Beyond Despacito: the Feminist Reggaeton Divas You’ll be Listening to in 2018

As reggaeton starts it's takeover of the US and UK charts, a new wave of female MCs are revolutionising Spanish-language rap music argues Megan Wallace.

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Writing about reggaeton in 2018 inevitably means writing under the shadow of ‘Despacito’. The track, which was already a hit across Latin America and Spain, took off internationally last year once Justin Bieber jumped on board and became one of only three Spanish-language singles (including ‘La Macarena’) to have ever reached No. 1 in the US charts. The song also reached the top spot in countries this side of the Atlantic — in the UK, Ireland, Italy, France and Germany, to name only a few. Its runaway success has opened the doors to Spanish-language hits from Little Mix and CNIC, J Balvin and Beyoncé, and Demi Lovato and Luis Fonsi, paving the way for more transcultural collaboration in the years to come.

Despite the genre’s recent rise to prominence within the English-speaking world, reggaeton has been a mainstay of Spanish-language music for over two decades. While we might have some early recollection of reggaeton from Daddy Yankee’s 2004 smash hit ‘Gasolina’, the movement emerged earlier, in the 1990s, amongst Spanish-speaking communities in Panama, Puerto Rico and New York. An amalgamation of musical styles coming from different cultures — dancehall from Jamaica, Puerto Rican bomba and North American hip-hop — reggaeton serves as a musical map of the migration and movement which has shaped the communities living in the Americas.

With ‘Despacito’ giving way to the likes of ‘Mi Gente’ and ‘Reggaeton Lento’, reggaeton is showing no signs of vacating airwaves across North America and Europe. However, while reggaeton has a much more varied and complex history than what white audiences might immediately realise, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to music being produced across Latin America and Spain. With the genre’s runaway success over the past year, 2018 looks set to be the year when English-speaking audiences become acquainted with the sheer variety of music recorded in the Spanish language.

Walking into a club in Madrid, you’ll likely hear a form of trap which has derived from reggaeton and which has, somewhat inexplicably, exploded in popularity across the country. More than a genre, it’s very nearly morphed into a youth movement in its own right. Principal artists include Yung Beef and Pimp Flaco & Kinder Malo, who run the show at big music festivals like Primavera Sound and Sonar and whose popularity in Spain has announced one of the major changes in the Spanish music scene since the noughties. Like modern-day ATL trap, it’s all about a fusion between hip hop and SoundCloud friend synthetics and the hybridised sound is reflective of the increasingly urban inclination of the music emerging from Spain.

Similarly, this new strain of Spanish rap music is hard to separate from the worlds of reggaeton and dancehall that have inspired it. While the reggaeton which has reached us in recent months is a more pop-infused, family-friendly version of the genre, it has been traditionally associated with sexist language and ‘machismo’. Traditionally rapped and not sung, it has a lot more in common with gangsta rap than it does with Justin Bieber. For example, far from singing about taking it slow, the Columbian reggaeton star Maluma racked up over 800 million Youtube views with ‘Cuatro Babys’, a song about dating four women simultaneously. Rapping about the women in question, he says that none of them turns him on, but they make up for it because they ‘Siempre me dan lo que quiero/ chingan cuando yo les digo’, roughly translating to; ‘always give me what I want/ they give me sex when I say’. However, even Maluma’s crudely misogynistic lyrics pale in comparison to reggaeton rappers like Puerto Rican Jiggy Drama, whose song ‘Contra la pared’ (‘Against the Wall’) contains open threats of sexual violence.

The situation in Spanish language trap is no less concerning, especially as it hasn’t been cleaned-up for a mainstream audience. The community is pervaded by a culture of ‘money, bitches, drugs’ (dinero, putas, drogas) and with misogynistic slurs like ‘zorra’ and ‘puta’ being commonplace and many songs dealing in lyrics about sexual conquests or sexual violence, the genre is incredibly hostile towards women.

However, there is a host of female artists working across trap, reggaeton and dancehall who switch up the dynamic, steering their music towards a more dance-floor-focussed sound and progressive atmosphere. These artists include Bad Gyal, La Favi, La Zowi and Ms Nina, who have all been working tirelessly over the past few years; self-promoting on social media, SoundCloud and YouTube as well as putting on their own gigs to reshape the genre into a more female-friendly space.

Ms Nina

Their aesthetic is a performative, hyped-up glamour and their self-assured lyrics are reminiscent of early Lil Kim and Junglepussy – the MC Ms Nina, for example, proclaims herself a ‘sicaria’ [hit woman] with confident expertise in romantic/ sexual encounters. The Madrid-based musician and creative is keenly aware of her role in challenging the male-dominated words of reggaeton and rap. Conversing in Spanish, she explains, with characteristic confidence, that ‘being a woman and talking about sex breaks taboos, whereas it’s not the same being a man’. She’s not concerned about pandering to conservative views about female sexuality, saying that ‘if I want to look sexy in a video then I do it because I want to, and to hell with anyone who has a problem with it.’ She concludes with a rousing call to other women to do the same – ‘it’s time there were a change and the more of us there are, the better’.

Catalonian-born Alba Farelo, a.k.a Bad Gyal, presents a similarly empowered and liberated stance through her music. The twenty-year-old ingénue has attracted admirable media attention outside of Spain— 2017 saw English-language publications like Noisey, Fact and Pitchfork all featuring profiles on her — and has drawn fans from across the world, embarking on a Mexico to LA tour and hitting up locales like Berlin, Paris, Rome and London in a single year. Farelo’s rise to notoriety was sudden and acute, off the back of a distinctive sound which melds reggaeton, trap and dancehall, layering beats under razor-sharp lyrics. Speaking to the musician, whose genre-defying hits include ‘Pai’, a Catalan-language adaptation of Rihana’s ‘Work’, it’s clear that she doesn’t spend much time worrying about what other people think. Describing how both her music and personal success can teach listeners the importance of ‘being true to yourself’, she explains that her confident musical persona can ‘make other girls see that you can do whatever you want with your life and your body and don’t [have to] give a fuck about people’s reactions’.

Bad Gyal – Alexis Gómez

This wave of bad-ass female MCs is a largely DIY movement, with striking similarities to grime in the UK, with artists releasing independently on SoundCloud and making their own videos on YouTube. Circumventing the traditional route of record labels has allowed these female MCs to maintain their independence within the industry, giving them the freedom to break taboos and manifest an unbridled feminine strength. The internet has been particularly instrumental in Farelo’s career, given that it was on YouTube where she first began to release music, quickly attracting the attention of mainstream Spanish media channels. Commenting on how the Internet has opened her music up to a wider audience, she says: ‘[the] internet is a window for everyone — you can share whatever you want, wherever you want and if people like it, you can start making your own career’.

With these women going from strength to strength, playing larger and larger venues and touring widely outside of Spain, it seems likely that they will start breaking through in the alternative and underground spheres in the UK and beyond. With the Internet working to connect more and more people, to promote musical collaboration across borders and to allow unsigned artists to yield real influence, music is becoming more international and progressive. With 2018 set to be the year that the UK, US and beyond open their charts to Spanish-language music, the role artists like Ms Nina and Bad Gyal are playing is vital in counteracting the misogyny present within much of reggaeton and beyond.

Featured image Javier Ruiz

Words Megan Wallace