This profile is part of our Culture Shifters series, which highlights people who are changing the way we think about the world around us. Read about film archivist Maya Cade, internet star Keyon Elkins, rapper Latashá, filmmaker Alika Tengan and artist Kay Rufai.
Music historian Katelina Eccleston has always loved reggaeton
“I have home videos [of me] dancing to El General at 3 years old in a puffy yellow dress and black shoes,” Eccleston said, referring to the legendary Panamanian reggaeton artist. “I was born into listening to reggae en español and reggaeton by El General.”
Raised by Panamanian parents in Boston, Eccleston is a proud Black Latina. That pride in her heritage and love for reggaeton inspired Eccleston to give Afro-Latinas the spotlight they deserve.
The historian and artist is the founder of Reggaeton Con La Gata, the first femme brand and platform dedicated to the intersectional analysis and history of reggaeton. In addition to its biweekly newsletter, the brand’s official Twitter account @ReggaetonXGata spotlights Black Latinas in Reggaeton — such as La Zista, Glory “La Gata Gangster,” Amara La Negra, and more — through curated playlistsroundups of music industry news and conversations between Eccleston, artists and music experts.
Created in Eccleston’s college dorm room, Reggaeton Con La Gata has been featured in Harper’s Bazaar, Remezcla, NPR and other outlets. She’s given guest lectures at Harvard University and produced the Spotify podcast “Loud: the History of Reggaeton.” Eccleston is a lead researcher on MTV and Paramount’s forthcoming show “De La Calle.” The docuseries is hosted by Nick Barili and explores the “evolution of Urbano music and cultures that ignited the musical revolution of Hip Hop, Reggaeton, Bachata, Latin trap, Cumbia, and other sounds,” according to Deadline.
Eccelston’s musical acumen and upbringing is shaped by a fusion of cultures. She spent her Sundays in an African American Baptist church, where she learned how to play the piano. She attended West Indian Carnival and Dominican parties where the sound of bachata beats reverberated through the walls.
“I feel like throughout all of that, one thing that has always mattered to me was the music,” Eccleston said. At age 11 or 12, she remembers making the conscious decision to “choose reggaeton.” However, listening to the genre was initially off-limits for Eccleston, whose mother categorized reggaeton in the same box as painting her nails and other “grown folk” activities.
“I remember going to a quinces and dancing reggaeton with a family friend, and my mom’s like, ‘You don’t dance reggaeton because that’s for older people,’” she said. “When a religious mother tells you you can’t have something, you just want it all the more.”
What was once off-limits to Eccleston has catalyzed her legacy.
“I have home videos [of me] dancing to El General at 3 years old in a puffy yellow dress and black shoes. I was born into listening to reggae en español and reggaeton by El General.”
– Katelina Eccleston
“My obsession with music has always been infectious in my social situations,” Eccleston said.
But that pride in her heritage has at times been complicated by anti-Blackness within her communities. The 27-year-old “comunicadora social” recalled pressures as a kid from people outside of her family to conform to “Latinidad” — a term that loosely translates to Latino-ness and the attributes of a shared Latino identity — because she is darker-skinned. She said that, fortunately, her immediate family has always been very pro-Black and has raised her to disregard comments such as “pelo malo,” made in reference to kinky or coily Black hair.
“To paint a very specific picture,” said Eccleston, recounting her childhood, “in the third grade, my own peers would ask me, ‘Are you sitting at the Black table or the Spanish table?’ It’s funny because at the Spanish table, they’re all Black Latinos. I would consciously choose not to sit at either, so I was so alone.”
Growing up in very segregated Boston, which has a prominent Dominican population, Eccleston and her cousins were often the only Panamanians in social settings.
For her, home was not only a safe haven, but a venue to share music. In the days of Limewire and iPods, crowds of classmates would show up on Eccleston’s doorstep, demanding that she host the next party.
But when her father died by suicide when she was 12, her energy shifted.
“I was the most depressed teenager,” Eccleston said. “I had the emo haircut. You could not get me to stop wearing skulls, studded belts, Jordans. Around 18, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m alive. He’s not. I have to live my life. I don’t want to be sad anymore.’ I made the conscious decision to forgive him, forgive myself for wasting my own time, being sad and being mean to myself.”
With a new lease on life, she sought to expand her horizons and pursued college in the Big Apple. In 2012, she started at the Pratt Institute, but the joys of freshman year were curtailed by a traumatic sexual assault. Music is what saved her, she said.
“I’m a moody listener. I’ll go from Flyleaf and Three Days Grace to the nastist reggaeton and back to Jay-Z, then back to the nastist reggaeton,” laughed Eccleston. “I feel like it’s the sexiest genre that’s out there. There’s a lot of intelligence that comes from it — when you take apart all of the misogyny — the intention behind it and its process. I have a profound respect for it.”
In 2016, she transferred to Marymount Manhattan College to study communication and media arts, with the goal of becoming the next Ilia Calderon, a well-known Colombian journalist. Then it dawned on her: Eccleston didn’t want the pressure of being “the next” anything.
She asked herself, what if I did my own thing?
“This is coming on senior year where we had to present our capstones. I was like, has anyone ever studied reggaeton? That’s when I found the work of Marisol LeBrón, Wayne Marshall and people who’ve done it before me,” Eccleston said. “It hit me at that moment that people don’t know Panamanians’ contributions on a larger scale. I’m like, ‘Oh, people don’t know my history. There’s no bridge between academia and entertainment? No? What the heck! Why isn’t this a thing?”
Following her capstone thesis and presentation, Eccleston knew she had so much more to say — and Reggaeton Con La Gata was born. As a tween softball player, her friends gave her the nickname “Gata,” which translates to “cat” (short for Katelina). So she infused it into the brand’s name.
After graduation, Eccleston worked at Dick’s Sporting Goods by day. At night, she’d move from venue to venue, interviewing artists at local nightclubs. Her online following blew up when cultural critic Zahira Kelly retweeted her after they met.
“She was like, ‘Make a video. Talk about reggaeton history!”” recalled Eccleston. “[Zahira] had like 30,000 followers. She’s like, ‘I’m gonna retweet you and you’re gonna see!’ I wake up the next day, and I have thousands of retweets.”
While building comunidad through Reggaeton Con La Gata, Eccleston, a longtime lover of poetry, sought to create her own music. With an EP on the way, she said that her “audacity” to take the leap stemmed from the fact that in the music industry, Black Latinas are written out of their own stories. According to Eccleston’s research, less than 10% of reggaeton performers are Black Latinas.
“[Reggaeton] was a medium of resistance. Sure, it got fun, but it was first used to spread messages. That’s in the spirit of this music, to stand for something. I say reggaeton is a daughter of hip hop, and there’s different objectives.”
– Katelina Eccleston
Too often popular artists contribute to the erasure of Black Latinos in the genre. Case in point: For Paper magazine, Eccleston spoke to J. Balvin about his self-acclaimed status as an ambassador of “the culture.” In the interview, he said he “didn’t have Latinos in mind” when making his hit song “In Da Getto.” “The purpose of this song was to showcase the Projects as a main element of ‘El Movimiento,'” Balvin said in the article.
Eccleston noted that the “track highlights the issue of Black Latinos being spoken for without consideration of their plight.” By centering himself at the reggaeton movement’s core, Balvin is effectively ignoring the Black Latino predecessors who made his ascent possible, Eccleston said. She said it’s a bone that many Black Latinos have to pick up with him. (Last year, the issue came more into focus when he was named Afro-Latino Artist of the Year by the African Entertainment Awards, despite not being Afro Latino. The award name was later changed to Best Latin Artist of the year. Moreover, in 2021, J. Balvin had to apologize for depicting Black women as dogs on leashes in the music video for his single “Perra.”)
Due to Latinidad’s connection to white supremacy, said Eccleston, she often finds herself exasperated trying to explain the implications of being a Black individual in hyperwhite environments, such as the Latin music industry. Eccleston said this is largely due to the fact that many white Latino artists and community members fail to understand the power they wield in the industry.
“Yes, I love this music, but on a personal and professional note, what I want is for people to pause and think about what we’re doing to each other,” Eccleston said about how erasure of Black Latino contributions to music. “If they’re backed by institutions, for example, which a lot of these artists and the teams are, they have the ability to enact violence on others if they don’t recognize what their power is or that they have it. They don’t even know what that means.”
Eccleston noted that the barriers to entry for Afro-Latino performers differ greatly across gender. Rattling off male musicians such as Sech, Zion y Lennox, OG Black, Yaga y Mackie and others, she pointed out the vast disparity between the number of Black men compared to Black women in reggaeton. Eccleston said “there’s no sort of advocacy for Black women,” citing singer Amara La Negra As an example of what often happens to Black Latinas in music. Amara La Negra, who broke through on VH1’s “Love & Hip-Hop: Miami,” has talked about anti-Blackness and colorism in Latino communities and the music business.
“People were tired of hearing about racism, about problems they couldn’t relate to. Over time, there’s this sort of tokenization that happens,” said Eccleston. “For her to share that she was homeless? I absolutely believe it. Because wouldn’t that be me if I went off on that as well? That’s how extreme it is. People can be like ‘we hear you,’ and not not give a damn if you have a place to sleep.”
Eccleston added that for female artists and listeners, navigating the difference between gratuitous sexuality and sexual potential in reggaeton is akin to walking a tightrope. A part of the issue, she added, is some people can’t fathom women, especially black women, claiming power through sex positivity. As a former sex worker, Eccleston hopes people grasp that reggaeton is not only about sex, but about liberation.
“[Reggaeton] was a medium of resistance. Sure, it got fun, but it was first used to spread messages. That’s in the spirit of this music, to stand for something,” Eccleston said. “I say reggaeton is a daughter of hip-hop, and there’s different objectives. The mission might be to own sexuality or to have fun.”
Through Reggaeton Con La Gata, Eccleston hopes to advance and continue the genre’s legacy.
“Quite frankly, there’s a mission [with Reggaeton con La Gata] in regards to owning its authenticity and its Blackness, whichever way it may present itself because there’s a policing as to what type of Blackness is acceptable,” Eccleston said. “With my platform, I hope to just be a space where you can recognize all these different things in bite-sized pieces.”