How Ivy Queen Made A Space For Women in Latin Hip-Hop
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Ivy Queen, the lyrical legend who captured the attention and devotion of Puerto Rico’s underground music heavy-hitters in the mid-90s, is as vital to Latin music as ever.
Before reggaeton coalesced into an easily identifiable genre — and long before the ubiquity of social media-driven justice movements — Ivy Queen was very deliberately making music that centered the experiences of women. Almost twenty years after her debut album, En Mi Imperio, dropped in 1997, her artistry remains as important and necessary as ever.
Last month, Ivy was the special guest in a live recording of Red Bull Radio’s Bien Buena series hosted by DJ Riobamba and Uproot Andy. The night was early, and the show had yet to begin. Attendees were still gathering their seats and ordering drinks, but Ivy Queen had already commanded the attention of everyone in the venue. She quietly walked onto the empty stage, seemingly unaware that everyone’s eyes were glued to her, and proceeded to kill an impromptu photoshoot. Her appropriately flamboyant fuchsia fur coat, skin-tight jumpsuit, and perfectly-styled blonde bob all reflected the stage lights.
When the show did eventually kick off, the stage was dominated by the presence of women— something not insignificant for a segment about reggaeton, a male-dominated genre tainted by a long history of excluding women. In the words of Riobamba, the night’s conversations centered women’s stories and female empowerment through the lens of the evolution of reggaeton, and, more specifically, Ivy Queen: a lyrical legend who captured the attention and devotion of Puerto Rico’s underground music heavy-hitters in the mid-90s when reggaeton hardly had a name.
“I was doing freestyle. I was doing hip-hop. I was doing reggae. Because in those days, there wasn’t even such a thing as reggaeton,” Ivy Queen said as she recounted the early stages of her career. “Then the music changed. Then comes reggaeton, and there I am waiting for my turn.”
She was born on the west side of Puerto Rico in Añasco. (“West side, ride or die,” she said playfully.) She told the story of the first time she auditioned for DJ Negro, one of the so-called fathers of Reggaeton. Her parents had divorced, and she was helping her mother raise her younger brothers. “I found out people were saying my voice was very masculine, that I sounded like a man,” Ivy said. “I was small. I was skinny. But I was like, “You know what, this is what I want to do. This is what my heart is telling me. I arrive in San Juan, Puerto Rico where there’s an audition. There aren’t any women…all the men are looking at me like, ‘who the fuck is this?'”
Ivy Queen would eventually become the first female member of The Noise, a Puerto Rican collective of music performers, which helped catapult her to celebrity status within the local underground scene. By the time she released her third studio album, Diva, in 2003, reggaeton was on the eve of a global crossover. And her album paved the way for it.
As the genre gained mainstream success in the United States, and around the world, many Puerto Rican government officials felt that reggaeton, a lowly genre birthed out of poverty and youth culture, was becoming the face of Puerto Rico. This was inconceivable. Spearheaded by Senator Velda Gonzalez, a campaign aimed at censoring “perreo,” the overtly sexual dance that’s inseparable from reggaeton, was launched under the guise of “protecting women.” “ Senator Velda Gonzalez, rest in peace, says that our music denigrates women, blah, blah, blah. We were being persecuted,” Ivy Queen said. “I felt attacked because from the getgo I’m singing anthems for the ladies.”
The conversation shifted to talk about one of her biggest hits, “Quiero Bailar,” and the impact that it had on women around the world. “I was a tomboy, so I used to go to the clubs and see the pretty girls upset because the guys used to grab them in the club and bother them,” Ivy Queen said.
The song turned anthem is about a woman who enjoys a sweaty “perreo” — who doesn’t mind grinding up on a man, but who also needs it to be clear that she’s going home alone at the end of the night. “Porque yo soy la que mando/Soy la que decide cuando vamos al mambo y tu lo sabes” translates to “Because I’m the one that commands/I’m the one that decides when we do the dance and you know it.” At the heart of the song is the theme of consent and women’s desire for bodily autonomy. In many ways, the song remains as relevant and imperative as when it was released because existing in this world as a woman is no easier now than it was then. The song is medicine; it’s empowerment and utter joy.
“You can listen to that song today, and your aunt, your cousin is going to be like ‘that’s the shit.’ That’s what I accomplished with ‘Yo Quiero Bailar,’” she said, in a moment of braggadocio. “After I finish a song, sometimes I surprise myself. I record and just think, ‘wow.’ For me it’s like someone’s dictating a song in my ear, and they won’t leave me alone until I finish the song.”
Throughout the night, it became evident that Ivy Queen is more than comfortable hyping herself up and acknowledging her place within reggaeton and Latin American music. Women are rarely allowed to openly regard themselves that way without immediately being shut down by the world. On this night, however, she got a standing ovation.
At the end of the night, I got some one-on-one time with her. We began with a conversation about the time she spent living in New York during her adolescence, particularly about the hip-hop scene and the way it impacted her desire to become a lyricist. As soon as she started talking, her excitement became palpable. Ivy Queen lives and breathes music, and she knows her craft as well as anyone could. “I’m a lyricist. I love the power of lyrics,” she said. “I love the way that lyrics can touch people.”
I asked her about her thoughts on the current role of women in the “urbano” music scene, the term used to describe a broader genre partly inspired by reggaeton but more often than not fused with pop and more classic Latin American genres like salsa and merengue. She took a long pause before answering. She seemed disillusioned — perhaps not so much by the music itself or the female artists experiencing mainstream success, but rather by the lack of diversity among the women at the forefront.
I wish I could hear more empowering songs towards us. Ones that fuel us with the power we already have. We aren’t complementary things. We’re the lifeline. We need to embrace that. There’s a bunch of girls that some people consider underdogs, and they’re very talented and great lyricists. One is in New York, Lady Vixen. She’s Dominican. There’s another girl, Barbara Doza. She’s Venezuelan. There’s Catalina, who was just signed by Yandel. I think Catalina has tremendous potential to be really big if they let her be who she is. Melli…a Dominican lyricist.
But the genre has yet to allow another woman like her into its top ranks, an “underdog” like she says. Because, although there appears to be more room for women to create alongside their male peers in reggaeton, Latin trap, and música urbana these days, Ivy Queen remains an anomaly. She remains an anomaly stylistically. She remains an anomaly in the level of success she experienced. And she remains an anomaly in her unshakeable commitment to centering the stories and voices of women.
Mariana Viera is a first-generation Mexican-American writer. She has written for Teen Vogue, Noisey, and VIBE. You can follow her on Twitter @_malditamari