Reggaeton and the Emancipation of Women

By: Keren Esobar

It’s incredible how something we consider detestable can mean the opposite to someone else. Such is the case with Reggaeton. It has beautiful roots although the genre as is, is despicable for huge groups while enjoyed by many others.

Throughout human history various types of music have been developed revealing collective restlessness and individual anxiety. Jazz, Blues and Reggae are musical genres with roots in Africa, genres that were fundamental pillars of social, political and economic struggles. Protests against inequality, violence, xenophobia and demonstrations against many other violations of human dignity were orchestrated with music and dance in the United States and parts of Europe. Later they were replicated in Latin America.

Initially, these genres were negatively viewed because they were performed by and for the Afro-American community and were not seen as respectable types of music and dance; however, with time, they became valued. It was through the arts that the poorest, most excluded communities directed its historic search for freedom. Other manifestations and dynamics also emerged as part of this search for equality, solidarity and criticism of society. Additionally, new musical styles were born and were influenced which ultimately turned into new musical genres. Recently, another genre was born which is currently present in most parts of the world: Reggaeton.

In the early 90’s, in Panama, Puerto Rico and Colombia the rhythmic structure known as “dembow”, that of Reggaeton, began to be used. And Spanish translation of Reggae songs was launched, but clearly, it was in Puerto Rico that the Reggaeton we know today was born. It was influenced by Rap from the US as a tool for expression in the poorest and most marginalized neighborhoods. It’s worth mentioning that Puerto Rico has territorial status within the United States, a country which exercises a strong influence on industry, culture, politics and the economy of Puerto Rico. And this relationship is fundamental to understanding why Reggaeton has distanced itself from social commentary and has become so commercialized.

Besides the commercialization of this genre, history and society have described Reggaeton as a genre that belongs to men, but . . . what genre hasn’t? Exclusion of women in the arts is widely known and many of them have had to push themselves much harder than their male counterparts in order to be recognized. Although from its beginnings there have been women participating in the creation of this music, their continual participation has been minimal.

There is an existent feminist discourse which poses the question whether feminists, or women in general, ought to listen to, dance to or enjoy Reggaeton since many have categorized it as vulgar, indecent and abusive. Nevertheless, recently, a feminine genre has tried to create a Reggaton in its image and is gaining in popularity. Interestingly, it has begun to respond to the chauvinist messages, the sexism and misogyny that characterize the majority of the songs from this genre. And new lyrics offer a discourse in which women are vindicated through application of a feminist vision to this type of music.

It is a fact that women’s bodies are viewed as sexualized objects which are exploited violently in Latin American society. Society tolerates them being utilized for publicity or as objects for violence. Yet when women use their bodies as instruments of emancipation, pleasure or if they denounce a systemic sexism, or merely search for freedom of expression, they are condemned. This includes the movement of the body, in fact, it is one of the manifestations that the system has wanted to control. “El perreo”, the name of the dance coming out of Reggaeton, for example, is quite sexual, sensual and uninhibited. Dance can be related to energy, expansiveness, and the physical body, but also to the spirit. If a dance is prohibited or is stigmatized as not appropriate for women, then their freedom is prohibited. We women want to dance any of type music without being defined, judged or violated.

When women dance “el perreo” men think they have the right to violate or cross boundaries with women’s bodies; then they want to make women their property. In fact, dancing freely, that we express ourselves without being anyone’s object, declaring that dancing does not obligate us in any way and that we can be intimate with someone when we decide to do so, is a lesson for and a direct transgression of the misogynist system. Women’s new lyrics for Reggaeton take advantage of popular music to advance the socially-conscious, and one hears a new discourse in which we come to terms with our bodies, the pleasure we deserve, the economic independence we can have, strength to denounce abuse of violence against women, even prevent violence against women.

Each day the voices of female activists and artists increase and they are reinterpreting reggaeton breaking it away from sexism that has up to now surrounded this genre. Music should not be the property of anyone, nor exclusively for one group of society: Music is universal. Because of the tempo and rhythm characterizing reggaeton, so similar to that of a heart beating, it is very catchy and stays in the subconscious. How can we ignore the rhythm that reminds us of being in our mother’s womb? To paraphrase a well-known saying, “if you can’t go up against reggaeton, join in with it! Join in with it, making it your own: rewriting it from the perspective of gender and the empowerment of women, creating a revolution, questioning its discourse and its aesthetic. To take down that maliciousness against women is to send a new message of sisterhood and emancipation.