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Institut Ramon Llull is a consortium comprising the Government of Catalonia, the Government of the Balearic Islands, and the Barcelona City Council. Its mission is the support and promotion of Catalan language and culture abroad, in all its forms and means of expression.

Catalan Urban Music

paperllull.  Barcelona, 16/08/2020

What’s behind the success of urban music in the Catalan Countries, with Rosalía as its international beacon? What are these artists’ relationship with the Catalan language? Luis Hidalgo reflects on these questions in this article.

The recent widespread explosion of urban music is one of the products of phenomena deriving from technological development, such as the blurring of borders generated by digitisation, globalisation, the evolution of the concept of identity, and young people’s stance towards a society that, rather than accepting them as the guarantee of tomorrow, offers them a precarious present and an uncertain future. They are victims of the 2007 crisis, and they will be of the Covid-19 one, too. If music is the cultural result of a society and reflects what concerns it and what encourages it, urban music is the space where we can look at ourselves and understand what some of our young people are going through. As always, music points to their hopes and frustrations.

So-called urban music is a mixture of styles with an electronic base, like hip-hop; its by-product, trap; dancehall, from Jamaica; rhythm and blues, of black origins; and reggaeton, with its roots in reggae, hip-hop and Latin beats. Urban music is not brand new. It has evolved, giving the limelight back to the city as represented by its neighbourhoods: spaces where the artists feel real, where they have their own experiential references, and from where they extract their ‘authenticity’ – not exactly a new concept in the world of music. These sounds have been working for years, but now, they mark a generational rift between young people and adults. A rift that suggests a generational split that didn’t exist decades ago. Adults either don’t understand young people’s music, or they simply find it irritating.

With physical formats losing importance and the internet as a shop window, the industry itself has fallen behind, too. This urban explosion has largely taken place on the margins of industrial structures. Let’s not forget that El Mal Querer by Rosalía, the most internationally visible Catalan artist, was recorded in a bedroom with two computers and a microphone operated by El Guincho, her producer. Now, the song is the unit of expression, like in the sixties, and the artist’s productivity is expected to accelerate, as the internet, just like society itself, is voracious. The paradox is that, even though the industry has lost part of its central role, the same can’t be said of its main dictate: success. Urban music artists, generally children of the popular classes, have seen social criticism fail to work in a society where the market, competition and celebrity have proven their influence, and rather than fighting the system, they make the most of it. Or at least they try. That’s why when they asked Albany, a trap singer born in Barcelona and brought up in Granada, half-Romani and a proud ‘chav’, about her artistic plans, she responded ‘to make cash, obviously’.1 There is no shortage of groups, mainly traditional hip-hop ones like At Versaris (Sabadell), the veterans of the Catalan scene, or Zoo (Valencia), a more stylistically open and localist group, that write socially critical lyrics, but they are not the majority.


The evolution of identity is one of the elements that has transformed the most in this musical context. Musicians are of their neighbourhoods. They are the reflection of a dynamic society where origins and languages mix. Lildami (Terrassa), from a middle-class family, is one of the key new faces on the Catalan trap/hip-hop scene, and on this subject, he has said ‘My dad’s from Córdoba, my mum’s Catalan. I speak Spanish with one, Catalan with the other...I speak a kind of hybrid’.2 A similar case is that of 31FAM (Sabadell), who are trilingual in tracks like ‘Valentina’, but still shout ‘Visca Tarradellas, visca el trap en català’ [Long live Tarradellas, long live trap in Catalan].3 Or artists like AmbKor (Ripollet), who, despite using Spanish in his music, performs under a Catalan name (duly corrupted, of course, from ‘amb cor’, meaning 'with heart’). The lack of urban slang in Catalan facilitates the importation of terms from Spanish – see the At Versaris lyric ‘si la vida són dos dies, pregunta-li a un buseru’ [if you think life is short, go ask a bus driver], with the Spanish busero adapted to Catalan phonology4– and even the creation of a linguistic identity made from a mixture of languages and a phonetic spelling system that blows orthographic rules to smithereens.

Bad Gyal (Vilassar de Mar), a dancehall artist on the up and up internationally, smashes normative Catalan in ‘Pai’, with verses in which she uses English words like ‘pussy’ and some Spanishisms (‘I gave you what no one else did/ You weren’t surprised, you were expecting it/ Everyone around here knows which pussy is in charge/ So now you know what’s coming to you’5). On the subject, Lil Guiu, from P.A.W.N. GANG (Barcelona), a pioneering Catalan trap group, says ‘I don’t know what year Pompeu Fabra wrote his dictionary and I don’t know when the rules of the Catalan language were decided, but at the end of the day, people will write like they do in WhatsApp. The fucking language is for communicating and for being understood as fast as possible. It’ll evolve, people will start to forget about apostrophes and accents’.6 One of the group’s hits is called ‘Vui se pulisia’, a phonetic version of the correct spelling ‘Vull ser policia’ [I want to be a police officer], and their latest album is Oli d’uliva [Olive Oil], instead of d’oliva.

Sex is another key element for defining trap and a tarnished reggaeton, born in Latin American societies where sexuality is not as besieged by Catholicism. Today, it’s not just men talking about it; women, using a ‘re-semanticised’ masculine language in their own favour, give their own perspective. Women are no longer passive subjects: they are taking back terms like ‘whore’ and ‘bitch’ and putting out lyrics like ‘Raka, raka, raka, we’re fucking so hard the house is shaking...Raka, raka, raka, come and put me on all fours’, as Neisha sings to Briganty Boy, both members of the reggaeton duo Crimen Pasional (Sitges/Sant Pere de Ribes), in ‘Raka raka’.7 One of her war cries is ‘xulos i meuques’ [pimps and whores]. Another: ‘from la Costa Daurada, mami’ – three languages in five words. Feminism also has its place in urban music among these new generations. For instance, Tribade (Barcelona), a feminist, anti-capitalist hip-hop group, responded the following when asked about their name: ‘It means love between women, or don’t misbehave ‘cause we’re carrying scissors’. 8

The lackadaisical style of singing characteristic of trap, reminiscent of someone who has been smoking marijuana, is particularly irritating to some adults, as is the lack of traditional instruments – it’s all machines, programmed rhythms and, on top of all that, the vocals can be filtered using autotune (Smurf-style). Faced with a tradition of guitars, virtuosity and the direct relationship between the musician’s movements and the production of notes and harmonies, urban music, with its electronic foundations, is breaking the mould. And so are artists from all over the Catalan-speaking territories, in Catalan or Spanish or equally in both languages, like Elane (Lleida) – in ‘Vicis d’extraradi’, she samples ‘La Tieta’ by Joan Manuel Serrat – Rels B (Palma de Mallorca), Homes Llùdriga (Barcelona), Flashy Ice Cream (Sabadell), Pupil·les (Valencia), Hwoarang (Ibiza), Lory Money (a Senegalese artist who has settled in Catalonia) and JazzWoman (Aldaia).

Not to mention the two most renowned producers of the moment, Alizz and Steve Lean. Or, of course, Rosalía, who exemplifies the new multicultural world fostered by the internet and migrations. After all, she has taken Catalan to America with ‘Milionària’, when, like many of her generation in her country, the first CD the artist from Sant Esteve de Sesrovires bought was by the rock/rumba duo Estopa.

[1] Video a Playground 17/10/2018
[2] El País. 5/2/2019
[3] Ferràn Adrià
[4] No apte
[5] Et vaig donar el que ningú et donava/ no vas flipar, era el nivell que esperaves/ al barri ja se sap quin cony és el que mana/ així que ja saps que és el que et toca ara (Pai)
[6] El Maig 2020
[7] Catalunya Plural 11/02/2019. La segona frase en castellà a l’original


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