Ivy Queen is the first reggaetonera to reach international stardom, and the only Spanish-language rapper to obtain success rivaling her male peers. She discusses her new projects, the inspiration behind her women’s empowerment anthem “Quiero Bailar” and the challenges she faced stepping into a male-dominated music genre.

By Jennifer Mota
February 28, 2019 03:01 PM

“Is it or is it not OK to put your hand up a woman’s skirt if she’s perreando?” the radio MC asked in Spanish to his listeners. The segment’s topic was spawned from Puerto Rican rapper Ivy Queen’s latest track at the time, “Quiero Bailar.” Callers chimed in, turning the daily morning show I heard with my parents on my way to school into a battle of the sexes and a war of words focused on the back-to-front style known as perreo. Spawned from perro, “dog” in Spanish, the style was deemed as low class for its movements mimicking sex from behind, or “doggy style.”

While the women defended their right to dance unmolested, men calling in expressed traditional Latinx machismo: “Don’t dance provocatively if you don’t want to get touched,” said one caller. Fifteen years have passed since then, and some cultures have evolved since then, thanks to the era of #MeToo.

The rapper, who by 2002 was no rookie to the game, realized the lack of respect women received at clubs and called out the lack of elegance in the ritual of dancing up on someone. What happened to asking a woman for a dance? She decided to do something about it, and “Quiero Bailar” has since expanded the genre of reggaetón in important ways.

The intro starts with an old Victorian-style instrumental, emphasizing a turn to classier behavior on the dance floor. The first verse goes: “Porque yo soy la que mando, soy la que decide cuando vamos al mambo y tu lo sabes,” which translates to “Because I’m the one that commands, I’m the one that decides when we do the dance and you know it.” She reassured women that they are in control of if, when and where a dance happens, and it spoke to women who were both fans of the genre and the style of perreo dance.

Draped in a red James Dean–style motorcycle leather jacket, the 46-year-old maestra, also known by her nicknames La Diva, La Potra and La Caballota, looked as if she caught a case of Benjamin Button, youthful, radiant, when she spoke to CHICA. She revealed that “Quiero Bailar” was written because “I would go to clubs, and I saw how the pretty girls would be grabbed by the men trying to get them to dance…. My perspective was whoa, these girls are having a hard time.”

The rapper never imagined the track would blow up and become a symbol of sexual freedom. Last July, the song was listed in Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Latin Pop Songs of All Time and owns the 60th spot on NPR Music’s list of the 200 Best Songs by 21st Century Women.

Recently, Spotify approached the reggaetonera for an update of the track. “In this case, it’s not that I’m making a remix, but a remake,” she explains to CHICA. What’s particularly beautiful about it, she says, is that it will involve an all-women team, from the sound engineers to those behind mastering.

How she became Queen

Born Martha Ivelisse Pesante Rodríguez in Anasco, Puerto Rico, the songwriter moved to New York City at an early age with her parents. At 18, she moved back to San Juan, where she was introduced to rapper and producer DJ Negro, who established a club called The Noise. He produced a series of CDs around the rappers that freestyled in the club and would form the all-male group The Noise. The group played a huge role in the emerging reggaetón scene known at the time as “underground,” but also became known for its explicit, raunchy lyrics promoting the mistreatment of women (see the 1992 “The Noise: Vol. 1” track “Maldita Puta,” by Las Guanabanas).

After performing her own rap battles against men in the San Juan club, Ivy Queen joined The Noise in 1995. As the only female artist, she was scrutinized — her baggy, tomboy clothes style, her more masculine voice. Everything from her looks and her sexuality to her fashion choices were questioned. “I heard everything about me, it never stopped me.”

Tired of the aggression toward women and violent themes, she strayed from the norm by celebrating hip-hop culture and social nonconformity in “Somos Raperos Pero No Delincuentes” translated to “We Are Rappers, Not Delinquents,” along with Baby Rasta y Gringo, Bebe, and Point Breakers. After DJ Negro convinced her to go solo, she dropped her debut album En Mi Imperio in 1997.

After she left and turned up the glam, “They said I was a drag queen,” she says chuckling. “It did bother me, that type of … they call it bullying now. But I’ve always said that people who are sick inside pour out poison.” As a woman on her own path in the Latin music industry, she faced her share of naysayers. “Maybe if I wasn’t a woman with strong convictions, I would have probably fallen and not given music a try,” the rapper says. “But those that told me my voice was too masculine, and that this industry wasn’t for me, never imagined that it would be my blessing, that I wouldn’t sound like any other person in the planet.”

Women in reggaetón

It’s undeniable that women played a crucial part in reggaetón’s success. The risqué themes of the tracks — regulated sexualized hooks or submissive sex-related comments —made many tracks more popular. While it wasn’t the kind of music that Ivy Queen was interested in, others went this route. Jenny La Sexy Voz is the woman behind some of classic reggaetón’s most known hits. Engineering more than 80 hooks for the likes of Wisin y Yandel and Daddy Yankee, among many her voice became a staple to a reggaetón song.

Songs like “Dale Don Dale” by Don Omar and “Gasolina” by Daddy Yankee had hooks by reggaetonera Glory, who went solo in 2005 with her album Glou. In her song “La Popola,” she sings of the female sex organ, reclaiming the tones and themes men in the industry already sang on. The song was banned in some Latin-American countries for its sexual lyrics, and the controversy limited her exposure. She wouldn’t reach the same international popularity as La Diva.

Through the ’90s, the Spanish rap sub-genre known as “underground,” born out of impoverished caserios (Puerto Rico’s public housing) became reggaetón; and Puerto Rico would be the face attached to the music. The style — racy and violent — was not something elites or religious conservatives were fond of as an image of the island, thus they condemned the music. Now deceased senator Velda Gonzalez led an “anti-pornography” campaign in 2002 aimed at censoring the music and videos as a way to protect youth and exploited women. 

Ivy personally felt unduly attacked by the campaign, which claimed all the women involved in reggaeton were victims. “I was tired of people putting all the apples in the same basket. When the ex-senator said our music and rappers were degrading towards women, I felt bad because I personally never did. It felt generalized, and it motivated me more.”

Solidifying her status

No doubt the political narratives and personal experiences the songwriter went through helped her create the balance of street and what Ivy calls “elegance” in her delivery. Her style, as evidenced by her breakout third studio record, Diva, in 2003, became likable to women from other parts in Latin America that weren’t familiar with the genre. With songs like “Te He Querido, Te He llorado” from Luny Tunes’ Mas Flow 2 album and “La Vida Es Asi,” the rapper sang from the women’s experience in dealing with heartbreak and infidelity. “I absorb everything I live and experience. I’m a sponge, I’m a Pisces. We are all feeling, we are dragged by our emotions,” she says. “And I’ve had to channel all these sentiments into music.”

This helped her become the only female artist in the genre to achieve the same success as her male peers. She appeared in Latin-American awards shows and took part in the first reggaetón performance ever in an award show for the Latin Grammys, “12 Discipulos,” alongside Vico C, Eddie D, and Tego Calderon, among others. 

Still a boys club

The bittersweet taste to her success is that she was the only woman to capitalize on the style. As seen in other urban genres like rap, the narrative that there is only space for one woman in the game is perpetuated. Often times, the ladies are pitted against each other to fight for that number one spot. That’s why female collaborations like Becky G and Natti Natasha are significant. Recently, Ivy Queen joined forces with Dominican rapper Mely Mel for her Spanish rap single “Se Te Pago La Luz,” re-stepping into her rap roots with a fiercely lyrical track. 

Ivy Queen navigated male-dominated spaces through her assertiveness and control of situations, but “things have changed a lot since I started. Women now can demand to have their own hotel rooms or a high-end hotel. It’s different but we deserve it.” And yet what has not changed: male domination. “Still, the decisions that are made by the women aren’t really theirs, they are decisions made by men. That’s why I always said, ‘Don’t lose your elegance or lose your real power, your value.’” 

The legacy continues

Her music gave voice to women during a time when they were often objectified and degraded. And though her legacy will continue to be one of women’s empowerment, it will also encompass her role in saving reggaetón from its silo of street machismo. She’s not going to be remembered only as a female rapper in a male genre, but as an exceptional artist and entertainer in her own right. As Petra Rivera-Rideau, author of Remixing Reggaetón: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, stated in an interview for AJ+, La Diva maintained a “career that has spanned almost the entire history of reggaetón. And I think a lot of that has to do with her talent as a rapper and her ability to continuously create this innovative musical style.”

Her latest project ‘‘Llego La Queen,” birthed from the request and love of fans, will be a 6-track EP that will for sure include classic perreo rhythms.

You can watch the video to her first single “Pa’l Frente Pa’ Tras” below.

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