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Word! The Language Column
Make Way for Latin Hip Hop

Illustration: A laptop from which sounds come, hearts
Spanish-language music in Germany – always just summer, sun, beach? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Hispanic hip hop hasn’t caught on in Germany. That’s because of our ingrained preconceptions about Latin culture and the Spanish language, explains Taiga Trece.

By Taiga Trece

Spanish is one of the five so-called world languages and it’s the fourth most widely spoken language in the world. More and more people are learning Spanish in Germany, too, where it’s the most widely chosen foreign language at school. Spanish is ascendant. And yet there’s hardly any market for Spanish-language hip hop in the German rap repertoire – even though rap in other tongues is very much “in” here in Germany. Reggaeton, on the other hand, has made it big. Now why is that?

There’s a conspicuous disconnect between the popularity of Spanish and the rarity of Latin rap, a phenomenon I’ve noticed ever since I launched my hip hop career. While a handful of German hip hop artists (e.g. PA Sports, Kianush, Bonez mc, Luciano, Genetikk et al.) do pepper their lyrics with Spanish slang or shoot videos in Mexico or Brazil, purely Hispanophone rappers are virtually unknown in these parts. I have two theories why: One is that clichés about Spanish are a rap killer, the other’s based on colonial history and geopolitics.

Spanish clichés in Germany

Germans love Spanish, and it’s pretty unanimous. How often have I heard Germans say, “Oh, I love the language, I’d love to learn it too. Spanish sounds so beautiful.” Where did we get this soft spot for Spanish? (Warning: clichés ahead!) We label and get labelled, stereotypes get stuck permanently in our brains and it looks as though we’ll need to evolve a bit more if we’re ever to dispel them once and for all.

Here’s a little exercise for you. I call it: “Paint the Language”. Close your eyes and paint a picture in your mind’s eye – without any flag or any words – entitled “Spanish”. What comes to mind? What do you see? What colours? When you’re done, ask yourself the following questions: Is the picture mostly light or dark? Day or night? Sunny or rainy? Does it have a seascape or landscape, or city and concrete?

If the second choice describes your picture better in each case, congratulations, your mental associations with Spanish diverge from the mainstream. If not, felicidades, you probably see the language in brighter colours.

How come Spanish-language rap doesn’t catch on in Germany?

Spanish rap is struggling here because reggaeton has taken the urban music market by storm and now “owns” it since it covers every hip urban Hispanic scene. Germany’s rap scene is saturated, and leaves any leftover slots to languages that are more widely represented in hip hop circles. So it’s not easy for Latin rappers to make it here.

Reggaeton combines Latin American spirit with the coolness factor, style and sex – attributes that rap has perfected too, but to less danceable rhythms. Reggaeton has caught on everywhere in Germany that Latin hip hop hasn’t. And reggaeton conforms to clichés about Spanish.

If Spanish is “alegría”, rap is street

As yet, only a handful of Hispanic artists have made it so far in Germany. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been any Spanish-language hits in German music history. Over the years, a whole bunch of Hispanophone artists and songs have made the German charts, including Los del Rio’s Macarena, Orishas, Culcha Candela, Marc Anthony, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin’s Livin’ la Vida Loca, Shakira, Loona, Álvaro Soler, Aventura, Righeira’s Vamos a la Playa and plenty more). The latest Spanish-language hit is Pepas by Farruko.

Apart from reggaeton, these Hispanic hits are for the most part schlager or pop songs. And they all have one thing in common: you can dance to them and sing along. They’re either party tunes, with positive vibes and upbeat rhythms, or schmaltz. A slow pop number like Hijo de la luna is rather an exception. Generally speaking, music and lyrics elicit certain emotions and stir up certain associations. The first things to come to mind when we hear songs in Spanish are sunshine, sea and palm trees, the Global South, Latin Power, good mood, passion and so on – as well as vacation, cheerful disposition and longing.

My appearance on “The Voice of Germany” was a case in point. Seeing as I’m a self-proclaimed German-Hispanic rapper, it stands to reason that I’d perform a rap number on the talent show. But it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise any longer that they assigned me two Spanish numbers that weren’t rap at all, but that conform to German clichés about Latin music. After all, good vibes and happy mood are good for the ratings: they go down well with the mainstream audience.

So multicultural, multilingual hip hop in Germany has some catching up to do when it comes to Latin rap. But multilingualism is catching on all over, so there’s room for more Spanish there. In the meantime we’ll probably just have to make do with “vamos a la playa”.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.