2023 kicked off with a true cultural reset across Latin America when the Queen of Latin Music, Shakira, dropped her now Grammy-winning track Shakira: BZRP Music Sessions Vol. 53. Since the song dropped in January, Shakira has gone on to have one of the most successful years of her entire career where she has received a VMA Vanguard Award, Billboard Latin’s Woman of the Year Award, and 3 Latin Grammys to boot. Needless to say, Shakira has been on fire in 2023. It must be said, though, that Shakira isn’t alone in her domination of Latin music this year. Fellow Colombian Karol G has also had an incredible year, being awarded Album of the Year at the Latin Grammys, appearing on the Barbie Movie soundtrack and kicking off an all stadium tour across Latin America and the US. Other names like Anitta, Natalia Lafourcade, Danna Paola, and Joaquina, who have all picked up awards, scored global hits, and expanded their reach, show us that perhaps this is the year of the Latina.
Historically the truncated Latin Music scene has been dominated by men; largely, it still is. It’s no secret that some of the biggest and most globally recognisable names in Latin music today are still men. Bad Bunny, Peso Pluma, and Rauw Alejandro jump to mind. In the past, the industry was heavily led by men, particularly in regard to the Reggaeton scene, which (along with transitional Mexican music) dominates the lion’s share of globally popular Latin music today. Names like Daddy Yankee, Ricky Martin, and Residente have dominated conversations about Latin music for decades, often pulling focus and even overshadowing Latinas in the industry. This is not to say that Latinas have been hidden from the spotlight, Shakira has been a driving force for the industry since the mid-90s, and around the same time Selena Quintanilla was popularising Tejano music in Texas, all this while Gloria Estefan was pioneering for Latinas in mainstream American pop music and Celia Cruz reigned as the Queen of Salsa.
Why, then, is this current generation of Latina powerhouses so significant? Predominantly the Reggaeton scene has been notorious for being male-dominated and often deemed to be overtly misogynistic in its lyrical themes and content. Even still, songs like Bad Bunny’s Titi Me Pregunto don’t inspire much in the way of respect for women. This is just one of countless other examples of songs that dominate Latin airwaves and centre themselves on objectifying women and normalising infidelity in a region where violence against women is already far too common.
It is for this reason that when an artist like Karol G, making Urbana Music that rubs shoulders with heavyweights of Reggaeton, assets herself in a male-dominated field and succeeds, we need to pay attention. Karol’s Grammy-winning album Mañana Será Bonito is an instant classic, spawning more hits than any other album in Latin music this year. In the album Karol doesn’t only deliver music that is popular but touches on themes that are defiant to the expectations expressed about women in Latin music. In her song with Shakira, TQG, they literally laugh in the face of men who have tried to suppress them and take them for granted.
It is from Latin music that we have seen some of the greatest revenge tracks from women in recent years, including the aforementioned Session 53 and TQG, as well as runaway classics such as MAMII by Karol G and Mexican-American singer Becky G and Despechá by Spanish singer Rosalía. These songs are instantly recognisable to anyone in the Spanish-speaking world. They are ubiquitous and, in many ways, evocative of cultural shifts across Latin America. This is possibly the most strongly felt in the bubbling scene of female rappers working in the Latin space. Far beyond the mainstream reach of Cardi B (she’s Trinidadian and Dominican), rappers like Mexican-American Snow Tha Product and Puerto Rican Villano Antillano have broken records and barriers in the Latin Rap scene. With their sessions with Argentinian producer, Bizarrap (remember him from Shakira’s smash hit this year), they have stepped into another male-dominated space in Latin Music and claimed it for their own.
In the last few years, Latin America has seen drastic and significant social changes in regard to the rights and social standing of women. Only this year, Mexico decriminalised abortion on a national level, with other countries such as Colombia and Argentina having made similar decisions in recent years. Across the region, more and more women are entering the workplace and positions of public office and are organising on mass against domestic abuse and sexual violence. In a region where there are hard battles still to be won for the basic rights of women, every step forward chips away at a concrete wall of machismo. Music has been at the heart of many of the movements pushing to advance the rights of women, and it has served as a tool to open up dialogue. Chilean feminists penned a song called Un Violador en Tu Cambio (translation: a rapist in your path) that has since spread across the world as a marching call for women to protest sexual violence.
Even music itself is a battleground of women’s rights in Latin America. Outside of the Reggaeton scene, there are a number of genres with deep roots in Latin culture that are dominated by men. One such genre is Samba music, which is almost ubiquitously associated with Brazil. In Samba, men have ruled almost entirely alone for much of the genre’s history, but in 2023 women are taking up space as Sambistas. The all-female Samba group, Samba Que Elas Querem, found themselves at the heart of the conversation about women’s rights in Brazil when they rewrote the 1995 Samba classic Mulheres (originally by Martinho da Vila) with a new feminist message. The new lyrics penned by band leader Silvia Duffrayer sparked so much controversy that the original composer requested streaming services pull the song and a legal battle ensued. In a country like Brazil, where femicide is rife, and where 14 women are physically assaulted every minute, the cultural messaging delivered through the national sound of Samba is vital.
It may seem a little far-fetched to link pop culture moments to the social politics of an entire region of the world, but the two are undoubtedly linked. Shakira’s Session 53 became an outright cultural moment, becoming an anthem for women across the region to gain the courage to fight back against the sexism they face in their daily lives. It also became a frequent reference for politicians in the region, as well as further afield such as in Croatia and Italy. It further became the anthem of Carnival across Latin America this year. Her more recent release El Jefe has taken on a life of its own as a statement about wealth inequality and migrant worker rights in the region, with some claiming it as a modern 9 to 5 a la Dolly Parton.
Pop culture and social politics share an unbroken link; as one changes so too does the other. The conversations that moves made by Latinas in the music industry foster have real world implications and serve as a litmus test for developments in gender dynamics in the region as a whole. This isn’t even to mention that as the world gets smaller and music from all over the world becomes more globalised, a generation of internationally recognised and respected Latinas serve to put Latin music on the map far beyond the limits of Latin America alone. This year’s Latin Grammys probably exemplify this the best, as it was the first year that all four awards in the general field (best new artist, song, record, and album of the year) were all won by women. This was also the year that Billboard launched its Women in Latin Music Awards, recognising Shakira, Thalía and Maria Beccera, amongst others, as women of note in the industry.
Women have always been central to Latin music, from pioneers like Mercedes Sosa and Chavela Vargas to titans of the charts like Shakira and Gloria Estefan and the new generation of stars like Karol G, Natti Natasha and Anitta. This year serves as a reminder that, just as has been the case for a long time in Western Pop music and in more recent years in Rap music, women are here to dominate. It comes at a time when Latin America is going through a significant shift in how women are able to move through society. While this shift is not without its growing pains, the future looks bright for women in the region, or rather should I take a note from Karol G’s album title and say mañana será bonito (translation: tomorrow will be beautiful).
If you want to check out the songs and artists referenced in this article, and many other great tracks from Latina artists, check out our new playlist on Spotify: