'Ateo,' Bachata, and the Borrowing of Blackness
This story is part of a series written by CCSRE's 2022 Public Writing Fellows.
If you like Latin music, perhaps you heard of the uproar caused by the music video for C. Tangana’s 2021 single, ‘Ateo’ (Atheist)—but it’s more complicated than you might think. What at first glance seems to be a depiction of a tense love story instead reveals a now-familiar pattern within the music industry of artists strategically playing with their proximity to Blackness for their own ends. The video for ‘Ateo’ raises this issue of strategic performances of Blackness and others including the (mis)appropriation of cultural practices and genres, the mobility of culture and its hybrid nature, and the economic, racialized goals of some of these practices.
Shot in the Toledo Cathedral in Spain, and written and directed by C. Tangana himself, the video depicts the Spanish artist dancing sensually with Argentinian singer Nathy Peluso while members of the clergy look on, intrigued. As if situating the sexually-charged dance within the 13th-century cathedral weren’t enough, the catchy song contains several irreverent lyrical references to Catholicism (the song’s title means ‘atheist,’ and at one point C. Tangana asks the Virgin of Almudena for forgiveness for his erotic exploits). After complaints, the archbishop of Toledo released a statement expressing regret for the video, of which he was apparently unaware. C. Tangana and Nathy Peluso evidently expected the controversy, as the video self-consciously preempts the furore by depicting their dance going viral and becoming the subject of heated debates about cancel culture.
Though the religious aspect of the track and its accompanying video have occupied most of the limelight, something quite different is also going on. ‘Ateo’ itself is a bachata, and, in the video, C. Tangana and Nathy Peluso are unmistakably dancing bachata in the cathedral. The Spanish and Argentinian musicians’ decision to use this Caribbean dance to provoke controversy reproduces the contemporary trend of non-Black artists employing Black culture and aesthetics for shock value.
BACHATA’S GROWING POPULARITY
Bachata has exploded in popularity over the last twenty years and is now almost as common as salsa in Latin dance clubs all over the world. Unlike salsa, which carries influences from across the Americas, bachata’s origins are firmly rooted in the Dominican Republic, originating in the 20th century among rural, lower-class campesinos (farmworkers), mainly of African descent. Due to its class and racial associations, bachata was stigmatized by upper-class elites, especially dictator Rafael Trujillo, and relegated to bars and brothels at the furthest margins of Dominican society. Through the intervention of white Dominican musicians like Juan Luis Guerra and U.S.-Dominican artists like Aventura and superstar crossover lead singer Romeo Santos, bachata has become more accepted into the mainstream Latin music and dance industries, performed by Dominicans and non-Dominicans around the globe. Yet this is a relatively recent development, with the Latin Grammys only including a prize category explicitly for bachata in 2019: the fact that it is bundled together with merengue, another quintessentially Dominican music and dance style, indicates that bachata has not been entirely divorced from its national and local origins.
C. Tangana and Nathy Peluso each work across a dizzying range of musical genres, spanning flamenco, pop, trap, R&B, and rap, but bachata is not usually one of them. Watching the video for ‘Ateo’, it is also clear from their simple and tentative footwork that, though they dance comfortably and easily together, they are not expert bachata dancers, suggesting that they shifted into the genre with the express purpose of provoking controversy with this track.Their use of bachata as the vehicle for disruptive expressions of erotic charge mirrors the assumption that many Latinx dancers in the United States contend with: that bachata is an inherently hypersexual dance. When white dancers say they don’t dance bachata because it’s “too sexy,” and when white artists C. Tangana and Nathy Peluso use bachata body rolls and spins as a synonym for sexual tension against the sanctified backdrop of the Toledo cathedral, this reproduces the persistent, long-standing hypersexualization of Black cultural and aesthetic production, especially dance. This is no simple transposition of U.S. discourse around “cultural appropriation” onto complex Latin American contexts, nor is it to argue that Caribbean dances should only ever be practiced by their originators. Rather, the recent transformation of bachata, a previous symbol of vulgarity into an acrobatic art form that boasts world champions and constitutes entire livelihoods in Europe and the United States, gestures towards the difficulty of celebrating cultural transmission while acknowledging a dance style’s roots.
RACE, CLASS & WHITE BODIES
Critic Jane Desmond describes the process of ‘desexualization’ and ‘whitening’ that dances originating in marginalized communities often undergo to appeal to affluent, white, Western consumers. In making a deliberately provocative music video that juxtaposes heady sexuality with the Catholic establishment, C. Tangana and Nathy Peluso exploit bachata’s historical associations with working-class Afro-Dominicans without explicitly acknowledging the genre’s once-marginalized status. They might have danced flamenco or tango in direct reference to their own musical and cultural backgrounds, or even danced bachata to express love and desire beyond a religious setting: instead, they temporarily embody Afro-Caribbean movement as shorthand for sensationalized sensuality. The implication is that white bodies moving in historically racialized ways is an inherently shocking challenge to the status quo.
Such a move is now familiar territory for Nathy Peluso. Born in Argentina and raised in Spain, the 25-year-old singer has been accused of performing in a faux-Cuban accent, plagiarizing the Afroboricua rapper Hurricane G, and dubbing herself “la mulata” in her feminist anthem ‘Corashe.’ Her physical appearance has also notably shifted in the past few years, with her once-pale skin and light brown hair both darkened with fake tan and hair dye to the point of making her unrecognizable. In the ‘Ateo’ video, her hair is long and curly and her lips are noticeably fuller, invoking not only the recent trend across the United States and Latin America alike of what journalist Wanna Thompson calls ‘white women cosplaying as black women,’ but also, with her dark lip liner, a misappropriated chola aesthetic. This kind of nonspecific ‘ethnic smudging’ (a more general term than Blackfishing coined by Christiana Mbakwe-Medina) is another way for Peluso to embody racial otherness for the purposes of artistic sensationalism.
Though C. Tangana and Nathy Peluso’s use of bachata in ‘Ateo’ is more subtle, together with Peluso’s appearance it plays into the same pattern of capitalizing upon Black aesthetic and cultural production’s associations with hypersexuality, taboos, and impropriety. The erasure and exploitation of African history is not only prevalent in Latin America and the Caribbean, but may even constitute the very existence of these places as we know them today. When Afro-Latinos remain underrepresented in their own stories and marginalized in Latin America and the United States alike, white artists employing Afro-Caribbean dance styles for the sake of shock value only perpetuate this invisibility and marginalization. As Dominican bachateros work to raise the profile of their music and dance, it is more likely than not that C. Tangana, Nathy Peluso, and every other white artist who briefly steps into a borrowed embodied role will simply move onto the next, most profitable way to generate controversy.
Chiara Giovanni is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She writes a cultural criticism newsletter and can be reached at chiarag [at] stanford.edu (chiarag[at]stanford[dot]edu) or @carambalache on Twitter or Instagram.