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Women in Latin music are poised for a breakthrough

By: Julyssa Lopez The Washington Post
February 28, 2018 Updated: February 28, 2018 at 6:00 am
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Colombian singer Karol G is a rare force in Latin urban music. While the 27-year-old is as sleek and glossy as a beauty queen, she wields an unapologetic toughness that erupts when she's sparring against reggaeton's most ruthless male artists.

But 10 years ago, Karol G was just Carolina Giraldo, a newcomer earnestly peddling reggaeton and R&B mix tapes from one radio station to the next in her native Medellin. The responses were a depressing combination of confusion, disdain and lewd propositions that would have discouraged a more fainthearted artist.

"There were no opportunities," she said. "Zero. The door was closed. They wouldn't even listen to my music because they would say the genre I was doing was for men."

Karol G has an endless supply of tenacity, however. After years of hearing no, the Spanish-speaking music industry is catching up to her. Last year, her debut album, "Unstoppable," made it to No. 2 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart, and "Ahora Me Llama," her collaboration with trap wunderkind Bad Bunny, cracked Spotify's Global 200. In January, she inched toward a worldwide smash when Major Lazer tapped her for a remix of "En La Cara."

Karol G is one of many women making ripples in the Latin industry, particularly in the urban space. Dominican artist Natti Natasha reached No. 6 on the Hot Latin charts with "Criminal," her duo with reggaeton star Ozuna; Mexican-American singer Becky G peaked at No. 3 with her Bad Bunny-assisted hit "Mayores"; and Brazilian superstar Anitta nabbed a No. 14 spot thanks to "Downtown" with J Balvin.

A few well-performing singles may seem unremarkable, especially when so many have been collaborations with men. But it's very notable considering how rarely Latina artists have affected the charts in recent years.

In 2015, a staggering 22 weeks passed without one female artist appearing on the Hot Latin Songs charts, and a Billboard review showed that only two women reached the No. 1 spot between 2012 and 2016. During the same period, only seven women (compared with 33 men) reached the top of the Top Latin Albums chart. The women who did thrive tended to be legacy acts such as Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Paulina Rubio, who have been in the business for decades.

And the numbers of Latin music awards are as bad. The feminist advocacy group Ruidosa recently analyzed the 2017 Latin Grammys, Latin Billboards and Premios 40 Principales and found that of 117 total winners, only 14 were women.

The Latin music industry - which usually refers to Spanish-language music made and sold in the U.S. and Latin America - is a notoriously patriarchal machine, exacerbated by widespread machismo entrenched in many Latin cultures. And although some of the most important Latin music icons have been women - Chavela Vargas, Celia Cruz and Mercedes Sosa, to name a few - the industry has been particularly unfriendly to emerging female artists.

Latin music's gender gap became painfully conspicuous last year, when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" overtook the global music landscape. Male artists such as J Balvin, Maluma and Bad Bunny were touted as the torchbearers who would throttle Latin music forward. Women were hardly mentioned.

But 2018 could mark a long-awaited change. The end of 2017 showed that despite its male roots, Latin urban music is rife with women eager to add their voices to trap, rap and reggaeton. A breakthrough year for women in Latin music would be well timed, as the calls for more female representation are amplified throughout the music industry.

Although some women have shared experiences of abuse and harassment, a full #MeToo reckoning hasn't quite taken over Latin music. Still, an empowered energy has been trickling in. Latina artists are seizing the need for gender inclusivity and fighting harder not only to be seen, but also to spark complex and pointed conversations around diversity and nuance in the industry.

"In America, there's a Nicki Minaj, there's a Katy Perry, there's an Ariana Grande, there's a Taylor Swift, and they each represent something different," Karol G said. "That doesn't happen in the Latin industry. There are so many men, and you can count the women on your fingers, and it's not because we're not here."

One tactic artists have used to is joining forces with other women. Niña Dioz partnered with Polaris Music Prize-winning musician Lido Pimienta and Tijuana-born singer Ceci Bastida for "Tambalea," a song that discusses Mexico's "femicidios" (massacres of women) and the experiences of queer women.

Karol G says a stronger sisterhood is a sign of changing times.

"The music is evolving, the mentalities are evolving," she said. "Machistas are out of style."

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