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Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin Content & Programming for Billboard, sighs repeatedly while telling me about a glaring void in Latin music today: there are no more iconic female entertainers. Nobody along the lines of Cuban legend Celia Cruz or larger than life Norteña singer Jenni Rivera.
"I think there's a lack. I'm sorry, I do. Yes, there's Shakira. Shakira aside," she says, "the female presence is a little light. Why are there no more big female acts in Latin music right now? I look at my charts, and there's very few female names." Cobo hesitates to make a sweeping statement about whether or not this reflects Latin machismo. After all, the last few years have seen sweeping progress for Latin women, especially for female presidents and entrepreneurs. But, she laments, when it comes to Latin music, "you have a lot of these pretty, sexy young women, who women now are identifying less and less with. I really wish that were different."
I spoke on the phone with Cobo just a day after sitting down in Mexico City for a chat with one of the best known names in Latin rap: Spanish MC Mala Rodriguez. If you want to find fierce women in Spanish-language music, you might want to look into Latin hip-hop. The genre has some of the most creative, politically savvy, intelligent female personalities in the industry, made by artists as different as Chile's Ana Tijoux, who melts and reworks the Spanish language like a blacksmith, and Dominican-Spanish Arianna Puello, she of the machine gun delivery.
Ernesto Lechner is an arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone. He's not as shy as Cobo about making a damning statement on Latin sexism. "We come from Latin America," he says. "It's really such a macho culture. And it's an interesting paradox — the role of women in Latin music cannot be underestimated. From Gal Costa, to Ellis Regina, to Paquita La Del Barrio and of course, La Mala Rodriguez, Latin rap has found a distinct identity of its own through women. And in particular through La Mala Rodriguez, through Chile's Anita Tijoux, and also through [Goyo] the rapper of Colombia's Choc Quib Town. So it's women who are responsible for some of the most enchanting soundscape in Latin rap."
Mala, born Maria Rodriguez Garrido, rose to fame in the early 2000s with brash, feminist lyrics and a unique style of rapping. She tells me misbehaved as a child, and her aunt used to call her "Mala" — "Bad Girl." She wore the title, she says, "like a cape." Mala initially was one of the only woman to embrace "jarcor" (hardcore) rap, which features guttural growling similar to heavy metal. But as she matured as an artist, she also incorporated her native flamenco musical influences, much like other flamenco-infused musicians Concha Buika, Ojos De Brujo and Bebe.
Mala Rodriguez is fascinating not just as an artist: her music also represents this pivotal moment in the development of Spanish-language hip-hop, and it sheds light on the nature of cultural trade routes between the U.S. and Latin America. Lechner says the genre of Latin Rap has tended to rely "sometimes a little too much on aping, on imitating whatever is happening in America." Latin music blogger Juan Data breaks it down a little less harshly: He says Latin rap as we know it did not trickle down directly from the U.S. into Latin America. It had to go to Spain first.
"In Spain, hip-hop exploded in the year 1998," Data says. And, he says, it stood in a league of its own, far more competitive than Latin American hip-hop at the time, but also less politically conscious and missing out on the danceable elements. While at the time Spanish hip hop was deeply influenced by '90s New York hip-hop like the Wu-Tang Clan, Rakim and Nas, in Latin America rap culture had been trickling in by way of California, down to Mexico, and then the Americas.
Latin America had been tuned into Chicano hip-hop artists like Cypress Hill and Kid Frost. "People were trying to emulate the flow of groups like Cypress Hill," says Data, "but a lot of those rappers in the U.S., they had only a very basic control of the Spanish language, because they didn't grow up speaking Spanish, or they didn't go to school in Spanish. They picked it up listening to their immigrant parents." So their rhymes were simple, short and slow-paced in the style of West Coast rap.
Everything changed once hip-hop got big in Spain. "After the explosion of hip-hop in Spain in the late '90s, there was a huge mutation in how people rapped in Latin America," says Data. All of a sudden, rappers in Spain were incorporating a lot more syllables into shorter verses. "When kids in Latin America heard that, they were like 'Whoa.' It was something no one had ever thought of before."
Data says he remembers feeling that awe upon hearing La Mala Rodriguez for the first time, in 1999, as a featured MC on SFDK, a song called "Una De Piratas" ("A Pirate Song"). "It blew my mind," he says. "Everybody was like, 'Are you sure it's a woman?' Because her style was very rough. She was almost screaming, in a very angry flow. That separated her from every female MC at the time." There where other women rapping — like Puello, and, in Argentina, Actitud Maria Marta, but Mala was the first to get mainstream attention.
Mala's lyrics are sexual and feisty, but, unlike mainstream female MCs in the U.S., she doesn't brag about wealth. In "Galaxias Cercanas," ("Nearby Galaxies") she raps — "I was birthed strong, I was raised strong, I walked strong and I've always talked strong." Data says the absence of materialism has to do with the social context that produces Spanish-language rappers. "In the U.S., materialism is a value that is popular, accepted and celebrated. In Latin America, not so much," he says. "It also has to do with the rap industry itself. The truth is in Latin America nobody, with the exception of Calle 13, has gotten rich off of hip-hop. So bragging about wealth would be bizarre, and it's also considered in extremely poor taste in our culture."
But Data doesn't agree with Lechner that the female presence in Latin rap is wholly positive. While he admires rappers like Rodriguez and Tijoux he says their prominence has a lot to do with marketing and the exotification of Latin women. "From the international point of view — especially from the U.S. market point of view — what filters into the U.S. market have been the exceptions to the rule, female exponents of every country. There's super-talented male MCs in Spain who never got a chance to break into the American market, simply because they're guys. And that's not exotic enough for the market. Whereas a girl doing it, and being pretty, and having a unique style, stands out a lot more, and it's more marketable."
Cobo thinks part of what makes Mala Rodriguez so loveable is that you can both identify with her and admire her: her bravado is lionesque, but she's also an every woman. Not the kind of woman you want to piss off; but the kind of friend you want to have on call when you break up with a boyfriend.
In one song on her new album, called Bruja (Witch), Mala boast about turning 33. "I am 33," she raps. "The job of a man cannot be done by a boy." When I meet with her in Mexico City she explains the song. "Today, as a 34 -year-old woman, I have a lot more power than I did when I was 19. I know myself. I know my sexuality. I know my thoughts. And that reflects on my work." She says titled her album Bruja because she wanted to re-appropriate a pejorative. "I like 'witch' because it symbolizes women who have been historically vilified for doing positive or strong things."
She says she's happy to be a feminist icon for some, but she also says, "I love men. I am at peace with them. And I understand a lot of things they do, and why they do them. I don't fight against men — in fact since I was little, I wanted to understand them better. Maybe that's why since I'm little, I wanted so much to be a rapper."