Black Women Carry Reggaetón’s Foundation; Let’s Ensure They Reign in Its Future

·7-min read

“Our music, regardless that we have more feminine presence, is still ruled by the guys,” Ivy Queen, beloved Puerto Rican reggaetón pioneer and host of new record-keeping Spotify Original podcast LOUD, tells Refinery29 Somos. “La balanza, it goes to the guys side.” That balance, as she calls it, can be tipped to easily trip up women reggaetón artists in more ways than one. According to those in the industry, what we need to move forward is clear: a dramatic increase of investment and faith in women, particularly Black women, to equilibrate the system and elevate the sound.

Part of this is understanding what reggaetón is and where it comes from. Characterised by a sound that blends reggae, hip-hop, and other Afro-Caribbean influences, the genre’s history starts in underground parties in Panama and Puerto Rico. “Everything we are touching is, essentially, música Afro—music from the African diaspora,” Tostão from hip-hop group ChocQuibTown says in reference to the layered sonic backbone of El Movimiento at large, an umbrella term for so-called urbano genres like reggaetón, reggae en español, playero, dembow, Latin trap, R&B en español, and more. “There’s a new school that is hitting hard, but we’re not seeing where the Afro is … and the question ‘Is the history of structural racism repeating itself in this new generation of artists’ surges.”

This surge has put reggaetón on the mainstream map in a global way. Tostão himself comes from Colombia, a country known for music like champeta and vallenatos, and a recent hotbed for poppy reggaetón acts like J Balvin, Karol G, and promising new talent like Feid. These musicians have made sure the South American country has a permanent seat at the rapidly expanding table. And, especially now that there’s more room, it’s past time to make sure everybody eats.

Urbano is and always has been rooted in African and Jamaican rhythms. Artists like Tostão and Goyo, who are two members of ChoQuibTown, alongside Slow Mike, are working to ensure that this history is preserved. In addition to being a part of the Black Lives Matter conversation in 2020 and partaking in various forward-thinking industry conversations that that movement fuelled, Goyo and the guys are working with brands like Amazon to educate listeners on the genre’s Black roots.

“We’re all part of this global Latin family … and that’s why it’s necessary to talk about the globality of racism and the situations and conduct that, in one way or another, make doors close,” Goyo tells Refinery29 about the experience that many Black artists have had when seeking credit success in reggaetón.

When the three of us think back on the great inspirations of the past, the stark difference in the depth of the pocket Tostão has to pull from and tiny front pocket Goyo does is clear. Tostão lights up at the thought of artists who have inspired him, other men like Renato, Nando Boom, Joe Arroyo, Grupo Niche, and Tego Calderón. Meanwhile, Goyo struggles for crumbs.

“There are a lot of women who aren’t part of the story, but were there at the start,” Goyo says. She recalls Janet Usa, a household name in Buenaventura, Colombia, as a personal favourite, and understands that there are many more women of colour like Usa in the shadows—then and now.

As is the case with many flourishing genres, a Black woman is behind the bustling machine that is reggaetón. La Atrevida, a Panamanian nurse and artist who is also known as Rude Girl, holds that line in history. In the early ‘90s, Atrevida toured alongside El General, pioneering and popularising reggae en español. In doing so, she made space for other early figures to experiment.

“That woman deserves her flowers,” says Katelina “La Gata” Eccleston, an artist, historian, and associate producer of LOUD. “It’s because of her that Panamanians and Jamaicans, and Panamanians and Bajans, could grow a culture all in one space. She held sessions in her basement in Brooklyn. … She literally cultivated culture in her basement.”

Other women—like the merengue-rap connoisseur and “queen of Spanish rap” Lisa M, delightfully familiar voice Glory, and undeniably hard-hitting rapper La Sista—also cement the genre’s foundation. But their names are too often left out of reggaetón history. For example, Puerto Rican artist Glory was the voice behind songs like Don Omar’s “Dale Don Dale” and Daddy Yankee’s little track you’ve surely never heard of, “Gasolina.” However, she wasn’t credited in either hit. Last year, Bad Bunny followed in both men’s footsteps by failing to name Nesi in the credits of “Yo Perreo Sola.” Crediting women for their contributions in the first go-around is a painless first step. The next? For gatekeepers in the industry to grapple with their sexist and racist tendencies and add colour to the tapestry.

Reggaetón’s next phase will require fierce creative experimentation and the courage to turn away from its current highly commercialised formulas, but it will also demand intentional introspection and self-awareness. Women—specifically Black women—must carry the baton for this next chapter in which everyone can win if we play our cards right.

In historically Black genres, like hip-hop and rap, Black Caribbean women lead the way (think Rihanna and Cardi B) and form everything from business decisions to video presence. It would be silly and culturally stifling to not have them in the room. Their authority has led to the birth of some of the best and most popular music in that space, and allowed for women to reap some of the financial rewards the men have. In reggaetón, the few non-Black women who make it to the top have thus far seen not even half of the success of their male counterparts. For Black women artists, the gap is even bigger.

“This market is dedicated to reciprocating everything from the Anglo market except Black women,” Gata concludes about how reggaetón tends to reflect the mainstream U.S. music industry. “Every single thing—Black male artists, Black aesthetics, Black sound. Black women? ‘On our terms.’”

In perreo, there are no Black women outside of Tokischa, really. And she’s light-skinned. So, in regards to Black women and [music about] our plight and what it means to love a Black woman?” she pauses, baffled at that gap. “That’s bizarre.” The Panamanian historian behind Reggaeton Con La Gata is getting ready to kick start her own artistic path, and includes addressing anti-Blackness head-on. “My first song is called ‘Negra,’” she shares. “I’m going there. I’m going all the way there.”

Ivy Queen has high hopes for this next generation and believes it starts with putting out good work. “As a woman jumping [into] the music scene, you need to decide what your legacy is going to be,” she says.

She’s keenly aware of her place in history as a “bad bitch.” Ivy Queen has long centered women and women’s rights in her work: “It’s important for the next generation to understand that you’re going to blossom into a beautiful woman that has the right to say what you want, and what you feel.”

Unapologetically sexually liberated artists like emerging Dominican rapper Tokischa are keeping that essence alive in ways of their own, but this freedom comes with a price. Tokischa’s flavour of feminist reggaetón has prompted outrage, fines, and commendation from a municipal Dominican government. Meanwhile, Venezuelan singer-songwriter Danny Ocean and Spanish artist Rosalía have gained unthreatening street cred for hopping on the “Desacato Escolar” singer’s discography. It’s a tale older than reggaetón: white artists jumping on the cool bandwagon of Black artists on the rise and reaping the rewards while Black originators face criticism. Reparations for Black women in reggeatón will require gatekeepers, on the media and record label side of the fence, as well as the white artists who are already in the room to start carrying the workload and redirect funds and publicity where they’re due.

Reports show that Latin music is only becoming more and more lucrative, growing faster than the industry at large. As such, there is no doubt that reggaetón—one of the most-streamed genres globally—is a rich well, too. Reggaetón may be safe from the crushing economical force that has affected the rest of the music industry this year—but who will save its soul?

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