Behind every early 2000s reggaeton hit, there’s the breathless moan of a Puerto Rican mami. Whether we’re talking about whispered sex commands or Glory wailing “dame más gasolina” in Daddy Yankee’s 2005 megahit, women’s voices often appeared on reggaeton songs to nourish the libidos of pop stars. But more than playing the role of the sexually subservient side chick, these disembodied voices were often what made a perreo anthem hot in the first place. Behind those come-ons were real women, whose only shot at making their mark on a new commercial gold mine was often a carefully placed “ay papi.”
Enter Jenny La Sexy Voz, the Puerto Rican singer who engineered the hooks on some of reggaeton’s biggest hits. There’s Wisin y Yandel’s “Rakata,” where Jenny whines, “Papi, dame lo que quiero,” or “Contacto,” a 2005 sleeper hit where Yaviah tries to woo Jenny in a dembow-driven mating ritual. With over 80 vocal features under her belt, Jennifer Marie Ramos Dávila may be reggaeton’s most prolific guest vocalist. But if it weren’t for a new management contract, reggaeton’s second coming, and a newfound sense of purpose, her history may have gone unwritten.
In pale blue jeans, kitten heels, and an immaculately preened tubi, Jenny strolls into our office with a suitcase full of makeup in tow. It’s easy to mistake her for another fabulous (if hurried) Boricua walking through South Williamsburg. That precipitous glamour and fame is something she seems to recognize too, as a chance encounter with Puerto Rican reggaetoneros Alexis y Fido thrust her into the spotlight. “This happened like a hobby, actually. I wasn’t seeking this. Destiny took me down this path,” she says.
That’s not to say she never had a passion for music. As a young girl, Jenny would scrape together the little money she had to buy DJ Playero cassettes at school, which she hid from her then disapproving mother. She performed in school talent shows and plays, and longed to harness the vocal skills of artists like Ednita Nazario and Mariah Carey. It fueled her love for the genre, but as a liquor promoter in San Juan, she never thought she’d rub shoulders with stars like Daddy Yankee or Wisin y Yandel. It was only after she met Alexis y Fido through a friend at a music video shoot that she began to see career potential in the industry.
“Destiny took me down this path.”
After developing a fast friendship with the reggaetoneros, Jenny made a trip to the studio where Alexis y Fido were recording. They begged her to appear on a new record called “El Palo,” but she was reluctant. “I was like, ‘I don’t sing. I’m not going to do that harm to you.'” Eventually, they convinced her to record the feature, on the condition that her verse be removed once they found a suitable replacement vocalist.
But a substitute singer was never found, so after re-recording the feature, “El Palo” went straight to Puerto Rican radio, where it stayed on the charts for weeks. Soon after, Hector El Father recruited her for “Noche de Travesuras,” a new Luny Tunes production. “From then on, they sought after me a lot, blowing up my phone with calls. They drove me crazy sometimes,” she laughs.
Back then, a female chorus guaranteed the success of a reggaeton hit. And often, that voice was Jenny’s. While Glory provided the hooks for crossover hits like Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” and Don Omar’s “Dale, Don, Dale,” Jenny triumphantly carried the torch after Glory went solo in 2005, at the height of reggaeton’s commercial explosion. Jenny lent her talents to Wisin y Yandel’s “Paleta (feat. Daddy Yankee)” in 2005, Alexis y Fido’s “Eso Ehh” in the same year, and Plan B’s “Frikitona” in 2006. There was her aforementioned appearance on “Rakata,” one of Wisin y Yandel’s first singles, and one of the only reggaeton songs to make it on the Billboard Hot 100.
In short, Jenny’s voice was the glue for a musical movement that would revolutionize U.S. airwaves. Reggaeton desperately needed a female figure to satisfy the male sexual fantasies at the genre’s core; it begged for a woman to answer to the narrative of sexual subjugation and dominance weaved by its biggest stars. That commercial blueprint wasn’t a coincidental byproduct of the erotic themes that coursed through reggaeton’s veins; it was a formula concocted with purpose and conviction.
In our conversation, Jenny reveals that the hook on her first track for Alexis y Fido was actually voiced by a man before she agreed to record it, and that it was common for musicians to do so if they weren’t able to hire a fitting vocalist. “A lot of them, when they’re going to do the song and they have the idea of doing a female vocal, they record themselves [singing], but like a girl [laughs]. You know, they put effects on it.”
When reggaetoneros were unwilling to tolerate the feminine versions of their own voices, Jenny often stepped up to the plate. On “Paleta,” for example, she begs for Daddy Yankee (and subsequently Wisin y Yandel) to let her lick their proverbial lollipops – “paleta, dame paleta.” On “Rakata,” she moans for Wisin to meet her sexual needs: “papi, dame lo que quiero.”
It would be facile to reprimand Jenny for this kind of self-objectification, neglecting her own agency and self-determination. That doesn’t mean we should forget the unforgiving, exploitative nature of the entertainment industry, which commodifies Latinas for sexual consumption only to admonish them later.
Unlike her predecessor Glory, Jenny’s vocal features never amounted to abbreviated credits (i.e., “feat. Jenny”). And without those credits, Jenny was only paid for the studio time she put in for each verse. “I was just paid for these songs, but never got any royalties,” she says. According to ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) policy, without an official credit, a songwriter or contributor cannot receive the royalties they are entitled to. That oversight complicates Jenny’s place as the reggaeton chorus girl, erasing her contribution to the genre even further.
To suggest that Jenny is nothing but a package would deny her the agency she fought for tirelessly. It’s not the rampant sex talk that should be condemned here, and making moralizing claims about female artists’ depictions of sex would fall into the tempting trap of respectability politics. Moreover, crafting negative assumptions about Jenny’s objectification would neglect the business acumen and wisdom she shows during our conversation. Self-objectification isn’t tantamount to a lack of self-respect. As scholar Raquel Rivera writes in her essay Butta Pecan Mamis, “there is no contradiction in selling sex through role-playing as a professional occupation.”
Self-objectification isn’t tantamount to a lack of self-respect.
In a capitalist system that renders Latinas – and especially white, straight-haired Latinas – objects of male desire, the alternatives for empowerment are few and far between. For a woman who once lived in public housing, reggaeton offered the financial stability and glamour of a career in showbiz.
“For me, reggaeton was an opportunity, you know? For people who may not have that vocal register, but a nice melodic voice,” Jenny offers. As someone who held a series of odd jobs as a liquor promoter and TV extra, being a guest vocalist – even if she was playing into tropes of tropicalized Latina sexuality – was just another way of paying the bills. “[Male artists] look at you; you feel it, you feel the energy. The way they look at you. I hate that. I despise it, because they’re not open-minded.”
Like any woman hustling in the music industry, Jenny struggled to earn the respect of her male counterparts. “The challenge…I’m still going through is that your co-workers respect you, and that they know I am a woman and I’m here to work and contribute to the genre the same way they are,” she declares. “I got hit on a lot, by many. And as they saw I wasn’t giving in and doing anything, they promised, promised, promised, and I didn’t give in. So what they did was leave me alone…Once they saw it was only friendship and simply work, that was it. The hardest thing is getting accepted by them, but once they do, they support you all the way.”
Jenny often looked to the career of perreo powerhouse Ivy Queen for support. “Do you know all the things she had to be fed up with so they would respect her? She showed herself as a strong woman.” Ivy Queen was Jenny’s role model, and her success in the industry was part of the reason Ramos Dávila decided to go solo. “It was like a volcano inside of me burning, this lava wanting to get out,” she reveals.
After a few years out of the spotlight working odd jobs at restaurants, Jenny decided it was time to head back to the studio. “DJ Duran, who works with Plan B, used to record me late at night all the time…There were people who saw the potential and the desire and said, ‘Damn, let me record this woman.’ There were always obstacles: the computer broke down, vocals got erased, this thing got erased…I got a bit frustrated and I thought to myself, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me.'”
“It was like a volcano inside of me burning, this lava wanting to get out.”
In 2011, she was working at a Mexican restaurant in Puerto Rico. “Female vocals went down by that time. It wasn’t the same anymore; I was not called like they used to,” she explains. Through a meeting with music business mogul Boy Wonder, CEO of management company and record label Chosen Few, she had the opportunity to hop on Cosculleula’s “Latin Girl,” a track she co-produced, later graced by the one and only Justin Bieber, America’s no. 1 chambelan.
Fast forward to 2016. A mixtape and a few (credited!) features later, Jenny is gearing up to drop her second solo project. “I learned to be more picky…Now, in order for me to like something, it’s like: ‘It’s not bad, but show me something else.'” That non-conformist spirit spawned her single “Hasta Que Lo Pierdes,” a maudlin ballad buoyed by live violin strings. “We wanted to do something different, everybody’s doing trap, trap, trap. I’m a bit on the contrary.”
The album promises to be a whirlwind blend of soca, reggaeton, kuduro, and ballads, with features and credits from a who’s who of the Latin urban world, including Luny Tunes, DJ Blass, and even Aventura’s Lenny Santos. “I have a lot of things in my head…I have a lot of things to contribute, but it’s like I have to organize everything…It’s a dream, and it’s a responsibility as well. There are a lot of girls that look up to you,” she sighs.
With the revitalization of reggaeton in full swing – thanks to the creative hub crystallizing in Medellín, and Puerto Rican legends like Daddy Yankee and Don Omar embarking on a joint tour – Jenny has a sure shot at making a successful comeback. For her, reggaeton “is never gonna die; this is long-term.” With new swathes of women hustling in the underground, reggaeton’s future is bright. I relish the prospect of a more equitable future for the genre, graced by dozens of women’s voices. What would the popular reggaeton world look like enriched by the warped Tumblr pop art of Ms Nina or Tomasa del Real? On the mainstream front, Jenny seems poised to lead the pack – on her own terms, without an “ay papi” in sight.