In 2002, Puerto Rican Senator Velda González misguidedly conflated her anti-reggaeton and perreo stance with fighting for women’s rights, calling the percussion-heavy genre a “triggering factor for criminal acts,” and claiming that reggaeton as a whole was denigrating women. At the time, though, Gonzalez’s sentiment was a popular opinion, and few would have put the words feminist and reggaeton in the same sentence. The following year, feminist reggaetonera Ivy Queen released “Yo Quiero Bailar.”
On the dembow heavy song, lyrically frank and created for that sensual perreo dance, Ivy set the record straight, singing, “Yo quiero bailar, tu quieres sudar y pegarte a mi/Yo te digo si, tu me puedes provocar, eso no quiere decir que ‘pa la cama voy.” Essentially: I’ll grind, sweat and dance with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re taking me to bed.
An anthem to this day, Ivy Queen (born Martha Ivelisse Pesante Rodríguez) was unapologetically addressing women in a new way that was both empowering and sex-positive. Coming off the wave of reggaeton’s rise in the ’90s, which was sown and cultivated in Panama and Puerto Rico, reggaeton was becoming mainstream in the U.S. at the time, and Ivy Queen was one of the only women in the crop—and, certainly, the best known and most respected.
On Monday night, Bad Bunny honored a few trailblazers from his homeland in the surprise single “Desde el Corazon,” and rightfully included La Mama de los Pollitos. Ivy—like Chicho Man, Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderon, and others—laid down the groundwork for the current reggaeton boom, paving the way for artists like Conejo, J Balvin, and Karol G. Still, the Puerto Rican queen doesn’t always get the recognition and honor she’s due.
Last week in Miami, sandwiched between DJ sets by Riobamba and Uproot Andy, La Caballota participated in a live taping of Bien Buena on Red Bull Radio. She spoke about the history of reggaeton and her journey, saying that “no” was always the fuel for her curiosity. The next day, Jezebel spoke with her en Español about her inspirations, thoughts on the current generation pushing the genre forward, and her new work. Our conversation has been translated and lightly edited.
JEZEBEL: When I think back on it, you were the only female reggaetonera I heard on the radio growing up, when reggaeton was really on the rise here in the “Gasolina” era. Were there women influences or people you admired and looked up to when you first started?
IVY QUEEN: Honestly, when I started with reggae, which then became reggaeton, there was no female movement. Meaning, when this started in Spanish as commercial music, and there was an El General and Vico C and this was becoming reggaeton, there were no women making reggaeton, so the movement was very underground. There were no record shops. Music was sold from the back of our trunks.
In my house, I was raised on music. My dad, rest in peace, was a guitarist. He liked bohemian music, and my mom liked salsa, so I was very much influenced by Celia Cruz. By her voice, her image, her character, her joy, her energy. I fell in love with the way Celia was respected by all the men in La Fania. Then I came across Lupe’s music around the same time I learned about Celia, and Lupe was another woman with a lot of courage and a really distinct voice. She was super passionate with her lyrics and her live shows. The women who influenced me were some really tough women.
Yeah, I adore them both. And speaking of Vico C and El General and others who set the foundation for reggaeton, you saw it all flourish in the early days, and from working with greats like Nando Boom and The Noise. How was that for you? How was it to grow as an artist in that time and in that environment?
At that time, we didn’t have any advantage. No digital advantage, no internet—the things that evolution allows for today, we didn’t have. Everything was very freehand [without help from anyone]. When I joined The Noise, I was surrounded by men all the time. I felt protected by DJ Negro as if he was a father, and at the same time I felt the urgency to protect others around me. But they always respected my character because I never emanated anything other than respect. I had my flow, but the guys knew that they couldn’t fuck with me because I wasn’t about that. I was there to make music and travel the world. There were a lot of marvelous experiences, and also a lot of sacrifice and hunger. It was a time when I was able to see Vico C and others grow. That was huge, and they’re experiences that I took with me forever.
But why reggaeton? Like you said, it was all about men at the time.
Because it was the most crude way to say the truth. So if I wanted to say, There’s a lot of prejudice against rappers and they put us in jail for having wide-legged pants and listening to this music, just for that, instead of saying it with another swing, I could capture the attention of people my age with that music. I was too young maybe to go and sing salsa or ballads, but I chose the most crude possible.
How old were you when you started?
I have about 20 years in the industry, so I think I was in my teens, around 17 or 16. I was in the street, pure ghetto writing my songs. In fact, I was choreographing for dancers who were in local competitions. There were also dance competitions, so I was in charge of choreographing for some and writing lyrics for others, and a lot of them would win with my lyrics. That’s when I started thinking, I can sing this. But when I would ask other people they would say, “You have a manly voice, so that’s not gonna happen.” I was in shock at first... I was a teenager. But I knew what I wanted to do and so I told my mom, “I’m leaving, I’m going to sing.” Then when I grew up and went from being an adolescent to a woman, I understood that the manly voice was what distinguished me from everything else out there.
Yeah, even made you stand out.
Exactly, because people would come to my shows to see what Ivy Queen looked like. People couldn’t believe it. Is she really a woman? She sounds like a man, and she’s blunt.
From the get-go, you were a feminine and feminist voice in the middle of macho men and an otherwise misogynistic culture—were you afraid to challenge that?
No, matter of fact, I would get in trouble because I always speak my mind. To this day, I have the same method. I always just say the truth, whether it gets me into trouble or not. I always say what I feel and honor the truth, even if it means being condemned by many. I didn’t measure what I was saying. I always said that you need to put women in the right position, and in my songs I always give women their place.
And when you started, the genre was very crude, like you said…
All the videos were of women in bikinis, women getting their asses slapped…
But that hasn’t changed much.
Still to this day. Nothing has changed. Music is still dominated by men. The music industry is still led by men. Men are behind a lot of decisions that are made in the industry at large. Nothing has changed. People ask me what I think about trap… I tell them, “What am I gonna think?” I’ve lived this same kind of thing and heard these same kind of lyrics before.
And when you hear this new wave, of both men and women, with fused sounds, and this sort of pop reggaeton, what do you think?
You hear the drum base of reggaeton, but it’s a fusion. You hardly hear the raw thing—reggaeton as it was born. There are a lot of fusions, a lot of collaborations. Music has evolved, and this time our genre is going through changes you never would’ve expected. A lot of pop, a lot of this, a lot of that. That’s what you call an evolution, but it’s not the same pure reggaeton. It’s different, very different.
Good different or bad?
Everything depends on the color of the crystal that you’re looking through. I’m a lyricist, I will always say the same thing. As I was saying at the panel, the day that Don Omar captured my attention was when he was vulnerable enough to sing a “Pobre Diabla” to a woman, or a “dime que bailando te conoci, cuentale.” When he started to sing in a magnificent way that shows vulnerability and expressed that a man, too, can feel. That’s when he captured my attention. I’m a lyricist. I will not discredit the work of anyone else but to my likening, you will capture my ear if you’re telling me something with substance.
Yeah, and there is still some of that, but debatably less than when you were starting off—a time when music was more focused on lyrics than sound.
There you go.
In a new song that J Balvin released, “Reggaeton,” although I generally like his music, I was disappointed that in his video and lyrics he only focused on…
Yes, and he failed to mention the contribution any Panamanian artists, adding to the erasure of their contributions to reggae and reggaeton.
You gotta know your history. I would never disrespect Panamanians. You need to know your foundation and the roots of a genre that everyone put an expiration date on but it never stopped! I was born in this. I was born admiring Kafu Banton and [others]. The flow of Panamanians… it’s inevitable that you’ll move when you listen to them. Not just in this genre, but in general… Ruben Blades… I mean, music. Music. There’s a lot you’d need to know and encompass so we can’t blame him but, you know what time it is…
Haha. OK, so have there been rising artists who have approached you to talk history or ask for advice?
You have no idea. A lot of women. A lot of them will DM me, send me bits of their songs and videos. They tell me their struggles and how people are comparing them to what’s out there. And most of these girls are lyricists with a deep, deep, heavy style and lyrics… the type of thing that I like, and more. And I don’t even know what to tell them. Not to sound like a hater but I’m a mom, and there are a bunch of kids coming to me, and you see them with talent and massive potential and everyone is shutting the door on them because it’s not something that’s already doing well out there. Who determines that? Who determines that you can’t be successful and that you have to follow the crowd when you can be a leader?
Do you see that in anyone right now—anyone that you’re particularly excited about?
I have a few girls that I love. There’s a Venezuelan called Barbara Doza—she can sing, she can rhyme, she can sing hip-hop. People also underestimate Farina. I love it when she does dancehall. There’s another one who Yandel just signed, her name is Catalina. But I feel like with Cataline, they really need to let her be her. She’s different. She has the guts, but I feel like they can’t try to hold her down or try to polish her. She shouldn’t imitate what’s already out there. You gotta let her grow. There’s another one called Lady Vixen—she’s from New York, she’s a lyricist, she’s into hip-hop. I like her. There’s a Cuban artist called Senorita Dayana making cubaton, which is a mix of reggaeton and salsa with swing cubano. I love her; her messages are so powerful: “que la mujer puede, que vamos ‘pa aqui y vamos ‘pa alla.” There’s so many great ladies out there. When they write to me, I try to give them strength as if it were my daughter asking for advice. I didn’t give up when I was told I sounded like a man, so why should you give up?
It’s nice to see that not only did you pioneer but you’re still leading the way for other women as well.
Thank God. I do what I can, you know what I mean?
What about you, though? Are you going to keep making music?
Of course! I don’t know why people act as if I died or disappeared off the map. People think that because they don’t see you on TV or hear you on the radio that you’re dead. No, I’ve been on a plane, going to work, doing shows. Not only is music different now, but the mechanics of it all is different now, too. I just recently changed my management, and I have a new record label. So I’ve been recording, I have a lot of new material. I’m just waiting on my time to shoot.
OK, so maybe next year?
Probably next year... for sure. My fans and followers have no expiration date. They’re always waiting and expecting stuff. I released a song called “Mi Vecina,” and a trap called “Por Mi.” You know, I’ve been dropping my shit. The radio hasn’t picked it up, so I’m doing it like when I started—it used to be underground, sold out my car. I’m going digital now.
For now, what do you ideally want for the future of reggaeton? And what advice would you give to anyone on the come up?
First of all, for those who are approaching this music industry—there’s so many guys and girls out there who are talented and people are closing the doors because it seems like they need to follow a pattern—but they’re closing the doors on the wrong kids. I’m always gonna say the same thing: follow your heart and keep pushing, keep fighting. I did it. When people were calling me names and telling me my voice was too masculine, and that they weren’t looking for that... I just went for it and look where I’m at. I will always tell them to follow their heart.
And when it comes to the future of the genre, what can I say… look what year it is and we’re still popping, so. Obviously we gotta give thanks to the young people who followed in our footsteps and keep making urban music. We gotta give them props. I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the next five years, because I wish I had a crystal ball so I could know; but even though I say I’m a witch, I don’t have one. [Laughs] But I wish it nothing but the best. I hope everyone is able to take their beans home and represent their work like they want to. Pay their bills and push their families forward with their skills.