When I was growing up, going to a reggaeton concert rarely meant entering a safe space, no matter how much fun the night might be. Once, at a party in Arecibo on the north shore of Puerto Rico, news of a stabbing rippled through the packed crowd, and chaos ensued. Other parties — ones I didn’t attend — ended with gunfire or gang brawls. On the island in the mid 2000s, reggaeton music was exploding, with parties and concerts moving from marquesinas (home garages) and caseríos (the public housing where reggaeton artists started making music) to clubs and festivals throughout the island, and to reggaeton’s second home, New York. But despite the music’s popularity, parties were no less dangerous.
Reggaeton’s aggressive, beat-driven music exists primarily to move you and get you close, but its lyrics are full of tales of street fighting, defiant boasts (tiraera) by rival rappers and DJs from clashing neighborhoods, and highly sexual and creatively explicit ways of admiring and objectifying women. This goes all the way back to the Nineties, when artists like Ivy Queen, Ranking Stone, the Noise, and Vico C laid the foundation for the genre in Puerto Rico’s underground scene, where the music was a direct reflection of the artists’ day-to-day reality of drug-related gang violence within the walls of the caseríos. These nights during the Nineties, however, were also fun and exciting experiences that brought together innovative beats and voices, whose endurance was on full display in Inwood this past Saturday night.
“Reggaeton: Hasta Abajo,” presented as part of the Red Bull Music Festival New York, was a showcase of reggaeton as a subculture, not as the massive worldwide phenomenon it has become. Held at La Marina, a restaurant and lounge located deep within the Latino community of Inwood, the event was meant to be set outdoors, with the vast ocean horizon as the background, but dismal weather forced organizers indoors. And it was all the better for it, as the limited space invoked reggaeton’s birth. The night highlighted the rare reunion of the pioneering collective of DJs and rappers the Noise, which was founded in San Juan during the Nineties and included many of the reggaeton artists that would later find widespread fame, such as Baby Rasta & Gringo, Tony Touch, and the night’s headliners, Ivy Queen, DJ Nelson, and DJ Negro. Along for the ride were Ranking Stone, Alberto Stylee, and Maicol Superstar, of Maicol y Manuel fame, fellow pioneers of the early underground reggaeton scene.
“It’s part of the world now. The world has accepted it,” DJ Negro said of the genre’s rise. “This place is full of young people, and they’re enjoying our music and they came to listen to our music. They know who we are, even if it’s not what’s playing on the radio right now.”
The night began with Riobamba, the Ecuadorian-Lithuanian DJ, who lit up the room with early classics from Daddy Yankee, Calle 13, Tego Calderón, and Wisin y Yandel, along with more recent artists like Bad Bunny. The dancing crowd included Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and white New Yorkers; old and young faces; and a large queer contingent. Unlike my early experiences with reggaeton fests, this was a decidedly safe space, where people came to move and to grind, to remember and to discover, to display pride and to share support for diverse identities. With proceeds going to Rock Steady for Life, the relief foundation for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, it was a night of joy and resistance in the face of the tragedy of the past months.
This shared atmosphere was heightened by the arrival of Ivy Queen, reggaeton’s high priestess, who brought a feminist edge to the all-male Noise in the mid Nineties. Taking the stage as the crowd chanted her name, Ivy Queen spoke mostly in Spanish, and again, no one cared. During her few forays into English, she proclaimed that she “was raised in New York by two fucking Puerto Ricans,” “raised by Wu-Tang and Mary J. Blige,” and, sending the crowd into a frenzy, “As long as I’m here, I represent the women. This is for the ladies. That’s my show!” The Queen of Reggaeton then brought out her former crew. “Here is my musical father,” she announced, calling out DJ Negro, who was manning the turntables. “If he didn’t let me sing in that marquesina, no one would’ve known who Ivy Queen was.”
Piece by piece, the Queen introduced the rest of her musical family. Ranking Stone was up first, and with him some of reggaeton’s retrograde perspectives on sexuality. “I see a lot of melons here tonight,” he told the crowd, using his slang for women as he introduced his anthem “Qué Melones.” Though in the current #MeToo era the term can be off-putting to some, the crowd didn’t seem to mind.
Before long, Maicol Superstar had the mic, with Ranking Stone and Alberto Stylee backing him up. “We become singers and we do backup, ’cause that’s how it was,” Ranking Stone told me of the mic-passing, all-for-one attack that defines the Noise. “We’re like The Expendables,” he said. “Sylvester Stallone, Schwarzenegger, all that old crew that keeps making movies and killing it. It’s like that. We’re the Expendables of reggaeton!”
Throughout the night, aggressive, souped-up sets from DJ Lobo (Queens), Rosa Pistola (Colombia via Mexico City), and Riobamba (Brooklyn) showed how reggaeton’s impact has spread beyond Puerto Rico, and beyond the misogyny that originally helped define the music. “Ivy Queen — having a feminist message, being one of the very few women that were involved in it — that’s very much in my lane,” said Riobamba, who founded the label and creative agency Apocalipsis to provide visibility through marketing and promotion to marginalized artists. “I’m trying to make more space for women and gender-nonconforming people in the industry.”
“It’s important to know where reggaeton comes from, because a lot of it comes from the necessity of expressing all the bullshit we have inside and that happens around us,” said Rosa Pistola. “Our leaders are assholes and we take a lot of shit, and I think the music reflects that. To me, it’s protest music.”