“Honey, I have enough stories to write not one, but several books,” says Ivy Queen over the phone from Miami. By the sound of it, there’s a raging thunderstorm outside her window, but Ivelisse Pesante Rodriguez is hyper-focused on the topic at hand: What it’s like to not only survive, but thrive as a woman in Latin music. More specifically, we’re discussing the Latin urban icon’s recent expansion into the tropical genre, where she’s one of only a handful of females with an active presence on the charts in 2015.
"From the beginning I had people telling me that I needed to be taller, curvier, more tanned, with bigger breasts,” recalls Ivy, now 43, of those early days as a young girl in Añasco, Puerto Rico. “They wanted me to mold myself into the stereotype of what sells, and talent was viewed as secondary. There I was, with 200 braids in my hair, blue lipstick, long nails, and zero sense of style, but I had notebooks full of lyrics. I had something to say, so people started paying attention.”
resonate with people because they’re deeply personal, woven from her own
life experiences — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Two years ago, while carrying
her firstborn child, Naoivy, she went through a particularly rough patch when
concert promoters refused to book her. “I had a really healthy pregnancy, thank
God, but it was also really tough spiritually, thanks to certain male executives
in show business,” says Ivy. “Music is my oxygen, and performing is how I put
food on the table,” she adds, “but they would rather bring a male act who can
just throw on a hat and put on some baggy jeans and get onstage than a pregnant
woman who requires hair and makeup.” All in all, Ivy says she was only booked
for two shows during her pregnancy, one in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and another one in Los Angeles.
“It’s not easy for a woman to stand in this genre, but if I’m still standing it’s because I have the guts to deal with everything that comes my way. This crown, no one gave it to me. I earned it.”
It’s a glaring example of
sexism, but instead of feeling defeated, Ivy put all of her energy into the
studio. After giving birth to Naoivy in late 2013, la reina del reggaeton did something unprecedented, regardless of
genre or gender: She released a four-CD set of salsa, bachata, urban, and
hip-hop albums. The aptly titled Vendetta, it was her metaphorical middle
finger to all those who held her back during her pregnancy. The craziest part? She did all four albums in
just six months. Upon its release in February 2015, Vendetta’s individual urban and hip-hop albums broke the Top 10 of
Billboard’s Latin Rhythm Albums chart.
Ivy now faces another major hurdle: The record company that handled distribution for the project, VeneMusic, recently folded, which puts her back at square one. Ivy wants to launch all four albums again under a new deal, and her reps confirm that an announcement will be made soon via her Twitter account. For now, fans can still score some copies on Amazon.
Speaking of queens, it’s been 12 years since Celia Cruz left this world, leaving a giant void in salsa. One woman, Linda Viera Caballero, better known as India, seemed like her most obvious successor, and in time, rightfully earned the nickname “la princesa de la salsa.” Speaking over the phone from Miami, India recalls a memorable conversation she had with the queen of salsa herself.
“She said to me, ‘You’re the next one.’ But the reason she loved me is because she knew that I wasn’t going to go up there and wear wigs and imitate her,” adds the Puerto Rican–born, South Bronx, New York–raised singer, who first blew our ears open in the early '90s with hits like “Nunca Voy a Olvidarte” and “Ese Hombre.”
As great as it is to have Cruz’s
blessing, India, 46, has always been less concerned with how she’s perceived
than doing the actual work. “What I am proud of are all the years that I’ve been
doing this and still be able to make it to No. 1.” Indeed, India’s chart stats speak
for themselves. This year, she broke the record for most No. 1s on Billboard’s Tropical
Airplay chart by a female when “Ahora Que Te Vas,” the lead single off Intensamente
con Canciones de Juan Gabriel, became her eighth
No. 1. Her first new album in five
years, the salsa-flavored tribute album also cemented her status as the artist
with more No. 1s (six) than any other female on the tropical albums chart.
When she was crossing over from freestyle to salsa, an endorsement from the great Eddie Palmieri proved key. The two went on to record the collaborative album Llegó la India Via Eddie Palmieri in 1992. Even the title suggests a female tropical singer couldn’t possibly make it unless it filtered through a man, but India says she is eternally grateful to Palmieri for his support. He was one of the few people who encouraged her to let loose and improvise onstage. She talks about the epic moment in which she performed with Palmieri on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in 1992 (her debut on American television) as if it were yesterday. “That was huge. I think from that moment on, I let people know, La India is here to stay,” she says with a hint of nostalgia.
Not every powerful male figure within tropical music has been so supportive, though. She and Marc Anthony have long made headlines for their alleged feud, the roots of which date back to 1993 when the two recorded the seminal duet, “Vivir Lo Nuestro.” During a recent concert, Anthony even previewed the song by saying, “I recorded this song with a chick who’s kind of weird, whom I don’t really like . . . . The song is one of my favorites, but the girl, I don’t know.” Sergio George, friend and producer to both, has jokingly referred to the possibility of a new Marc Anthony/India duet as “getting Israel and Palestine to come together.”
Ask India and she’ll take the high road, focusing instead
on what “Vivir Lo Nuestro” did for salsa music at large. “It was a wonderful
time and it opened the doors for a new generation of young, talented salsa
singers,” she says, mentioning her former background singer Huey Dunbar, who
went on to have success as part of the group Dark Latin Groove (DLG) in the mid '90s.
“For me, it’s all about what I stand for; determination, never giving up, and not letting the fact that it’s a male-dominated field handicap me. I was the chosen one, and I’m still working hard.”
It’s an example India hopes the new generation of women looking to enter the salsa genre today will follow, but in their own unique way. “People aren’t looking for Celia or India imitations,” she says, with a hint of raspiness. It’s clear she must reserve her vocal chords for the next show. “Having your own authentic voice — that’s what it's all about.”
For 20-year-old Leslie Grace, being a young, female bachata singer from the U.S. has had its lonely moments.
“For the industry it’s sort of a risk to take on a girl,” she says over the phone. She’s just come back home to Florida from Spain, where she recorded a crossover duet with an as-yet-to-be revealed Spanish artist. “They have more variables that they have to control that they don’t have a template for because in every genre, there’s predominantly more men.”
“The success of a woman is much more gradual,” she adds, sounding as savvy as someone who’s been in the game for decades. “There’s not like this craze for the good-looking guy, who can just wake up in the morning, throw on jeans and a T-shirt and some gel and go and do promo. A woman can’t go do promo alone. She needs hair and makeup and a stylist. There’s a lot more artist development that’s involved and that’s considered more of a risk.”
It’s almost impossible to think that anyone would consider signing Grace a risk. Sergio George knew he had something special when he signed her to Top Stop Music when she was just a teen. The salsa producer applied the same Midas touch he used on teen bachata idol Prince Royce, of taking an early '60s-era hit and putting a bilingual bachata spin on it. In Grace’s case, it was the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” As a Bronx-born, Florida-raised Dominican, Grace appealed to a new generation of listeners who were too cool for their parents’ music but loved Aventura. With a beautiful R&B-style voice honed by years of singing in a church choir, not to mention an innate sweetness and model looks, she was the perfect package. It’s no wonder Grace made history in 2012 with her breakout single, becoming the youngest female singer to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Latin airplay chart.
Figuring out the kind of artist she wants to be has taken time. Through it all, Grace says she’s relied heavily on the female figures in her family — her mother, Elba, and her older sister, Annexie (both of whom are key members of her glam squad). And, of course, her abuelita.
“The women in my life are hard-working and they definitely, because of their life experiences, have taught me to stick to my guns. My nature is to just be passive and a little bit of a people pleaser, especially being the youngest of six. Sometimes people abuse that and I’ve learned how to stick to what I believe.”
And that involves taking more risks, musically speaking. Grace’s latest EP, Lloviendo Estrellas (released via her new label, Sony Music Latin), has elements that aren’t typically in bachata, such as drums, electric guitar, and more R&B and pop. A recent duet, “Como Duele el Silencio,” with Mexican American singer Luis Coronel is a fusion of bachata and banda that has opened her sound up to a whole new audience.
Although there’s not someone mentoring her within bachata specifically, or a female bachata singer her own age with whom she can grow side by side, Grace points to India, Shakira, and Olga Tañon as artists she admires.
But the power of her own voice is not to be underestimated. “I want to be one of the voices that tells my generation, ‘Yes, you can do this, just stick with your passion and have faith in God that the things that he’s planted in your heart are for a reason,” says Grace, sounding enlightened and wise beyond her years. “You just have to learn along the way and surround yourself with the people who will support you.’ ”