visual) brilliance that’s possible when Black artists from both sides of the Atlantic come together. Here, Colombia’s Chocó meets West Africa. The dance floor cut is made with all the nuts and bolts of an irresistible afrobeats song, including energetic rhythms, heavy percussion, and repeating vocals about a fiery love interest wrapped in (West African) pidgen English and creolized Spanish.
Bulin 47’s personal twist on Nigerian artists’s CKay’s wildly famous “Love Nwantinti” in “Tu y Yo” is proof that Black people—irrespective of language—find their flair and rightful footing even in that which was stripped of them. The original “emo afrobeats” song translates to “small love” in Igbo, CKay’s native tongue. In Bulin’s Spanish-language remix, he turns the love narrative on its head and instead speaks to two strangers’ explicit desires for one another. Like CKay, Bulin benefitted from TikTok culture, and the song became an instant hit among Dominicans and the greater Spanish-speaking Caribbean area. As Jigüe quips, “There’s far too many Black artists and geniuses for the face of any Black genre to be white,”—and he’s unquestionably right.
But even in the face of misappropriation and continued Black erasure, I’d wager modern afrobeats developing in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and throughout Latin America is an exciting phenomenon that presents us with unique leverage if we all paid attention to this cultural moment. “It’s an opportunity for artists of the African diaspora to celebrate our differences on a singular plane,” music historian and critic Katelina Eccleston of Reggaeton Con La Gata tells Refinery29 Somos. “I hope to see our ‘sauce’ on a single track with artists of different nationalities.” For Mota, simply making music together isn’t the long game when it comes to Black people reclaiming what’s theirs. She doubles down on a collective Pan-African movement that promotes the stripping of nationality. “I want to see us de-nationalize our minds and get to a place where we can celebrate our Blackness and African heritage in totality. I want to see us physically embrace the beat, the percussion, the music—together.”
It bears mentioning that Africa is like Latin America in that the two aren’t countries but whole continents where no two nations are the same. But perhaps what Mota outlines is a theme more than worthy of consideration about what it would look like for contemporary Black musicians and producers from across the diaspora to unite on an artistic frontier, in spite of language, political affiliations, and nationalism.
“The opportunities are endless, and this should mean that these artists are mixing dialects across regions with the sounds and elements of salsa, perreo, champeta, and baile funk,” adds Eccleston. “It has the potential to solidify, in a new and more intentional manner, the direct connection with African culture and can be one of the biggest examples of Afro-diasporic representation and exchange.”