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Reggaeton began in Panama during the 1990s. The Central American country is where the likes of El General and Nando Boom emerged as forefathers of reggae en Español, which meant singing or rapping Spanish-language lyrics over traditional Jamaican dancehall. The burgeoning genre would spread like wildfire throughout the Caribbean diaspora with fans gravitating toward the fusion of soca and riddim.
Before Afro-Latina artists Cardi B and Amara la Negra, there was a Panamanian force to reckon with who not only shared record releases with El General and Jamaica’s Little Lenny, but inarguably paved the way for today’s leading women in the charge of reggaeton: Rude Girl La Atrevida. She both pioneered Spanish-language reggae and trailblazed for women MCs with songs like “Aventura y Romance", about her carnal desire to love and who spared no male ego like in “Que Lo Que Es.”
Akin to Rude Girl, Afro-Latina singers like La Zista and Glory “La Gata Gangster,” would make a name for themselves in reggaeton. But, sadly, they would go virtually unsung in a genre that over time would center white-passing Latinas.
“Black Latinas are desperately needed [but] the Latin market’s hyper-racism is its own enemy,” Panamanian music historian and founder of Reggaeton Con La Gata, Kathleen Eccleston tells Teen Vogue. “The fact that Cardi B (an AfroLatina of Dominican and Trinidadian descent) is able to crossover to the Latinx market and go back and forth to the American market is proof that Black Latinas are marketable. Women drive those sales; they’re versatile and multicultural.”
Despite Nielsen reporting Black women’s spending influence is in the trillions, as Eccleston suggests, industry executives perpetuate the racist notion that Latinegras aren't marketable. Present-day female singers in reggaeton like Karol G, Natti Natasha, Anitta, and Becky G, are all women who benefit from being non-Black and fair-skinned with orthodoxically attractive and slim bodies. Tomasa Del Real, a non-Black Chilean singer, and composer is heralded as a spearheader in what is being dubbed as neo-perreo — which is a direct offspring of reggaeton music.
The root of these identity issues within the reggaeton genre reveals a history of colorism, a complex issue in the Latinx community. “I think it’s important to highlight the classist point of view we have in Latinx culture about how blancas are more desired publicly and negras are exploited for labor except when it is time to be sexy,” Ecclesston says.
“Colorism is so rampant in [the Latin American] market that the new direction artists are pushing towards is to crossover with Black artists because they recognize that they don’t have the sauce or anything close to it. They don’t get it, they’ve overstayed their welcome in a Black genre and no amount of engineering can make magic like reggaeton’s pre-pop infusion.”
One cannot talk about the modern iteration of reggeaton without acknowledging the systematic effort to erase the genre completely. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, the Puerto Rican government targeted reggaeton with an anti-crime initiative called Mano Dura Contra el Crimen aimed at cracking down on bootlegged mixtapes circulating in caserios, or poor low-income housing projects around the island. In 2002, an aggressive anti-pornography campaign meant to oppose the sexual representations in reggaeton videos was also launched.
With reggaeton being so inherently tethered to dancehall and hip-hop, reggaeton forces us to obstruct the dangerous tall tale of Latinos as monolithic and consider the African diasporic connections to Puerto Rico and other Spanish-speaking places throughout Latin America.
As reggaeton goes pop and the gatekeepers of music and entertainment reimagine the genre’s DNA for mass consumption, it is imperative to honor those that laid the building blocks of a sound. And Black women – the original purveyors of more than one music genre – have been a requisite component of the reggaeton movement since its inception.
In honor of June Music Month, get to know these five Afro-Latinas who molded the genre of reggaeton.
La Zista, who after a ten-year-plus hiatus from music resurfaced with new music and a fresh look, came up alongside Ivy Queen but made it her business to center Blackness in her lyrics. With songs like “Anacaona,” in which La Zista likens herself to Taina poet and warrior chief of present-day Haiti (before lines were drawn and it stood as a single nation), La Zista purposefully politicized even the most bellaqueo of music to deliver her messages of African ancestry and pro-Blackness. Recently, she took to Instagram with Tego Calderon, a trailblazing architect who combined his love of jazz, hip-hop, salsa, and plena to promote themes concerning Black life and the working class in the world of reggaeton.
Another Afro-Latina artist whose lyrical prowess served as a precursor of reggaetonera wordsmiths to come, is none other than Lisa M from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Born Marlisa Marrero Vázquez, Lisa M grew up on hip-hop and would later be hailed as the first female rapper to debut on the map of Latin America. Like many of the women who followed her, she too was unapologetic in her sex appeal while waxing poetic about bodily autonomy. An equally gifted backup dancer and singer, Lisa M was known for hits like the El General-sampled "Tu Pum-Pum" and "Menealo."
Glory “La Gata Gangster”
Along with Jenny La Sexy Voz, Glory “La Gata Gangster” of Santurce, Puerto Rico, is by and large more recognized for her voice than her image. Made famous for her vocals on some of reggaeton’s biggest hits and for popularizing refrains like suelta como gabete and dame más gasolina on Daddy Yankee’s paramount radio favorite “Gasolina,” Glory unabashedly shook what her mama gave her in an era where the Black female body was either covered up, relegated to the back, or missing altogether in reggaeton music videos.
Gloria "Goyo" Martínez
The legacy of Black women in reggaeton extends beyond the shores of the Caribbean, touching women like Gloria "Goyo" Martínez, the sole woman and vocal beacon of Chocquibtown, a Black Colombian hip-hop group whose earlier catalog combines reggaeton, Afro-Latin rhythms and jazz. Alongside her husband Carlos "Tostao" Valencia and her brother Miguel "Slow" Martínez, Goyo first received international recognition with the band’s hit “De Donde Vengo Yo” (“From Where I Come”), a 2010 Latin Grammy winner for best alternative song.
The cut stood as a powerful statement against anti-blackness and discrimination aimed at Afro-Colombians. It also had a hand in popularizing salsa choke, a genre that marries traditional salsa with reggaeton and other Afro-based rhythms, in the band’s native Cali.
Nearly three decades of reggaeton, and there’s still much to say about the genre’s polarizing duality of being as exploitative of women, specifically Afro-Latinas, as it is empowering. Panamanian-Puerto Rican music activist DJ Bembona believes part of the resolve means rigorously championing women artists like her.
“Just to say that as an Afro-Latina DJ, I got to play ‘F Trump’ in front of over a thousand people who were mostly brown or white Latinx, with [a] production team who were mostly white, was f*cking amazing,” Bembona explains of her breakout moment when she opened for Colombian pop band Bomba Estereo at New York’s Irving Plaza. “I am here to serve as a puzzle piece in the dismantling of this ugly ass system.”
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