“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.”
But tenacity is something Karol G has in endless supply. She didn’t give up on urban music and now, 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 handful of well-performing singles may seem unremarkable, especially when so many have been collaborations with male artists. 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 a single 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, just 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 when it comes to Latin music awards, the numbers are just 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 United States 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, just to name a few — the industry has been a particularly unfriendly arena for 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 considered in the conversation.
But 2018 could mark a long-awaited change. The end of 2017 showed that despite its male-dominated 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 into the market. Latina artists are seizing the need for gender inclusivity and fighting harder not just 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. There’s tons of talent.”
Conversations around gender inclusivity in Latin music have been unspooling for years — slowly, no doubt, but now there's buy-in from major music services. Rocío Guerrero, Spotify's head of global cultures and content, has unofficially heralded 2018 as the year of Latinas, and her team plans to highlight female artists by adding more voices to their playlists, which include "Mujeronas" and "Latin Divas," and inviting female acts on their recently launched podcast, "¡Viva Latino!"
Additionally, domestic chart-toppers such as singer Camila Cabello (an American who was born in Cuba) and Cardi B, the “Bodak Yellow” rapper who is of Dominican and Trinidadian heritage, have made massive splashes in the U.S. market. Although they are signed to major American labels, both have experimented with songs en español. Their mere mainstream presence helps raise the profile of Latin culture and sounds, and their breakthroughs bode well for Spanish-speaking artists trying to knock down barriers of their own.
“I think Latina artists are going to prove they can stay this year — they’re not a one-hit wonder or only a feature for someone else’s song. They’re going to stick around,” Guerrero said.
Diana Rodriguez is an industry veteran who made history when she became the first woman to head a U.S. Latin label as the vice president of Capitol Latin in 2010. She says that change can start at the top and emphasizes the importance of women in A&R, supervisor and music production roles.
Today, Rodriguez runs her own firm and manages several artists who offer a fresh take on Latina musicians. There’s the brassy tattooed guitarist Mon Laferte and Marisol “La Marisoul” Hernandez, the commanding lead singer of the band La Santa Cecilia, whose songs exalt immigrant communities. Rodriguez has observed that young fans starved for new role models in music connect to these women intimately, especially on social media.
“The girls standing out don’t represent your standard mold,” Rodriguez said. “People are relating to the girl with the tattoos who got her heart broken and the girl who is not afraid to wear a tutu and talk about immigration.”
Still, more diversity continues to be a demand all around. Latino identity is pluralistic and complex, encompassing nearly 33 countries, multiple races and cultural conditions. More women are defying the stereotypes around Latina artists, but the physical image portrayed in the Spanish-speaking entertainment industry remains woefully homogenous. Latinas on TV or on magazine covers tend to be light-skinned celebrities who adhere to limited standards of beauty.
Dana Danelys De Los Santos, an Afro Dominican singer who goes by Amara La Negra, raised this issue when she appeared on VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop Miami.” After a producer insinuated that Santos’s Afro hairstyle wasn’t “elegant,” her retort was both ferocious and heartbreaking: “Not all Latinas look like J. Lo or Sofia Vergara or Shakira, so where are the women that look like myself?”
“Celia Cruz was one of the few artists that made it worldwide as an Afro Latina. After that, I’ll sit and wait for you to tell me what other Afro Latinas have made it worldwide,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair because it’s not that we’re not talented — the standards are just different for us.”
Santos has become a fierce advocate and symbol for the Afro Latino community, initiating a conversation that could inspire generations of underrepresented girls to enter the scene. Leila Cobo, Billboard’s executive director of content and programming for Latin music, says this is the unmistakable power of having women in the spotlight.
“When it starts to work for one person, you have other people who come and say, ‘This could work for me, too,’ ” Cobo said. “We’re going to see a whole bunch more we haven’t seen yet.”
In other genres, artists say they have seen attitudes shifting among their male counterparts. Becky G, whose real name is Rebbeca Gomez, started as a YouTube sensation when she was barely 14 years old.
After a few years of releasing pop in English, she turned to the Spanish-speaking urban market, a space that has long been mired in misogyny. But after years of backlash, reggaeton rappers have cleaned up their act to appeal to radio listeners, which has, at least marginally, created a cultural consciousness around the treatment of women in urban music. (Puerto Rican reggaeton star Don Omar even called out Latin trap for being too explicit.) When Gomez started working with male rappers, she says she found a surprisingly welcoming group that, post-"Despacito," wanted to collaborate and root for Latino success.
“I’m friends with Balvin and Maluma, and when I’m hanging out with Bad Bunny, I’m not looked down upon,” she said. “The industry already does that — there’s this double standard where guys can and girls can’t. But to see artists support each other, male or female, is a big step.”
This sense of camaraderie is still not regularly reflected in the music itself, where the sexualization of women remains impossible to ignore, especially in songs where female artists feature with men. Becky G had to reckon with fans alarmed by her risqué image in the video for “Mayores” while Karol G faced criticism because Bad Bunny’s explicit verses in “Ahora Me Llama” seemed to be a brutal contradiction to her empowering message.
For Karol G, the song was about representing a woman’s perspective and standing toe to toe with a man — something rarely done in Latin urban music, apart from the masterful efforts of the inimitable Puerto Rican reggaeton icon Ivy Queen.
“I wanted to make a trap song where a guy was talking about the men’s viewpoint, and I could raise up the women and talk about theirs,” Karol G said. “You hear me, despite what he’s saying, telling him that I’m a free woman, I have my own squad and I’m moving up.”
But artists such as Danay Suárez say there won’t be a true shift in the industry until women push for new narratives in music. Suárez has worked quietly in her native Havana for 10 years, writing socially conscious rap that reflects personal stories about life in Cuba. She was an underground sensation until her album “Palabras Manuales” helped her score four Latin Grammy nominations in 2017, kindling hope that women creating political and polemical work — like the perennially beloved Spanish rapper Mala Rodríguez and the up-and-coming Mexican emcee Niña Dioz — could achieve more commercial attention.
“Everyone expects certain things from a young artist — nudity, more sensual songs, more sexuality — and I think what’s missing sometimes, that I try to show, is music that goes into your emotions and your spirit, and goes against what people are used to,” she said.
One tactic artists have used to change the script: 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.
Becky G, who teamed up with Karol G and the singers Leslie Grace and Lali for a recent remix, has dreams of large-scale, girl-power collaborations (“A ‘Lady Marmalade’ or something like that would be so cool,” she says.)
Karol G, who extols the talents of such contemporaries as Natti Natasha, Farina and Becky G, says that a stronger sisterhood is a sign of changing times.
“The music is evolving, the mentalities are evolving,” she said. “Machistas are out of style.”