Si Tu Quiere Dembow: The Women Who Demanded Space, Opened Doors & Expressed Sexual Agency in Dembow

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

Dominican dembow rose out of the barrios of Santo Domingo as a sound and movement based on the Dembow riddim – yet independently of reggaetón’s almost parallel sound. Once a marginalized and maligned genre in its home country, dembow gradually gained acceptance from the Dominican urbano community. Even though it’s now closer to the mainstream, the genre is still in relative infancy – with new proponents and fans spreading the sound across the globe. Si Tú Quiere Dembow is a new monthly column by Jennifer Mota that will explore the genre’s history, while also spotlighting the leaps dembow takes on a daily basis.

Dembow-enthusiasts were in for a treat when a remix to “Chapas Que Vibran” surfaced on the internet last year. La Materialista revived the song six years after the hit earned the rapper status in Latin America, this time recruiting Brazilian singer-composer JoJo Maronttinni and Spanish singer-actress Belinda, whose additional verses (one in Portuguese by JoJo) paired with Brazilian funk-infused breaks tastefully updated the track. The transcultural collaboration encapsulated both the genre’s ever-evolving transnational movement and a rise in female unity across the Latin-American music industry.

Dembow is conquering international waters, however, those populating the forefront are all men. Like many genres in the music industry, dembow is a largely male-dominated space and women are not only underrepresented but also hypersexualized and blackballed from opportunities. As a genre understood for depicting women as sex objects and video add-ons that comply with the male-gaze, it has resulted in a lack of proper marketing, management and media coverage for female artists. This is best exemplified when coverage is granted and the artist receives questions that orbit around their appearance and personal love life, rather than their music.

“I understand that in an interview there has to be the ‘spicy’ part but there are topics that shouldn’t be touched,” Milka La Mas Dura tells Remezcla. The Santo Domingo native’s “Dale Ven Ven” further launched her artistic career in the 2010s and since then she has remained one of the most celebrated female rappers. “It bothers me that we are always seen as sex symbols. When it’s a man, they focus on his work. I believe we can maintain a dynamic and entertaining interview by simply talking about our projects.” Throughout her trajectory, she has been questioned on fidelity, plastic surgery and whether or not motherhood is in her future.

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
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Consistently rapping by the age of 17, her talent landed her a spot on the second installment of “Capea el Dough,” making her the first and only woman at the time to be featured in the 2008 multi-artist track. She pivoted to dembow shortly after with the desire to create music people could dance to. Her music reflects her dominant personality, and her sexual agency in Dominican dembow defined her as a symbol of progression considering the country’s outdated views on gender roles and sexuality.

Milka’s pro-sex lyrics proved that regardless the gender, sexual emotions and urgency is timeless.”[Dale Ven Ven] was my first dembow as a professional artist. Today, people still enjoy and dance to the song because the theme will never die out,” Milka says. The artist also demanded respect and effortlessly took up space in the dembow. “Because of my way of being and super cabrona character, I’ve always known how to earn my respect from men.”

In the past few years, in an attempt to strengthen the urbano movement in the country, there has been an influx of collaborations—uniting handfuls of rappers per track daily. Women who perform dembow also come from different streams of music such as Dominican rap or mambo, and unlike the male pioneers who originally discriminated against dembow, very few women pioneers have neglected the sound. As remixes continuously gain popularity, raperas should have corresponding energy and consistency. While there are leading ladies in reggaetón, visibility in the dembow genre is still under construction—that could change with the unification among female artists and further progress with solidified allyship of the men leading the subgenres.

The “Chapas Que Vibran” comeback not only placed the song on the radar again, but it was also a step towards the inclusion of Black acts, which is virtually unseen in mainstream pop-reggaetón. La Materialista’s addition of JoJo Maronttinni, a full-figured Black Brazilian woman, is the kind of allyship needed in urbano—one that fights the industry’s Black erasure of its music. It’s also important to note that women in urbano are often pressured to enhance their bodies and undergo surgeries to appeal to the “Latinx male gaze.” JoJo’s presence positively disrupts that.

Progressive efforts were recently heard in the pro-feminist anthem of the moment “Tengo Derecho,” by La Insuperable. Her message is simple and clear: “Times have changed, and I have rights.” Throughout the Afrocentric song, she demands equality in the relationship. “If you can do it, I also have the right,” she sings, later adding, “You won’t control me. If you want me to behave, don’t misbehave.”

Women like Milka La Mas Dura, La Materialista and La Insuperable have savored long and successful careers that have witnessed the shift from Dominican dembow’s coming-of-age to its current quest for global recognition, and have opened the doors to a growing wave of urbano female artists who are far more unapologetic than the veterans. Today, artists like Gailen La Moyeta and Tokischa are pushing the envelope by dismissing respectability politics and owning their sexuality. At the same time, lyricists like Heidy Brown and MÓRY dabble with R&B and trap-soul influences. The need for variety and diverse female voices in The Dominican Republic’s music scene is significant, and it’s not simply limited to being the artist. There’s a dire need for women in management, producers, sound engineers and music executives that could contribute to the growth towards representation and visibility.

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
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For male rappers, highlighting their sexual culture is the norm, and as a result, a substantial amount of the music expresses their sexual desires and dominance over women, and that messaging is easily socially accepted over a woman’s sexual expression. These dembowseras are changing that narrative, and opening the door for the next generation to come in and upend it entirely.