“Pon Atención”: Afro-Latinas’ Demand for Visibility in Reggaetón
By Jessica De Los Santos
Over the past two decades, the Latin musical genre Reggaetón has evolved tremendously. Reggaetón encompasses a rich history of musical dialogue fueled by migration and transculturation within the Afro-Caribbean diaspora and the urban United States. In the book Reggaetón (Refiguring American Music), editors Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernandez curated a diverse, comprehensive volume of essays that explore the roots and manifestations of this genre. In the section “Introduction: Reggaetón’s Socio-Sonic Circuitry,” Marshall, Rivera, and Hernandez examine the formations of Reggaetón, and require us to recognize it as a product of “interplay” between different communities, locations, and time periods (Rivera, Marshall, and Hernandez 2009, 8-22). The Jamaican music genres of dancehall and reggae were able to spread to Panama in the 70s through West Indian migration resulting from the demanding maintenance of the Panama Canal. Different DJs and artists then adopted elements of these genres that most resonated with their audiences while fusing them with their own Latin flare. Spanish reggae then began its circulation quite seamlessly throughout Puerto Rico and other islands because of the cultural influence Jamaica has on the Caribbean as a whole. Furthermore, as U.S citizens, Nuyoricans and Puerto Ricans possessed a mobility that allowed them to not only contribute to the musical production and spread of Hip Hop in different urban centers in the U.S, but also in bringing some of its elements back to Puerto Rico. The influence of Hip Hop can be noted by the athletic-leisure and streetwear fashion style that was very popular in the 90s and early 00s and of course the phonetic element of rapping – an outlet that demanded visibility by addressing “provocative” (concerning) issues in the African American community with catchy instrumentation. To learn more about the history of Hip Hop & Rap and its social significance click here.
Reggaetón exists today because of these different points of intersection between African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Afro-Latinxs despite their linguistic and national divides. As an offspring of the Black diaspora, Reggaetón’s history is shaped by racist, patriarchal, and capitalistic structures that dominated the post-plantation society of the Western world. The purpose of this piece is not only to highlight the origins of the Reggaetón genre, but also to recognize a few Afro-Puerto Rican female reggaetón artists that I believe will force us to explore this genre more holistically. With that in mind, I believe it’s very important to first shed light on how these social issues have manifested within the Reggaetón industry during the 90s. Reggaetón is not just a genre of cultural mixing, it is a reflection of the political, economic, and racial landscape that was present in the lives of those who contributed to this genre’s development. Thus, we cannot examine Reggaetón, without addressing systemic issues of anti-blackness and machismo.
In this post, I will explore how Afro-Reggaetoneras have challenged and resisted societal norms of sexism and white supremacy in Puerto Rico's early Reggaetón scene. Their visual personas, lyrics, and music videos will be analyzed within the scope of the Reggaetón industry and broader aspects of Latinx culture as a whole. I will first touch on how blackness was demoralized upon Reggaetón’s emergence in Puerto Rico and how these artists have stood in opposition to anti-blackness. Then, I will transition into a close examination of how blackness and gender operate in the female body and the unique social constructions Afro-Latinas are forced to navigate particularly as artists who must construct themselves as a brand for consumption in order to obtain success.
Reggaetón is known for its catchy hooks, infectious beats, and its unfortunate promotion of violence and hyper-sexuality. In Marshall’s “From Música Negra to Reggaetón Latino: The Cultural Politics of Nation, Migration, and Commercialization” the genre was originally classified as “obscene music of the underclass” and struggled to receive media attention (Rivera-Rideau 2015, 38). The dance style that accompanies the genre, perreo, makes matters worse because it appears to simulate the “sexual act between dogs” as discussed in the book Remixing Reggaetón: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico by Petra Rivera-Rideau in the section, “The Perils of Perreo” (2015, 53). Not only was Reggaetón seen as vulgar and indecent in Puerto Rican society, but it was also perceived as “música negra,” as Marshall’s chapter points out. The marginalized, black, and working-class artists used Reggaetón as a device to shed light on the oppression and lack of visibility they faced in Puerto Rico. Tego Calderón, one of the most highly respected Reggaetón artists, has frequently spoken about his experience as a Black Puerto Rican man in his music. In his song “Loíza”, an ode to his hometown in PR, he deconstructs the myth of a racial democracy in Latin America when he states:
“Me quiere hacer pensar
Que soy parte de una trilogía racial Donde to' el mundo es igual, sin trato especial.”
The song reads: “They want me to think, that I’m a part of a racial trilogy, where everyone is equal without special treatment.” Calderón makes reference to this popular stance that has been adopted in Latinx communities that Latinxs are just a mixture of the Spanish, Indigenous, and African races. He criticizes this commonly held belief that Latinx people are one race by rejecting notions of a “racial harmony” on the island and sharing his own experiences of not being treated fairly in Puerto Rico (Rivera-Rideau 2018). Mestizaje, the practice of miscegenation with the aspiration of socially and biologically mejorando la raza (improving the race), is a common act one can observe take place, or a statement you may hear regarding one’s mating preferences in Latinx cultures. Mestizaje is quite different from racial mixing in the U.S., where a binary (black and white) racial classification system is more prevalent. Mestizaje is, in fact, representative of a much larger whitening project in Latin America, where there is a social hierarchy filled with varying degrees of different racial stratifications. And with each generation, one has the opportunity to cleanse African and Indigenous ancestry out of their lineage and move up the social ladder. Mestizaje has also allowed Latin American countries to construct homogenous national identities and to be perceived as progressive, harmonious societies in Western civilization.
By understanding this cultural phenomenon in Latin America, we can better understand the social issues brought into discourse by Reggaetón in Puerto Rico. The genre faced significant censorship attempts during the Puerto Rican legal policy “Mano Dura Contra el Crimen” (Tough Hand Against Crime) that tried to suppress its growing popularity. In 1995, police officers were allowed to “raid” the safe-spaces working-class Puerto Ricans forged for themselves, confiscate Reggaetón cassettes, and charge anyone found distributing this music under this policy (Rivera 2009, 111-112). Puerto Rico and other Latinx societies are still wrestling with notions of mestizaje and a quest for a civilized, mestizo national image that suits elite political interests and promotes white supremacy. Early Reggaetón completely challenges movements of mestizaje in Puerto Rico because it is so Black, literally called “música negra,” and loudly so (with its discussions of working-class issues) that it must be deemed immoral music from the lower class in order to be reprimanded (Rivera-Rideau 2009).
One of the two female Reggaetón artists I’m choosing to highlight in this post is La Hill. La Hill is a Colombian and Puerto Rican woman who released her debut album Boricua de Cora in 2004, which was produced by DJs Looney Tunes, Blass, and Rafy Melendez, and featured artists like Monchy & Alexandra and Julio Voltio. Her songs spoke about race, class, demanding respect, domestic violence, perreo, and love. Her single “Paso a Paso” was quite successful in Puerto Rico, and this success brought us her second album Strike Back in 2008 that was also produced by Loony Tunes and many more. There is no biographical information, interviews, articles, or data that I could access to learn more about La Hill. But in her musical discography, it is evident that she took a long hiatus for un-disclosed reasons. However, she has recently made a comeback and released a few singles over the past two years with artists like Ozuna and Mr. Frank (available on all streaming platforms), but has not been able to match the success she had with “Paso a Paso”.
Like Tego Calderón, La Hill does similar work in her hit track “Paso a Paso” where she brings awareness to her experience as a Negra in Puerto Rican society stating:
“Yo soy negrita lista para guerrear
ni tú ni tu legado a los mios pararan
por que mi negrura montó su Cadillac
algo que su raza no quiziera eliminar”
The song reads, “I’m a black woman ready to fight, neither you nor your legacy will arrive to where my people and I are at, because my blackness hopped into her Cadillac, that’s something your race wouldn’t want to eliminate.”
Given that hegemonic conceptions of Blackness are often seen as synonymous with African American identities and experiences, La Hill’s lack of distancing herself from Blackness in a Latinx setting is radical. Her boldly claiming her “negrura” and experiences in P.R. challenges popular conceptions of Latinxs as not black, but rather a brown, mestizo race outside of the U.S. black and white binary. And, more importantly, conceptions of Afro-Latinxs choosing their Latinx identity first to evade blackness—a privilege their non-Latinx Black counterparts (particularly African Americans) do not have.
La Hill can also contribute to our understandings of Black and Latinx studies through a perspective of diaspora, as she is a Colombian and Puerto Rican woman who navigated between these different national cultures while attempting to cross over to American markets. Moreover, she is rapping in a genre that wouldn’t exist without the influences of Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Panamanians, Nuyoricans, and African Americans. Diaspora is not only a “process and condition” constantly being re-imagined through different migrations, productions, and struggles; but it is also a “project of affinity” in search of a community that defies these borders of separation after centuries of displacement and oppression (Laó-Montes 2008, 118-119).
In addition to crafting a narrative of black pride and black consciousness for Afro-Puerto Ricans, La Hill’s lyrics and visuals are also interrupting patriarchal gender dynamics that construct blackness as a “brotherhood” establishing black men as the “agents” of blackness (Rivera 2009). In the music video for “Paso a Paso” she’s seen dancing with male back-up dancers in a white fur hat and jacket duo, silver hoop earrings, frosty blue eyeshadow, and blue jeans. This look pays homage to the iconic fashion style of the 90s African American and broader Hip Hop scene and provides us another example of the ways in which Afro-Latinxs have attempted to bridge the divides between “Blackness” and “Latinidad” as they live in their intersection. This serves the role of restoring visibility to Reggaetón’s black roots as “música negra.”
“Estilo macho pa que me escuchen” - “Masculine style so they can hear me” (La Hill - "El Rumbón")
This urban attire, along with her low, raspy voice and rapping speed does the work of portraying La Hill’s persona in a more masculine light. Her denim jeans, hat, and tough exterior not only portray her as being “one of the bros,” but also provides her with legitimacy to the Latinx urban (Negrx) community. In this sense, performing masculinity becomes a visual signifier of Blackness where fashion and masculine tones become a crucial, visual marker of one’s image as a Reggaetonera/o/x. Yet, as a woman, La Hill is still expected to conform to standards of femininity in regard to her hair and makeup choices and being viewed as a sex symbol. Her revealing close-up in a mini dress and white fur coat in a dim bedroom could be seen as La Hill utilizing her body to seduce her audience. In this next still we see a slowed-down clip of La Hill crossing her legs. This action stood out to me because before this she sat with her legs free and was able to move and bounce around as she expressed herself. But in this clip, she sat frozen in this one position without rapping as if she was taking a moment to bask in her own glory. Her hands shifting her weight backwards can be interpreted as if she’s resting upon her own throne, unbothered by anyone else around her. The act of a woman crossing their legs is usually a sign of submission to the person leading the conversation, or a trait of being lady-like (a submission to societal norms); but here La Hill appears to be basking in her power as a Reggaetonera in her own lane and enjoying every minute of it.
La Diva, La Caballota, La Reina del Reggaetón, or Martha Ivelisse Pesante is better known as Ivy Queen. Ivy Queen is undisputedly one of the most successful artists in the Reggaetón industry. In her debut on the Reggaetón scene, she was quickly known for assuming a “masculine stance” and rapping with “rudeza” in her album En Mi Imperio (In My Empire) released in 1997 (Rivera-Rideau 2015, 112).
She rose to fame after releasing her third album Diva in 2003, featuring one of her most iconic songs, “Quiero Bailar,” where Ivy reclaims the nightclub perreo scene by asserting the power she holds over her body in these intimate settings, and making consent and respect the norm from her partners. Her catalogue spans over 20+ years and she is still releasing new music till this day in 2019. Her fans have watched her grow from being a driven teenage girl to being a massive icon for the Latinx community, and her transition through different life stages from marriage, divorce, and motherhood as well. Her songs speak about female empowerment, relationships, and challenging narratives about Reggaetón being a genre of delinquency.
Ivy Queen fiercely emerged in a male-dominated industry by creating her own lane and standing tall in it. She was not the objectified video vixen, nor the respectable good girl. She was outspoken, assertive, multi-faceted, and fearless. In one of her singles from her first album “Pon Atención,” she takes us through the streets of Spanish Harlem in NYC while rapping:
“Pon atención nación, pais, asociación que ya llegó la Queen
Barrios, caserios, variadas urbanizaciones pongan atención a mi”
The chorus reads: “Pay attention (Spanish command verb form) nation, country, association because the Queen has arrived, Neighborhoods, projects, various urban areas pay attention to me.” Ivy Queen came into the industry commanding respect through the style of Rap and pays homage to these founding genres by saying “Viva el rap y el reggae” (Long live Rap and Reggae) making herself an outlet where more connections between Latinidad and Blackness can grow. In the article “Introduction: Representin': Women, Hip Hop, and Popular Music,” Hobson and Bartlow introduce us to this genre of music as a “contested form of ‘art’ or ‘genius,’” and that women being underrepresented in the “musical production process” can lead to female artists having their artistry scrutinized in ways their male counterparts do not have to experience (2007, 2). Women’s lack of access to musical production and the burden they face to acquire respect in this industry has made genres like Hip Hop into “site[s] of expression and resistance” (Hobson and Bartlow 2007, 2).
Furthermore, I’d like to bring attention to a scene that stood out to me at the halfway mark of the music video for “Pon Atención.” In this scene Ivy is walking through the NYC night-scene in a shiny, black puffer jacket, gold hoops, long acrylic nails, and a 90s waterfall hair updo. It’s another look that is fully immersed in 90s urban, Hip Hop, African American fashion, and her rap persona is fully up to speed with this swag.
In this clip I’d like to point out what’s occurring in the background of this seemingly mundane, NYC nightlife shot. After repeatedly watching this scene, I noticed the passersby and their reactions to Ivy’s performance as a roadblock in their commute. I recognize that NYC is not as glamorous as mainstream media has cracked it up to be, and New Yorkers have adapted a heightened awareness to their surroundings just to get through their day and commute across the city. However, I believe bringing attention to the reactions of the people, who present as the average white American womxn, passing behind her would add a meaningful contribution to our analysis of gender and blackness.
When we think of femininity, we associate idealized attributes of gentleness, sensitivity, and modesty as what defines “womanhood.” However, these hegemonic constructions of femininity are synonymous with whiteness, and specifically a Euro-centric, white womanhood. However, Ivy Queen is an opponent to idealized notions of white femininity as she’s here in the big city on her own, and not clutching onto a man to protect her from the world. She does not portray the prim & proper, virtuous, good girl who is passively receptive to whatever a man says or desires from her. Nor is she the hypersexual, submissive, subordinate video vixen whom, although one may think is liberated from traditional femininity, is still performing for the male gaze. She crafted a lane for herself in Reggaetón where it’s not a man’s world, it’s Ivy’s world.
There is no question about whether or not Ivy Queen’s artistry has earned her a spot in Reggaetón. However, I believe that we cannot lift her up as the sole matriarch of Reggaetón without taking into account the privileges she’s received as a light-skin, racially ambiguous woman in the music industry. In Puerto Rican society and media, Ivy Queen’s light skin complexion grants her the ability to evade blackness to a certain degree. Her skin’s proximity to whiteness allows her to maneuver the industry and cross over to different audiences in ways that women of La Hill’s complexion (or darker) may not ever obtain due to colorism and the perpetuation of mestizaje in Latin media. However, her racial and regional background and the image she portrays in Reggaetón puts her in proximity to the negative stereotypes that surround the urban, black working class, and separates her from the protection and praise that’s granted to performances of white femininity.
In the chapter “Salon Philosophers,” Alexandra T. Vasquez brings our attention to an intimate moment Ivy Queen shared with a fan at a festival (Rivera, Marshall, and Hernandez 2009). Like most artists at an outdoor festival in the summertime, Ivy planned to douse the crowd with a bottle of water to cool them down out of consideration for her fans’ wellbeing. However, before doing so she pointed towards one woman and said:
‘‘Tú no quieres que se te joda el blower negra, ¿verdad? Yo tampoco. Yo tengo el pelo malo. Te lo juro, yo soy blanca pero tengo pelo malo.’’
She told her: “You don’t want me to fuck up your hair’s blow-out, negra, am I right? I wouldn’t want that either. I have bad hair too. I swear to you, I’m white but I have bad hair.” By blow-out Ivy is referring to the common practice among specifically Afro-Latinx woman to go to the salon and get their hair blow-dried and straightened. From a young age, Afro-Latinas are forced to accustom to respectability politics and strive towards Euro-centric beauty standards at the expense of their natural features. ‘Fixing’ your hair as a black woman can be a loaded experience for most because it is a physically painful process, it can lead to internalized self-hatred, and it can lead to associating your beauty with Western, Anglo features.
In Puerto Rico there’s a common phrase that states “O te peinas, o te haces rolos” (Or you brush your hair, or you get rollers put in your hair) that is often used to generally signify that you have two options but each will result in the same outcome. This phrase shows how having to fix your hair is of such common practice on the island that it can be used as a blanket statement to apply to anything in everyday life. Fixing your hair equates to either taming your hair into a neatly, tucked away style or getting rolos, a blow-out, and straightening it with a flat iron at the salon. In my experience, growing up as a Dominican-American girl meant my mother would frequently ask me if I wanted her to do rolos for me. In her mind it was a statement of cariño (affection) that she wanted to make me look better, so I could present myself properly to the world. And if my hair was in its natural state, my family would refer to it as a pajón (afro-textured hair) which would imply I needed to go fix it. This context is important because it would be too easy to interpret Ivy’s statement as one of ignorance or hatred of afro-textured hair. Vasquez suggests we should instead consider the weight of Ivy’s experience with her hair and other Afro-Latinas’ experiences and the conclusions they have formed about their hair as a result of societal norms (Rivera, Marshall, and Hernandez 2009).
Latina article about Ivy Queen’s pregnancy showcases the external “whitening” transformation of Ivy since her debut album. The article itself also gives good insight into how the media imposes gender norms and standards of femininity onto Ivy Queen.
The Queen is Here– Ivy’s response to a younger Latin Trap artist Anuel AA who questioned her title as the Queen of Reggaetón. From this image we can see Ivy sporting her more traditional urban aesthetic, a natural hairstyle, and feminist symbols to reclaim her power in the industry.
As Reggaetón continues to grow and evolve further away from its origins, it’s more important now than ever to learn about the genre’s roots as “música negra” and give credit where credit is due. This blogpost is not the first piece of work that has been written to recognize the role of Afro-Latinas in Reggaetón and I hope it will not be the last. Men should not hold the reigns in shaping our culture because it would be a perspective that is severely limited. Afro-Latinas have produced work that challenges gender norms to empower not only women but also members of the LGBTQ community; and pushes beyond the negative, “deviant” representations of black, urban, and working-class communities. Through their artistry, La Hill and Ivy Queen are just two examples of the ways in which Afro-Reggaetoneras have stood in opposition to anti-blackness and sexism. Their work is an avenue we can take to increase the inclusion of Afro-Latinx voices and their contributions to conceptions of Blackness, Latinidad, and Diaspora. Colorism, mestizaje, and anti-blackness continue to hold an unfortunate grip over Latinidad, so even in an age where the public has more agency in demanding representation from the media the Latin music industry is still falling short. The most important thing we as consumers can do is actively seek out Afro-Latina artists and shower them with the love and support they deserve because yes, media plays a big role, but our buying power and collective discussions, like I hope this post will spark, do as well.
Feel free to sound off in the comments below, and I encourage you all to leave your favorite Afro-Latinx Reggaetonera/o/xs and their work as well!
Jessica De Los Santos '22 is pursuing a B.A in American Studies with a concentration in Latina/o Studies at Williams College. At Williams she is the Treasurer of the Black Student Union, the Social Activities and Communications Chair of the Students of Caribbean Ancestry organization, the Marketing DIrector of Black Previews, and a lead dance choreographer for the Afro-Latinx dance group: Ritmo Latino. She is from Lynn, MA and graduated from the KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate Charter School. She is a Goldberg and Quest Bridge Scholar, a second generation Domininican-American woman and identifies as a mixed/multiracial Afro-Dominicana.
Jessica can be reached at jessicadelossantos.org and on Instagram @noiresaint
Hernandez, Deborah P., Wayne Marshall, and Raquel Z. Rivera, editors. Reggaetón. Duke University Press, 2009.
Hobson, Janell, and R. Dianne Bartlow. “Introduction: Representin’: Women, Hip Hop, and Popular Music.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, vol. 8, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–14, doi:10.2979/mer.2007.8.1.1
Laó-Montes, Agustín. “Afro-Latinidades: Bridging Blackness and Latinidad.” Technofuturos: Critical Interventions in Latina/o Studies, by Nancy Raquel Mirabal, Lexington Books, 2008, pp. 117–140.
Rivera-Rideau, Petra R. Remixing Reggaetón: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico. Duke University Press, 2015.
Rivera-Rideau, Petra R. “‘If I Were You’: Tego Calderón's Diasporic Interventions.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, vol. 22, no. 1, 2018, pp. 55–69, doi:10.1215/07990537-4378924.