Ivy Queen - Being 'la queena' in the boys club
October 13, 2005
It's the morning after Univision's Premios Juventud and the lobby of Coconut Grove's Grand Bay hotel is swarming with the Latin music industry -- handlers, publicists and artists all trying to out-cool one another with their chopped hair and ripped jeans.
They're checking out and hopping into a line of limos headed for the airport. The Mexican pop sensation Rebelde is here. So is the legendary Chespirito, aka, el Chapulín Colorado, who is in a suit, not his dweeby superhero getup, and who has a crowd of youngsters around him giving props.
Here comes Ivy Queen, the female voice of male-dominated reggaetón. She's the brash, throaty girl rapper who manages to hold her own against the rude boys who rule the genre, rhymes sending a steady message to her girls about staying strong.
She struts the lobby in tight jeans and tall platform shoes. Something about the way she moves, like she's on the street, like she's ready to do battle, says she's by far the coolest figure here.
And everybody knows it. They all stop to watch her, but nobody approaches. Her own handler stands there helplessly as she struts right out the front door, although she is supposed to be sitting for an interview. A brief stare-down later, you have coaxed her back inside.
''Sorry, mamita,'' she says in a soft rasp. ``I was just afraid to miss my plane.''
Ivy Queen (pronounced ee-vee), pulls off black Chanel shades to reveal warm caramel eyes. She has long been in a class by herself, a tough-as-nails woman rapper struggling to be heard in the Latin world, which prefers its women soft and sex-kitteny.
''I had to go to Colombia to get this pair of t---, because if you're going to be a Latin girl act, you have to have them,'' she says about a recent augmentation, showcased today under a straining ruffled red top.
``But what I'll never do is tone down my flow. Some people think I'm too strong. But I'm not going to go soft to fit the image of what a Latin girl singer is supposed to be.''
Ivy, born Martha Ivelisse Pesante, shifted from the underground Latin rap world to reggaetón long before reggaetón popped. Now she's the undisputed queen, la queena, as she calls herself, with hits like Quiero bailar (I Want to Dance), booming from urban Latin radio stations across the country. The song, like most of her work, is a reminder to Latin women that they can keep the upper hand. ''Yo soy la que mando, soy la que decide cuando vamos al mambo,'' she sings. (``I'm the one in charge, the one who decides when we mambo.'')
Tuesday she drops Flashback, on Univision's La Calle Records, a CD which combines earlier work with recent hits and four new tracks.
But right now, she's basking in the afterglow of Premios Juventud, a sort of People's Choice for the Spanish-language world. She didn't take a prize, but she got mad love on the red carpet from her fans. And a few more comparisons to Celia Cruz from colleagues backstage.
She is called the Latin Lil' Kim for her brassy Spanish raps. But it's the connections people draw to Celia that blow Ivy's mind.
''To be compared to somebody like esa negra, that's the maximum. What I will say is that I do feel identified with her,'' says Ivy, 33, who was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico. ``I have the CD of Celia with the Fania All-Stars in Africa. All those male stars of salsa, and her voice booms over all of them. She was never scared to be bigger than the men on a stage. And I guess I'm not either. And people always said she wasn't pretty. Neither am I. But that never stopped her. Or me.''
If Celia was a big influence, then La Lupe, that Cuban queen of high drama, was an even bigger one.
Ivy grew up poor, watching her mother sell sweets from a pushcart through the streets of Puerto Rico to support six kids. She listened along while her mother played ''vein-slashing'' records by La Lupe, songs that beat up on men who did women wrong. It's where she got her soulful way with a mike, she says. And what inspires her raps to this day.
``If my mother had sat down to cry when she and my father split, I wouldn't be who I am today. But I never saw her be weak. She grabbed her kids and went forward. I know what it's like to be poor. I know what it's like to eat s--- and I also know what it's like to eat chuletas. I think my struggles, and my mother's struggles, taught me the importance of being tough and staying real.''
She can keep it real enough to admit she has a weakness for the sappiest of boleros, those swooning romantic songs that belong to another generation.
''I love Los Panchos. I love all of those beautiful old songs. Inside, I'm like a little old lady,'' says the woman with the tattoos and the lacquered nails so long they could take out several eyes in one swipe.
She's been writing and rhyming for more than a decade, and it's only lately, as reggaetón explodes, that she has tasted real fame. But she's not letting it throw her off balance, she says.
``I saw Juanes in Medellín and he was getting around on a bicycle. He remembers that he's a normal man. And I'm the same way. I started practicing my autograph when I was 15. Now I watch people killing themselves to get one and I can't believe it. It's a rush.''
She recently bought a house in Puerto Rico, but she tries to keep the bling to a minimum, she says.
``I'm happy to go slow. There's a lot of offers all of a sudden. Movies, commercials, whatever. But I don't believe in the bluff, I believe in deeds. So I just keep working and try not to worry too much about the rest.''
To those who suggest she should soften her style to sell more records, she says forget it.
``I don't use a lot of palabrotas (bad words). I only do when I feel it. You know, you're in the studio and you have to wait because you're just a woman and some guy is recording, eso me e-------,'' she says, using a palabrota.
``But my message and my sound are not going to be soft. It's about being hungry and struggling and having to put up a fight. It's also about getting there, about the good life, because we can reach it. Reggaetón is the poetry of my Latin people, the poetry of the streets. I don't know why the industry doesn't like a Latin woman spitting truths. But I'm going to keep doing it until the day I die.''
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