From Selena to Fefita: 20 Artists Who Paved the Way for Women in Their Genres

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It’s 2016, and music industry sexism is alive and well. Whether we’re facing threats of sexual assault and harassment, or battling for control over our own artistic freedom, women continue to deal with the oppressive structures of the music industry. But in reflecting on the generation of women who came before us, there lies some hope – these women laid the groundwork for where we are today. To honor the female figures who became pioneers in their genres and changed the face of their slice of the music world, we decided to reflect on some of Latin music’s most influential women artists. Perhaps the most notable part of their stories is that they’ve made their mark on dozens of genres; whether we’re talking about Tejano trailblazers like Selena, or punk legends like Alice Bag, it’s clear that women artists have pushed boundaries across the spectrum of genre and region. This list is by no means comprehensive, but our selection is diverse, including fan favorites, cultural icons, and even some cult heroines that deserve a little more shine. Here’s our tribute to the women who changed the game for all of us. –Isabelia Herrera


La Lupe

Genre: Latin soul

La Lupe, La Yi Yi Yi – there has never been a performer like her before or since. She was called the “Queen of Latin Soul,” a title she embraced and a role she played to the hilt. Guadalupe Victoria Yoli was born in Santiago, Cuba, a proud devotee of Santería for most of her life. She made a name for herself as a solo singer before joining Fania Records and teaming up with Tito Puente in the 1960s and 1970s and releasing a stream of hit singles. She performed boleros, salsa, boogaloo, and rock ‘n’ roll, all in her dramatic, full-throated style. Many people have heard her intense version of “Fever,” but fans love her searing delivery of “Con el Diablo en el Cuerpo.” Her performances were famous for wild unpredictability: She would often remove her shoes and wig and throw her jewelry to the audience. Rumors spread that she used drugs, something her close friends and family deny.

After breaking away from Fania Records and Puente, she managed and produced herself but her career declined. She passed away in 1992. Though many believe Celia Cruz overshadowed her, both singers are true legends. Salsa and Latin soul as we know it would not be the same without the fascinating, still-enigmatic presence of La Lupe. –Beverly Bryan


Jenni Rivera

Genres: banda, norteño, corrido, ranchera

California-born singer-songwriter, actress, and producer Jenni Rivera was one of Mexico’s most prominent female artists. Rivera grew up in a musically-inclined family, as her father Pedro Rivera was a Mexican musician who owned a record company and encouraged his daughter’s interest in music. However, she encountered many obstacles during the beginning of her career. As a teenage mother who struggled to make ends meet and balanced her artistic ambitions at the same time, at first she was not respected within the male-dominated world of banda and corrido. With the release of her first solo studio album La Chacalosa, her career took off. She began attracting international fans, even non-Spanish speakers.

By 1999, she signed with Fonovisa, one of the top regional Mexican labels. Her first album with the label, Que Me Entierren con la Banda, was a success, transforming her into the Mexican icon she is today. She poured her soul into her songs, singing about personal social issues and relationship struggles. As a survivor of domestic abuse, Rivera chose to use her stardom for good, founding the Jenni Rivera Love Foundation to help women who are victims of domestic violence, immigrants, and children with cancer. Jenni’s life ended tragically in 2012 in a plane crash, but her legacy lives on. –Tatiana Tenreyro


Tati Quebra-Barraco

Genre: baile funk

Repping against the discrimination not only against blackness, gun-wielding stereotypes about baile funk artists, and wide nets cast over the representation of favela culture, carioca funk emcee Tati Quebra-Barraco is a shining example of working-class pride.

As a breakthrough artist in the male-dominated circuit of the genre, Tati Quebra-Barraco is a force of visibility not only in that scene but also in Brazil, where unapologetically embracing your blackness is still a radical act (even in 2016, where lobbyists are campaigning for inclusion of a category for “black” on the 2020 census, and colorism curiously shows up in black face-donning karaoke videos for her tracks).

From Rio de Janeiro’s Rochinha favela, Tati Quebra-Barraco’s signature line “sou feia, mas tô na moda” (“I’m ugly, but I’m in style”) doubles as a loose translation of her no-more-fucks-to-give ethos: you can either get down to her unashamed slack lyrics, call out gender inequality, and show some respect for her background, or get out. –Sara Skolnick


Yma Sumac

Genre: exotica

Exotica music helped white suburban post-WWII listeners feel as though they were in the Andean mountains, the mist lightly touching their faces as they listened with their eyes closed. Exotica was well…exotic to American listeners, and Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac was at the forefront of the movement. Dubbed “The Peruvian Songbird,” Yma Sumac was known for her extreme vocal range, which was said to be well over five octaves. Her music career took her to the bright lights of Hollywood, where she starred in two films and played an Inca priestess in one.

Her Peruvian colleagues criticized her for fusing traditional music with other popular exotica sounds. In the end, the singer is responsible for pushing Andean and Peruvian culture internationally. And hey, while we’re at it, Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo is the only Peruvian with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Another point for Yma!  –Janice Llamoca

Related: Iconográfica: An Homage to Yma Sumac, the Peruvian Queen of Exotica


Jessy Bulbo

Genre: punk

Jessy Bulbo started out as a member of the all-female Mexican punk group Las Ultrasónicas, which challenged patriarchal culture and Mexico’s male-dominated music scene by tackling sex positivity, abortion, and sexism. Once the band broke up, Jessy continued to champion her feminist ideals as a solo artist. She sings about double standards in relationships, sexual harassment, and issues within her country with captivating, catchy hooks. From time to time, Bulbo performs nude as a statement on the objectification of women.

Despite her punk roots, Jessy combines various genres from Latin music, such as bachata, ranchera, and salsa, garnering fans from all over the music world. As a woman who sings about the patriarchal society she lives in, she has been adamant about becoming a relatable role model and providing a voice for the voiceless. –Tatiana Tenreyro


Celia Cruz

Genre: salsa

La Reina Celia Cruz grew up in Havana, Cuba, where she began her career as a salsa singer in the 1940s. Her career took off on the island as part of the orchestra Sonora Matancera, but once Fidel Castro came to power in the late 1950s, she moved to New Jersey. She was then exiled from Cuba, forcing her to leave everything behind and start her career from scratch.

By the 1960s, she joined the Tito Puente Orchestra, becoming the frontwoman of the band and creating a new American fanbase. Cruz became La Reina de Salsa in an overwhelmingly male world, thanks to her flamboyant outfits and vibrant performances. Through her five-decade career, she recorded Latin music staples, like “Quimbara,” “Que Le Den Candela,” “Rie, Llora,” and “La Negra Tiene Tumbao.” She won multiple Grammys and was named after a park in Union City, New Jersey. Cruz died in 2003 of brain cancer at the age of 77. She was recently immortalized in Telemundo’s Celiaalthough the novela has garnered quite a few detractors, including Cruz’s own nephew. –Tatiana Tenreyro

Related: Celia Cruz’s Nephew Says Telemundo’s Telenovela On Her Life Sucked


Lisa M

Genre: hip-hop

Straight outta San Juan, Lisa M was only 14 when she released her debut “Trampa” in the late 80s, earning her title as one of Puerto Rico’s first female rappers. As she quickly advanced in her music career, La Reina del Rap blew minds with her blend of rap en español, pop, and merengue. Her biggest hits came a few years later in the 90s (“Tu Pum Pum,” “Everybody Dancing Now,” and “Menealo”) and her audience grew beyond Puerto Rico reaching other parts of the Caribbean, South America, Central America, and the United States.

Lisa M was able to stand alongside Boricua legend Vico C despite the genre being a man’s world. The emcee ventured into DJing and producing, and hosted a show on Mun2 named Jamz, which opened doors for many reggaetoneros. It’s been a decade since she’s released a new album, but she’s been hinting through her social media that she has another project in the works for release later this year. –Janice Llamoca


Gloria Estefan

Genre: Latin pop

Gloria Estefan is a Cuban-born American singer, songwriter, actress, and businesswoman. After fleeing Cuba as a toddler with her family during Fidel Castro’s rise to power, Estefan went on to sell an estimated 100 million records worldwide, including 31.5 million in the U.S. alone.

She initially came onto the scene as the lead vocalist for Miami Sound Machine. Their breakthrough hit “Conga” introduced Estefan to a worldwide audience. After numerous top-charting singles, including “Anything For You,” “1-2-3,” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” in 1989 the group’s name was dropped and she became a solo artist.

Once she released her second solo studio album Into The Light in 1991, her career began to really take off. Following that release, Estefan has continued to pump out singles, cementing her legacy as an international superstar. Along with her multiple Grammy awards, Estefan has also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, The Ellis Island Congressional Medal of Honor (the highest award that can be given to a naturalized citizen), and most recently, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Estefan is said to have a whopping net worth of over $500 million, though critics suggest that Estefan has struggled to evolve the Latin music industry in a way that speaks to the next generation of artists.  –Zoe Montano


Ivy Queen

Genre: reggaeton

La reina del reggaeton Ivy Queen has been fundamental to the genre’s ascent since its first days, having made her first appearances as part of DJ Negro’s crew just as reggaeton in its earliest version was beginning to circulate around Puerto Rico. With her first track on one of DJ Negro’s compilations, “Somos Raperos Pero No Delincuentes,” Ivy established herself quickly as a voice for Conscious Perreo by breaking the lyricism out of its usual archetype, while maintaining a hot dembow beat.

Though her first two full-length albums dropped on Sony Records, Ivy Queen was dropped due to their limited commercial success, leading her to find her place in the movement by going back to where it all started: street-circulated reggaeton compilation CDs. Outside of the label circuit and the still-congealing genre’s repackaging was where tracks “Quiero Saber” and “Quiero Bailar” truly stood out with female dancefloor empowerment subversively placed in an overwhelmingly male-dominated scene.

This return ultimately built out underground-vetted notoriety for some serious still-running career longevity that eventually landed her back at the likes of Sony and Machete Music, with Ivy Queen recording close to her reggaeton roots while also exploring hip-hop, bachata, and live album formats. –Sara Skolnick

Related: 10 Women in Reggaeton You Need to Know


Venus X

Genre: club music

DJ, producer, fashion icon, and overall jefa, Venus X embodies the classic NYC hustle with a 2.0 digital, post-apocalyptic, badass bitch twist. As a performer in her own right, Venus’ sets give new life to the open format DJ mentality, and her GHE20G0TH1K parties have been responsible for debuting many of those sounds in NYC, mixing in cuts across dembow, kuduro, live chopped and screwed hip-hop, footwork/juke, and hardstyle.

While regularly throwing boundary-pushing parties across her home boroughs, Venus holds down a steady international tour schedule, A&R’s bootleg/track releases on the GHE20G0TH1K label with artists like Kamixlo, Skyshaker, and Santa Muerte, and drops collaborations with fashion outfits like Hood by Air for their runway sound design.

Venus has played a large part in recalibrating NYC nightlife with her GHE20G0TH1K parties, which is the manifestation of her own intersectionality as a “Dominican, urban, futuristic woman obsessed with feminist, queer theory” among many other qualities that can’t be – and shouldn’t be – put into a box. Having created a well-loved brand that celebrates this mentality, Venus recently launched GHE20G0TH1K as a weekly party at Brooklyn’s Studio 299, which has already hosted some of the city’s nightlife darlings like LSDXOXO, NA NGUZU, False Witness, and Telfar in its new home. –Sara Skolnick



Genre: new wave

At 14 years old, Alaska launched a trajectory that would ultimately earn her the title of la reina de la movida madrileña. It’s pretty impressive to know that when she adopted her moniker — taken from a Lou Reed song — and brazenly started charting new ground for rock ‘n’ roll in Spain, she was still basically a kid. And in a foreign place, at that — her family had relocated from Mexico City just three years prior.

As guitarist for Kaka de Luxe, formed in 1977, she was central to kickstarting la movida madrileña, dominated by Spanish punk and new wave. When the group dissolved two years later, she transitioned into Alaska y Los Pegamoides. Grandes Exitos, their only album, made an indelible mark with “Bailando,” an irresistible salute to dancing and drinking vermouth-and-sodas all day long. While the glitzy pop number is undoubtedly Alaska’s biggest hit ever, the rest of the LP is more of the spectacular same, an absolute treasure trove of hits. Post-Pegamoides, she churned out several full-lengths as Alaska y Dinarama, delivering an array of dark-and-danceable cuts throughout the 1980s, then ventured into electronic — but still subversive — in the still-active Fangoria. –Jhoni Jackson



Genre: rap

The year was 1998 when young Katrina Taylor, better known as Trina, caught the ears of local Miami rapper Trick Daddy and was featured in her first Billboard charting single, Trick Daddy’s “Nann Nigga.” Soon after the single’s success, Trina signed to Southern Florida label Slip-n-Slide Records. Da Baddest Bitch was born and the rest is history.

The daughter of a Dominican father and Bahamian mother, Trina made waves with provocative lyrics (“Pull Over” is still a big request at her shows) that were shaped by Miami’s notorious nightlife. As a feature, the rapper gave an opinionated voice to women in songs that were coming from a male-only perspective. She balanced her unapologetic NSFW bars with diamonds and flirtatious fashion. In other words, Miss Trina was in full control of how explicit or how feminine she wanted to be. “As a woman, you have to work twice as hard and twenty times harder in the paint than guys,” Trina told Billboard. With almost 20 years in the game, Trina is still working hard and finishing up her sixth studio album, due in 2016. –Janice Llamoca


Alice Bag

Genre: punk

There’s a reason Alice Bag was featured heavily Penelope Spheeris’ film Decline of Western Civilization: Her band, The Bags, was very much at the forefront of the original Los Angeles punk scene. Though they never released a proper album in their four short years, the group’s bellicose fury remains an archetype of the genre — and Bag’s individual influence doesn’t end there.

The Chicana musician has fronted a handful of bands since, from the early deathrock of Castration Squad to the queer political snark of Cholita! The Female Menudo and back to punk with Stay at Home Bomb. Every project has been more enriched by her continued dedication to feminism than the last; throughout her more than 40 years making music, she’s been an educator, published two books and generally remained an active DIY activist.

Shockingly, though, no full-lengths materialized from any of her bands. That’ll change later this year when Bag unveils her first-ever LP, a solo record that features cameos from musicians she’s met along the way, including one of her own daughters. It marks a return to her roots, but also stands as a survey of her life. No doubt it’ll further solidify her as an unwavering icon of punk. –Jhoni Jackson

Related: Alice Bag Is a Chicana Punk Icon, But She’s About to Release Her Very First Album


Fefita La Grande

Genre: merengue

If you’ve ever been to real típico party, then there’s a chance you’ve heard La Mayimba and her hyperspeed accordion skills. Considered one of the Dominican Republic’s most respected merengue accordionists, Fefita la Grande (born Manuela Josefa Cabrera Taveras) began playing as early as the 1950s. Over her decades long career, which flourished well into the 1970s and 80s, she cultivated a new kind of típico, one that leapt beyond the standard guira, tambora, and accordion combo and embraced saxophones and even electric bass guitars. Fefa was a major player in the 1980s típico explosion, when Dominican immigration to the U.S. exploded, and helped bring the rural genre to Europe through international tours. Fefa’s version of “La Chiflera” is a típico staple, a wedding song if there ever was one. Through her versatile, flamboyant style, Fefa has managed to stay relevant and reinvent herself through the years. Most recently, she made a cameo at Romeo Santos’ sold out Yankee Stadium show in 2014. –Isabelia Herrera


Elza Soares

Genre: samba

Dubbed “the Phoenix” for her decades spanning career and a gift for survival, Elza Soares rose from extreme poverty in a Rio de Janeiro favela to cause a sensation in the world of bossa nova and samba in the early 60s. She introduced jazzy scat singing to samba and her bombastic approach to song went against the grain, given the silky style of bossa nova popular at the time. It also won her a devoted following, with Louis Armstrong among her many vocal fans.

She married popular soccer player Garrincha, who was married with children, and subsequently struggled to find work amid public censure and a series of personal tragedies. During the dictatorship of the 70s she spoke out with the song “Opinião.” She was arrested and fled to Italy. In time, her career was rehabilitated thanks to the support of a new generation of fans that includes Caetano Veloso and the band Os Titãs. Through it all, she never stopped speaking her mind and innovating musicially. In the ’70s, she pioneered samba-soul and has explored Brazilian fusions of rock and electronic music up to the present day. Soares remains a powerful talent and an unapologetic feminist and advocate for racial justice in Brazil. –Beverly Bryan


Astrud Gilberto

Genre: bossa nova

Few songs are as indelible in popular culture as “The Girl From Ipanema,” and it is Astrud Gilberto’s effortless singing on that classic song that carried the sounds of Brazilian jazz to the world. Born in Bahia and raised in Rio de Janeiro, in 1963 the singer emigrated to the U.S. with her then-husband guitarist João Gilberto, who was to record the landmark Getz/Gilberto album with saxophonist Stan Getz. Gilberto invited his wife to the studio and suggested she sing on the one of the tracks. The result was “The Girl From Ipanema,” which became a global hit in the burgeoning bossa nova style and earned Astrud a Grammy when a version featuring only her English vocals was released. Though already an experienced performer, it had been her first time recording in a studio.

Brazilian saudade and her own ineffable spirit proved an intoxicating cocktail for pop audiences from Rio to New York, and she became a star as well as a leading light of the young bossa nova movement and one of its chief ambassadors, releasing several solo albums thoughout the 60 and 70s. Hers is now one of the most internationally recognized names in Brazilian music, and one that is synonymous with elegance, cool, and, of course, bossa nova. –Beverly Bryan


Chavela Vargas

Genre: ranchera

Originally from Costa Rica, Chavela Vargas became Mexico’s unlikely reina de rancheras starting in the 1950s. The singer-songwriter and guitarist was known as “la voz áspera de la ternura” for her emotional and raw rancheras. Particularly in her day, singing rancheras was largely in the purview of men, yet Vargas became one of the genre’s most adored voices and unforgettable characters. She stood out even among other women who sang rancheras, many of whom were conventionally glamorous film stars such as Lola Beltrán or Flor Silvestre. In contrast, Vargas smoked cigars, carried a gun, and always performed in her signature long poncho, all of which became part of her legend and beloved personality.

She traveled in intellectual, bohemian circles, and was a friend of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Later on, she became an inspiration to another friend, the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. She appeared in his films and her music in their soundtracks. Though Vargas only came out publicly as a lesbian in her eighties, she spent her entire life openly flouting sexual conventions. As an artist, her songs are embedded forever in Mexican culture. She died at 93 in Cuernavaca. –Beverly Bryan


Mercedes Sosa

Genre: nueva canción

Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa was one of the most important, prolific and well-known figures in the nueva canción movement that flourished in South America in the 1960s. In both lyrics and style, nueva canción spoke to the struggle of the poor, and challenged society and the government. Unsurprisingly, members of the movement often drew direct repression from those in power. An outspoken leftist with a repertoire of protest songs, Sosa herself was arrested during one of her concerts and spent a few years in exile in Spain and France during the military dictatorship of Jorge Videla, and her recordings were banned from the radio. She returned to Argentina as the regime was weakening and gave a triumphant concert in 1982. She spent the rest of her life performing and championing the work of younger musicians.

Sosa is known for blending Andean and European influences in her music and for her aching, sensitive interpretations of songs like Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la vida.” During her life, she was called La Negra and “the voice of the voiceless.” When she passed away in 2009, Argentine newspaper Clarín called her “the most important Argentine singer in history.”  –Beverly Bryan


Aridia Ventura

Genre: bachata

In 1975, at the age of 26, Aridia Ventura staked her claim in the world of bachata with just a few singles. Known as “La Campeona,” “La Tremendísima,” and “La Dura” throughout her career, Ventura gave a voice to women in a genre dominated by men lamenting women who have wronged them.

It’s hard to read bachata as “male” genre per se, but the truth is that the rhythm’s lovelorn ballads often depart from a male perspective – hence the themes about women who are jealous, unfaithful, and conniving. Ventura produced hits like “En La Misma Tumba” and “Tu No Eres Varón,” later recorded with noted label Radio Guarachita, and developed a successful career well into the 1980s. Though Ventura owes much of her acclaim to her predecessors Melida Rodriguez and Blanca Iris Villafañe, who broke ground in the bachata world before her, Ventura’s fame arrived at a time when a newer, more pop-oriented bachata was on the verge of commercial explosion. Ventura battled brain cancer in the late years of her life and eventually passed away in 2001. –Isabelia Herrera



Genre: Tejano

Immortalized as the Queen of Tejano, Texas-born Selena Quintanilla was a Mexican-American pop sensation. Though Selena’s music was rooted in Tejano, her music drew wide appeal across U.S. Latino audiences for its pop sensibilities. Truly a megastar, Quintanilla’s Live! won a Grammy in 1994 for Best Mexican/American Album, making her the youngest and first Tejano artist to take the award home. Capitalizing on the success of Live!, Selena released her fourth studio album Amor Prohibido later that year. Amor Prohibido paved the way for Tejano’s rise to popularity in Latin music, as Selena proved its mainstream potential.

Selena’s untimely and devastating death sent waves through the industry the following year. Her posthumous release “I Could Fall In Love” held the no. 2 spot on Billboard’s Hot Latin Tracks chart while “Tú Solo Tú” came in at no. 1. This marked first time an artist had both a song in Spanish and English in the Top 10 at the same time. Ultimately, Selena opened countless doors for Latinos and continues to have an impact today. –Zoe Montano