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Bad Bunny Is [Winning in Non-English]

The Puerto Rican reggaetonero Bad Bunny kicked off the Grammys earlier this month with a rich cultural performance that included a masterful blend of plena, reggaeton and Dominican merengue. As traditional dancers and the cabezudos of the Agua, Sol y Sereno collective, who wore papier-mâché heads that paid homage to Puerto Rican legends like Tego Calderón and Julia de Burgos, twirled around him, he sang in Spanish about how everyone wants to be Latino but they lack sazón, the distinct cultural flavor and connection to the past that defines our communities.

Apparently, along with sazón, the Grammys also needed closed captions.

Many Grammys viewers were puzzled when the captions during his performance read “[SPEAKING NON-ENGLISH; SINGING IN NON-ENGLISH].” He is, after all, known for proudly singing and speaking in Spanish. CBS later clarified that it’s standard practice for live closed captioning to use these phrases as a catchall for non-English languages for live performances.

But by the time revised closed captions were added for the rebroadcast on the West Coast, memes of the snub spread across social media. Some people joked that they were fluent in “Non-English.” Others posted about various activities that they were engaged in: cooking, laughing, dancing, working out and just plain living in “Non-English.” Even Bad Bunny got in on the fun, posting an image of the captions to his Instagram account along with other highlights from the night.

Like many jokes and memes, the moment spoke to a larger concern. It highlighted a shared feeling among Latinos, and other cultural minorities, that no matter what we do or how much success we achieve, we remain inscrutable to the American mainstream.

Bad Bunny performing at the 65th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday.Credit…Chris Pizzello/Invision, via Associated Press

Bad Bunny has been Spotify’s most streamed artist for three years in a row. He was the first artist to reach the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart singing solely in Spanish, the first Spanish-language act to win MTV’s artist of the year and the first Latino urban artist to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. His “Un Verano Sin Ti,” or “A Summer Without You,” is the first Spanish-language album to be nominated for the Grammys’ top prize, album of the year.

Bad Bunny lost the evening’s most coveted prize to Harry Styles. Yet his performance signaled a shift from a time when Latino artists sought to appeal to mainstream audiences by either singing in English about hips that don’t lie or deploying what linguists call “junk Spanish,” with stereotypical and simplified references to livin’ la vida loca or dancing la macarena.

Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, or Benito as he is known to us non-English speakers, has opted to lean into his Puerto Ricaness, doubling and tripling down on opaque references to Puerto Rican culture, local celebrities, off-the-beaten-path spots on the island and throwbacks to his childhood in Vega Baja. For a community that rarely sees itself represented in mainstream media, the allusions feel like subversive winks and nods to those cool enough to be in the know.

This is the magic of Bad Bunny: His use of “Non-English” feels more like a flex than a failing.

A recent album is titled “YHLQMDLG,” an unpronounceable acronym that stands for “Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana,” or “I Do Whatever I Want.” The phrase has become a mantra of sorts for an unapologetic refusal to play by rules. This includes the rules of reggaeton, which he infuses with pop, rock and pan-Caribbean vibes; the rules of traditional Latino masculinity, which he challenges through his nail polish, androgynous outfits and nods to sexual fluidity; and the rules of Latino celebrity, which normally require making your culture palatable and legible to a mainstream audience.

These transgressions are much easier to pull off when one presents as straight, light-skinned and male. Yet it is still a bold gesture, particularly for an artist from a United States colony where English was once foisted on its residents.

When Puerto Rico became a possession in 1899, the United States changed its name to Porto Rico and imposed English schooling (the name was changed back to Puerto Rico in 1931). My 95-year-old grandma still remembers when an American teacher named Mr. Sullivan arrived at her school in Lares. He taught her a few English songs. But in the end he learned more Spanish than she did English.

Given this context, Benito’s refusal to speak a language other than his own is a highly political move. Not only does he unabashedly and unapologetically speak in Spanish, but he does so in that ever-maligned Caribbean Spanish, full of so many skipped consonants, Spanglish, neologisms and argot that it borders on Creole. A far cry from the Spanish of Spain’s Royal Academy, or even from the standardized Spanish of Telemundo.

His detractors wonder how he could achieve global appeal without translating his words or his lyrics. Yet people around the world have been dancing and singing along to English-speaking artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Beyoncé for decades without understanding their lyrics. But this had never been imagined as possible for someone singing in “Non-English.”

Before streaming platforms, it would have been difficult forartists like Benito, who don’t have a natural place on the radio dial or in record stores. But now, he and others can ride the accumulative power of clicks, likes and shares to global fame. In the process, he has become not just the most streamed but also one of the most profitable artists in the world. In 2022 he filled stadiums across the United States in what became the highest-grossing tour in a calendar year. His recognition at the Grammys, the Billboard Music Awards and the Video Music Awards is not a result of his entrance into the mainstream but rather of the mainstream being forced to reckon with the purchasing power of his legion of fans.

His success has undoubtedly also had a transformative effect on the many fans who feel emboldened by him to unapologetically embrace their non-English language and identities — particularly as books about figures like Roberto Clemente and even Sonia Sotomayor are being banned in some school districts.

And let’s not forget that “Un Verano Sin Ti”is not just about enjoying beautiful sunsets and dancing at beach parties in Puerto Rico. It’s also about living with power outages, a government mired in corruption and the feeling that we’re being pushed out of our homes and beaches by foreigners seeking to benefit from exclusive tax breaks.

Puerto Ricans (and Benito himself) have much more to worry about than the captions at the Grammys. But we can still revel in small victories. I’ve already ordered my [Speaking Non-English] T-shirt, and I plan to wear it proudly.

Yarimar Bonillais the director of Centro, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, and a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

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