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The Power of Pleasure

Dances such as perreo in reggaeton receive much criticism for being sexist. But what do women who actually dance to them think? Petra R. Rivera-Rideau explores issues of female self-representation and sheds a different light on reggaeton’s sexual politics. From the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here [1]).

«A ella le gusta que le den duro y se la COMAN»
Copyright and concept: John Fredy Melo, Alejandra Hernandez
Photography: Lineyl Ibañez

In June of 2014, a series of photographs called «Usa la razón, que la música no degrade tu condición» (Use reason, don’t let music degrade you) by Colombian photographers Alejandra Hernández, John Fredy Melo, and Lineyl Ibáñez circulated widely on social media. The campaign featured four photographs depicting the literal meaning of controversial lyrics by artists like Daddy Yankee and Tego Calderón who, the photographers claimed, advocated violence against women. For example, a photo of a young man eating the innards of a small, naked woman strewn across a plate illustrated the lyrics, «A ella le gusta que le den duro y se la coman» (She likes it when they give it to her hard and eat her) by Daddy Yankee.

I wasn’t surprised by the photos, which many people posted on my Facebook wall. Of course, many reggaeton songs contain sexist and misogynist lyrics. Among reggaeton’s controversial elements is its accompanying dance, perreo, which usually features a woman grinding back-to-front with a man. Still, reggaeton’s treatment of women cannot be viewed in a vacuum; it is not the first or only music to have problematic representations of women, nor are the societies in which it flourishes devoid of sexism, patriarchy, or misogyny. Reggaeton has been subject to virulent criticism, censorship campaigns, and bans throughout the Americas due to perceptions that it promotes violence, drug use, and misogyny.

Many of these critiques were couched in language that promoted stereotypes of the inherent hypersexuality of black and Latino communities, especially women. Such stereotypes have their roots in slavery, where black women’s sexuality was considered always available for European men, as Patricia Hill Collins writes in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment [2]. Since then, several cultural critics have analyzed the reproduction of these stereotypes in contemporary life throughout the Americas.

Contradictory Feelings

Music videos have received particular attention for their portrayals of black and Latina women’s bodies. Genres such as hip hop, dancehall, reggaeton, soca, dembow, and others have all been accused of degrading women in their videos that feature women in skimpy clothing, gyrating their hips provocatively for the camera. While I agree that often such criticisms are warranted, I also wonder if we might see some possibilities for something more. The truth is, I love dancing to reggaeton, dembow, dancehall, all of it. I have spent my fair share of time «wining» and «perreando» in the club, having fun and getting loose. But I am also critical of the representations of women in many of the genres I love.

How to reconcile these feelings? In the United States, hip hop feminists tackle these contradictions in their academic and popular writing. In 1999, Joan Morgan defined hip hop feminism as one that «fucks with the grays». Contemporary writers like those at the Crunk Feminist Collective blog [3] have expanded Morgan’s ideas to take both an unapologetic stance against racism and sexism while also carving a space to imagine black women’s pleasure. I would also like to consider the problematic aspects of popular music in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the spaces they offer for black and Latina women to claim the erotic (in all the ways Audre Lorde intended): their sexuality, their pleasure, and their humanity. For example, what are we to make of Dominican-American artist Amara La Negra [4], «La Reina del Twerk,» whose music videos feature her booty-popping through the streets of Miami and Santo Domingo? Does this negate her message of self-pride, especially pride in her blackness in a country notorious for its anti-black racism? Or what about soca singer Destra Garcia [5], Trinidad and Tobago’s «Queen of Bacchanal»? Her music video for the 2015 Carnival anthem «Lucy» tells the story of a «good girl» who loves to dance at Carnival even though they call her «loose». Some hailed the song as a celebration of female empowerment while others considered the animated video shocking because it had «too much bumper»!

Celebrating Desire

Let’s take it back to reggaeton with Ivy Queen [6], the reigning woman in Puerto Rico’s reggaeton scene, and one of her early hits, «Quiero Bailar» (I want to dance), from her 2003 album Diva. In it she declares her love of dancing perreo, sweating as she grinds against her male partner. But then the chorus ends, «Eso no quiere decir que pa’ la cama voy» (That doesn’t mean I’m going to bed with you). On one hand, the song might reinforce the notion that a «good» girl doesn’t have sex. Yet on the other hand, Ivy’s song celebrates the pleasures of perreo. She makes room for all women to enjoy their sexuality, desire, and love of dancing, while claiming ownership over their bodies. This ownership is especially significant in countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean where black and Latina women’s sexuality has often been exploited and considered consumable. It is a message of empowerment.

At the end of the day, popular music is full of contradictions. For some, these music videos only reproduce problematic stereotypes that support racial and gender inequalities. In this line of argument, women like Destra, Amara la Negra, or Ivy Queen lack the power to assert themselves within the confines of a music industry that relies on images of hypersexual black and brown women to sell its products. However, making a space to celebrate their pleasure and desires is critical to recognizing the humanity stripped from these communities by old stereotypes that paint them as devoid of basic emotions. Regardless of who controls the images put forth in music videos, for some fans these musical practices offer spaces to express their joy, confidence, desire, and pleasure. Celebrating pleasure is, ultimately, a celebration of equality for all.

This text was published first in the correspondent Norient book. Click on the image to know more.

Read More on Norient

> Michael Spahr: «Hit me with Music» [7]
> Wayne Marshall: «Spectacular Copulative Dance Today» [8]
> Wayne Marshall: «The Rise of Reggaeton» [9]