Music may be approached in myriad forms, yet it is often evaluated through two lenses: its anthropological aspect, ( i.e. the impact and function it has in society and culture), and its musicological aspects (i.e. its aesthetic form). It is a rare artist that marries both perfectly, embodying each aspect in an equally intense manner.
One year ago today, Jenni Rivera’s life took a sudden and unexpected turn. After performing a sold out show in Monterrey, Mexico, Jenni died in a tragic plane crash. With her death, we lost a transcendent musician who influenced not only music, but the world around her.
Jenni Rivera was and continues to be the most prominent female recording artist in banda –regional Mexican music. She released 12 albums and sold 15 million units worldwide; her record-breaking profile includes being the leading female artist with a total of 11 Billboard nominations, the first Latina artist to sell out the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, and the first female artist of banda to be booked at the Staples Center. Rivera also had a weekly radio program and her own reality show, I Love Jenni, which became the most successful reality series on Latin cable network Mun2.
Rivera’s trademarks were her sharp lyrics– which highlighted the struggle and desires of women in marginalized spaces– as well as embracing and appropriating banda, a male-dominated genre. She soared through physical and linguistic barriers by positioning herself in audiences in Mexico and US. Jenni Rivera had the courage to challenge the idealized notions of beauty promoted in Anglo culture, where thin and fair skin occupies a privileged space in the music industry. She became pivotal in cementing new parameters of identity and female empowerment, by defining new values for a chingona (hotshot woman), and being a source of inspiration for women, who, like her, were undergoing considerable personal strife.
Cintas Acuario Records, her father’s record label and an important pillar for regional music artists, was Jenni’s first music house. In the narcocorrido musical sphere, women were placed in dark corners, frequently objectified and undermined as potential artists in the genre. She was one of the few females to sing narcocorridos. Jenni had various in-and-outs with record labels but it was in 1999 when she signed with Fonovisa and launched Las Malandrinas, a musical gem and anthem that she began to tear down the ideological status quo regarding how women’s behavior was viewed. Speaking about the song, she explained “ ‘Malandrinas’ means ‘bad girls,’ but not bad in a negative way. I wrote it in homage to my female fans. The type of girls that go clubbing, drink tequila and stand up for themselves.” A song which perfectly depicts the desire of a woman to be an agent of her desires and enjoy life, without having to cater to misogynist views. According to Jenni, Las Maladrinas was when “Jenni Rivera the artist was actually born.” She triumphed in regional Mexican music, but most importantly created a safe space for women seeking to liberate themselves from deeply rooted machismo, sexism and preconceived notions of female submissiveness.
Aside from her music ventures, Jenni Rivera was writing a book that depicted the personal adversities she spent her life struggling with: rape, single motherhood, domestic abuse, and economic hardships. Unbreakable: My Story, My Way, her official autobiography, was penned by Jenni herself before her unfortunate death, and released 7 months after her plane crash. Within a month of publication, it made The New York Times Bestseller list.
Reading this autobiography, one is struck by her indomitable spirit. A mother of five (she had her first child at 15) and grandmother to two, Jenni did not let early motherhood,nor the lack of parental and economic support, prevent her from completing her education and pursuing her goals. She earned a business degree and served as a real estate agent prior to embarking on her music career. Even after becoming the most successful Mexican-American woman in regional Mexican music, Jenni continued to be transparent about the tumultuous relationships, constant disappointments and physical abuse she had endured. These struggles resonated with Jenni’s primarily female fan base, who proudly labeled themselves “malandrinas”.
Rivera’s female empowerment discourse is a demonstration of her profound influence across and beyond music. She embraced her barrio upbringing and deeply rooted cultural traditions by integrating her values into her music. She continues to serve as a cultural text and inspiration to the marginalized women who face machismo in their day-to-day lives.
Jenni Rivera, should be remembered and celebrated as a high-caliber groundbreaking musician with colossal talent and contribution to regional Mexican music, but overall as a woman who roared in a male-dominated genre, paving the way for the empowerment and liberation of barrio women.