Reggaeton’s Leading Ladies Combat Exclusion With Unfiltered Sexual Expression
Women at the forefront of reggaeton’s second wave are loudly embracing their bodies and their sexuality.
Karol G, Natti Natasha, and Becky G are the women at the forefront of the most recent wave of reggaeton, Latin trap, and urbano music. They’ve each carved a space in a genre that has long been hostile to female artists, dominated by men who’ve centered women’s bodies in every aspect of their artistry and refused to create alongside them. But for the first time in its history, there’s more than one woman with a seat at the table. These women are bold. Their lyrics are sexually explicit and their lusty expressions of desire uninhibited. They’re operating outside the cultural and religious norms dominating Latin America and the U.S.-Latinx diaspora. Their mainstream success seems to suggest that Latinx people as a whole are shifting towards something more inclusive and less harmful. They’re pushing back on the once-impermeable parameters of Latinx machismo and misogyny. Still, it’s crucially important to acknowledge that, at its core, the room for aberration that has been afforded them is the direct product of their privilege as conventionally attractive, non-black Latinas.
Though unexceptional in many ways, Latin American culture fiercely clings to orthodox conceptions of sex and women’s participation in it. Catholic values are tightly woven into Latin American society and are inextricably tied to moralistic ideas about chastity, virginity, and purity—ideas that serve to strip women of their right to bodily autonomy. In the end, women are reduced to either the saintly domestic type ideal for marriage and childbearing or the seductive sex object whose value is limited to just that.
In part, the hostility toward women that pervades the Latin American music industry is a direct reflection of these values. Artistic expression and political subservience do not readily harmonize. If other musical genres have been male-dominated, then reggaeton has been especially so. It’s a genre marked by the profane and the impolite, an intentional rejection of middle-class moral codes and puritanical attitudes. The grit, the nasty lyrics, the profanity, the sweaty perreo symbolize everything that “decent women” should eschew.
Reggaeton’s Unspoken Heroine
The first wave of reggaeton emerged in the ‘90s and early 2000s and its ripples were felt throughout the world. Women provided the subject matter, the visuals, the sex factor, and the perreo, but, with the exception of Ivy Queen, were all but directly denied the opportunity to succeed as artists. Jenny La Sexy Voz’s contributions to the genre and relative anonymity are perfect examples of the ways reggaeton exploited women’s bodies and sexualities while barring them from benefitting materially from it. She’s the woman whose sultry vocals and sexy hooks shaped the bangers that catapulted the likes of Wisin y Yandel and Daddy Yankee to international stardom. She’s the “dame paleta” behind their hit “Paleta,” the “papi, dame lo que quiero“ on Wisin y Yandel’s “Rakata,” one of the only reggaeton songs up to that point to land on the Billboard Hot 100. Her vocal features, however, were never credited, her contributions went largely unrecognized, and more importantly, she never received royalties for them. Ivy Queen, the single woman to experience success comparable to that of the men who dominated the genre at the time, often talks about the struggles she faced as a woman who wasn’t willing to settle for anything less than standing alongside her male peers.
When asked about sexism in the Latinx music industry in a 2015 Vivala interview, Ivy Queen answered, “Honey, I have enough stories to write not one, but several books.” Her success, to this day, remains the most transgressive success story in the genre. She didn’t look like the women in reggaeton videos, and she certainly didn’t exude the kind of sex appeal that her male counterparts liked to capitalize on. But her talent was undeniable. One of her biggest hits, “Quiero Bailar,” was an ode to women who relished in their sexuality on the dance floor and felt no shame about it. It was also a nod to women who wanted to make clear to men the difference between a dirty perreo and an invitation to have sex. Even if not explicitly so, it was a feminist call for bodily autonomy and the need for consent and respected boundaries. Her mainstream success, however, remained an anomaly for many years, especially after the fervor that drove reggaeton’s success fizzled out.
Reggaeton’s Pop Music Resurgence
Since the second mainstream wave of reggaeton, birthed by Daddy Yankee’s megahit “Despacito,” 2018 appears more open to the idea of women participating in the genre, not only as physical bodies and faceless hooks but as female artists creating alongside their male peers. Colombian artist and songwriter, Karol G, has been in the game for a few years now; her 2017 debut album Unstoppable reached the second slot on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart. Her video for “Ahora Me Llama” featuring Bad Bunny has over 600 million views on YouTube. She received two Latin Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist and Best Urban Song. The lyrics to one of Karol G’s 2018 singles, “Mi Cama,” playfully taunts a cheating ex-lover by letting him know that her bed’s been extra busy since she left him. She sings the hook “mi cama suena y suena” (“my bed screeches and screeches”) over the sound of creaky bed springs. During a concert, Karol G told the story of an interviewer who allegedly shamed her for what they deemed to be salacious lyrics, to which Karol G responded, “Lástima que la tuya no, y se nota.” (“It’s a shame that [your bed] doesn’t [screech]. And it’s obvious.”) Throughout the years, she’s remained vocal about her challenges with sexism in the Latin American music industry. “There are so many men and you can count the women on your fingers, and it’s not because we’re not here. There’s tons of talent.”
Mexican-American singer and actress Becky G has also made a name for herself in the reggaeton and Latin trap scene. She’s featured on Daddy Yankee’s “Dura” remix, which reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Latin Airplay. Her single “Mayores” featuring Bad Bunny also topped the same chart. The song features a lyric that includes sexual innuendo: “A mí me gustan más grandes/Que no me quepa en la boca/Los besos que quiera darme” (“I like them bigger/So that they don’t fit in my mouth/The kisses that he wants to give me”). When discussing the buzz around that particular lyric with Billboard, Becky G boldly reaffirmed her commitment to defining her values on her own terms. “Every time someone would bring up the lyrics, it’s like they were trying to make me scared, ‘That’s not what you meant.’ No, that’s exactly what I meant. I was very aware of the moment I recorded the line. Who are you to tell me what makes me feel sexy, what makes me feel empowered?”
Reshaping Reggaeton’s Masculine Landscape
Becky G asked Natti Natasha, a Dominican singer, and songwriter, to hop on the song “Sin Pijama.” It’s one of the only recent songs in the urbano genre to top Latin charts and not feature a male artist. The video for the song, a satire playing up tired stereotypes about hypersexual Latinas, has almost a billion views on YouTube. In a Vevo interview, the two dive into conversations about gender inequality in Latin American households, public resistance to women who own their sexuality, and challenging gender roles in relationships. Natti Natasha has collaborated with the likes of Daddy Yankee, Ozuna, Bad Bunny, RKM & Ken-Y and Don Omar, to name a few. Her feature on Daddy Yankee’s “Dura” remix is every part as sexual and gritty as Daddy Yankee and Bad Bunny’s: “Papi, si tienes el size, vente, enseñame lo que hay” (“Daddy, if you have the size, come, show me what you got”).
These women are not adornments in music videos or uncredited features to be capitalized on then pushed aside. They’re openly embracing their sexuality, often times objectifying men and reducing them to their bodies, and they’re doing so in shameless, indelicate ways. Undoubtedly, things have changed for some women since the early 2000s. But to ignore the confinements within which such transgression is possible would be remiss.
The question becomes, who is allowed to be openly sexual as an expression of freedom and affirmation and who gets shamed and chastised for it? The overlap among the women who’ve graced the Latin charts in the last couple of years should be apparent to anyone who’s been watching. Karol G, Natti Natasha, and Becky G are all openly cisgender heterosexual women. They’re conventionally attractive, thin, and most importantly, light-skinned non-black women—the kind who men deem worthy of respect and reverence even as they defy convention.
In a Red Bull mini-documentary celebrating the legacy of Ivy Queen, Chikki, an Afro-Dominican photographer, artist, and reggaetonera, highlights the racist double standards for female sexual expression: “When I was in high school, if I listened to reggaeton, I was considered ‘ghetto’ but if a white girl listened to it, everyone was like, ‘Oh wow, how sensual, how different.’ It’s good that [reggaeton] is reaching globally, and that it’s touching people from all backgrounds. But at the same time, it’s neglecting the people that actually started it. The roots of reggaeton are black no matter how you paint them.” Black Latin women are the essence of reggaeton—they are its creators and tastemakers—but they have yet to be represented or acknowledged as such by the industry. Instead, they remain props in music video backgrounds, consumed and discarded by artists looking to add an “authenticity” factor to their image.
The confines of Latinx machismo and sexual repression may be fluid for some Latin women, but certainly not all.