Ms. Latina Gomez: An Appropriation Conundrum
I was never a particularly huge fan of Selena Gomez, but I respected her, admired her hustle, thought she was one of the most beautiful people I had seen. There is no doubt that Selena Gomez has undergone struggle––battling Lupus and being scrutinized in the limelight her whole life. However, I question whether her struggle and the good she has done really excuses the deeply problematic elements of her…art.
Recently, Selena Gomez was featured on a song with Dominican-Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Ozuna, Dominican artist Cardi B, and French-born DJ Snake. The track, “Taki Taki,” features clear reggaeton and Caribbean undertones intermingled with the electronic dance music rhythms DJ Snake contributes to the song, lyrics sung in Spanish, and a characteristic catchy rap by Cardi B, making it a certified bop––it can get anyone off their seats and dancing. Gomez is featured in the song singing both in Spanish and English. When I first heard “Taki Taki,” I thought: oh that’s great, Selena Gomez has finally become more in tune with her latina identity. However, Gomez, an artist that has created several top charting songs globally, has never seemed to tap into her Latina roots, with the exception of her Spanish rendition of “A Year Without Rain” in 2010. It feels as though through the acclaim top charting “Despacito” has recently given reggaeton, the genre has become more palatable. It would be difficult to imagine Selena Gomez being featured on a reggaeton song in the pre-Despacito era. Artists like Daddy Yankee and J Balvin, who have chosen to feature Anglo-Saxon artists such as Justin Bieber, have commodified the genre into a digestible version of its original Afro-diasporic, latino roots for a white audience. The history of reggaeton is plagued with struggle and ridicule. From the genre’s original roots in the public transportation system in Panama, to its full development in the housing projects of Puerto Rico in the 80s, to social elites deeming it as a vulgar genre, to police in Puerto Rico raiding the homes of people who produced cassettes containing reggaeton music in the 90s, to entire countries attempting to censor the genre in the 21st century, reggaeton has fought for its recognition in the music industry. However, it is important to note that this does not dismiss reggaeton’s role in marginalizing communities through lyrics that perpetuate sexist and problematic ideologies. There is systematic oppression in the history of the genre, but contemporary artists such as Bad Bunny are reforming the genre by combatting oppressive norms. Although there is much work to be done, reggaeton has united entire communities and listeners, especially within the context of the Puerto Rican diaspora. This reinvention urges artists, producers, and listeners, like myself, to hold others in the genre’s community and each other accountable by acknowledging and highlighting the harmful ideologies or stereotypes reggaeton can perpetuate.
Taking the historical context of reggaeton into consideration, Gomez’s feature in “Taki Taki” and the music video for the track feels almost offensive. In the music video, Selena Gomez is placed in an exotic forest, surrounded by imagery that evokes the fetishization that surrounds Latina women. Juxtaposing this imagery with that of the music video for “Despacito,” which takes place in Puerto Rico’s most notorious public housing project, the video for “Taki Taki” seems to degenerate reggaeton into a genre that fits into the conglomerate, often inaccurate portrayal of a universal culture that encompasses all Latin American countries. In contrast, the music video for “Despacito” resituates a historically crime-ridden housing project in Puerto Rico into a space that brings humanity back to the projects through positive, vibrant imagery and by having two Puerto Rican artists, one of which grew up in the projects, at the forefront. The video reminds viewers of Puerto Rico’s lively, generous culture and presents people who live in the projects of Puerto Rico as what they are––people. Selena Gomez in “Taki Taki,” however, capitalizes off a generic representation of Latina women in the media. As she sings in heavily accented Spanish, Selena is surrounded by a jungle while dawning tanned skin that is much darker than her natural skin color––something Gomez also infamously did at the 2018 Met Gala. Selena Gomez is not simply tapping into her Latin roots. She is capitalizing off a recognizable, palatable image of Latinas presented to a white audience throughout history in the American media. The forest, tan skin, and sensual dance moves are all common tropes within representations of Latinas. The other artists, Cardi B and Ozuna, are Afro-Latinos and are not placed in an exotic forest like Gomez is. This uncovers a deeper underlying message: Selena Gomez is explicitly capitalizing off her white-passing Latina phenotype. This coupled with the imagery of the video itself and the fact this is Gomez’s first collaboration on a reggaeton-influenced track, despite her always having identified as a Mexican-American, creates a multi-tier problematic conundrum surrounding “Taki Taki” and Selena Gomez.
It may seem that I am condemning the crossing over of musical genres and languages. That is not what I aim to posit. It is not inherently wrong to mix cultures and musical genres––different artists draw inspiration from different sources. It is not fundamentally wrong or problematic for Selena Gomez, or other Anglo Saxon artists, to collaborate with reggaeton or Hispanic artists. It is not wrong for Selena Gomez, a latina whose roots lie in Mexico, not in the caribbean, where the musical undertones of “Taki Taki” hail from, to collaborate with reggaeton artists or be featured on a reggaeton song. As a Puerto Rican, my heart swells with pride whenever I hear reggaeton play in any space––whether or not is Hispanic space. However, it is problematic to assimilate these historically marginalized genres or capitalize off audiences that a genre like reggaeton caters to as an artist in a position of privilege. “Taki Taki” is not the first time Selena Gomez has capitalized off another culture’s stereotype within American media. In Gomez’s 2013 hit, “Come and Get It,” Gomez used South Asian dance and musical tropes, like qawwali vocalization, both within the song’s composition and in her performances. In her 2014 MTV Music Awards performance of the song, Gomez sported a bindi on her forehead, a traditional dot that many people of South Asian descent and those who practice Hinduism wear for religious or cultural purposes. Additionally, the choreography contained movements that are reminiscent of Indian raas dance, a traditional dance that originated in the Gujarat state. Perhaps in this case, Selena Gomez’s problematic borrowing of cultural stereotypes or traditions is more apparent.
Selena Gomez is by no means a terrible person––she has inspired millions and in many ways embodies parts of the woman I aspire to be one day. However, the creative, artistic, and musical decisions she has made are insensitive. Gomez is not the only artist to appropriate cultures or capitalize off commodified, palatable images of ethnic people. However, she is an artist that has often preached awareness, kindness, and Christian values that give the impression that Selena Gomez would be more aware of her decisions. Dear Ms. Latina Gomez: give credit where credit is due and if you’re going to copy or draw inspiration from a culture…at least do it well. This 2017 Billboard Woman of the Year award winner needs to, and can, do better––many of us demand better.