Women Rule Dembow Music — Even Amid The Industry’s Rampant Sexism & Racism

Unlike its predecessor reggaeton, Dominican dembow didn’t have a definitive boom period marked by widespread acceptance and record-breaking feat. Born in the barrios of Santo Domingo, dembow is a Black-rooted genre with strong tethers to the iconic riddims of Jamaican dancehall. It has had an organic rise to popularity thanks in part to its multiple evolutions in musical technique, such as accelerating the BPM tempo, traditional to most dancehall, and lyrical density. The former is heard in DJ Boyo’s “Las Mujeres Andadoras,” the first dembow that can be traced back to the early ‘90s. But it was Doble T y El Crok’s popular “Pepe” that towered over Dominican media circa 2011, introducing the sound to audiences around the U.S. and throughout Latin America. Ten years later, Dominican dembow is neck-deep in a contemporary revival and progressive usher into the mainstream—but women and nonbinary artists are being left out. 
While women artists have been some of the genre's most important ambassadors and trendsetters, they have consistently been snubbed. Case in point: “Chimbala y El Movimiento,” the first festival celebrating the bubbling genre. The one-day event honouring the “bajo mundo” underground campaign of Dominican youth will be headlined by one of the genre’s most recognised voices and promises to bring together the brightest in the game, including El Alfa, Bulova, Chucky 73, Dowba Montana, Mozart La Para, Juhn, Aventura’s Lenny and Max, Alex Sensation, and La Insuperable. While a promising milestone moment in Dominican culture and music history, Saturday’s concert at the Washington Heights United Palace—an MTW Live production—will represent a fragmented story and perpetuate a lack of respect and opportunity should it keep women artists out of their own narrative.
With the exception of La Insuperable, the ads being promoted across social media are fronted by an all-male cast, robbing young women—Dominican women especially—out of invaluable credit and exposure, and ultimately, money and future accolades. “It's majority Dominican women doing dembow music today, and they’ve conquered international audiences. We know I’m not the only one and that now there are far more of us to recognise than ever before,” freestyle Internet sensation and dembosera Gailen La Moyeta tells Refinery29 over Zoom.

While women artists have been some of the genre's most important ambassadors and trendsetters, they have consistently been snubbed.

It bears mentioning that some of the male voices dominating dembow today originally discriminated against it, while the emerging female pioneers have fully embraced the sound. In many ways, historical moments like Chimbala y El Movimiento are possible because of the originality behind the genre’s most vulnerable and exploited populations. Why not have women show up in abundance? It isn’t just about this concert, though. It’s about an entire industry and system that aids in the invisibility and dispensability of women, while sexually objectifying them and using them as props or marketing tools. Female and nonbinary voices in dembow not only endure a lack of male allyship in music, but the Dominican Republic’s elitist history of banning sexually explicit content doesn’t help their careers, either. While men talking about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll is the norm throughout history, women are held to other standards
According to Max Gousse, the CEO of Artistry Group, which represents dembow artists like La Moyeta, ignoring women is bad business. “Women are a force in dembow, so representation is essential to growing the genre. Promoters in general should be more progressive in seeking out and booking these rising dembow stars,” he tells Somos. We know, however, that it’s more than ad dollars at risk. Music history is rife with not just the exploitation of women and anti-gay views, but with anti-Black sentiment all while Black life serves as the genre’s bedrock and cultural cachet—and no group has suffered more from this than Black women.
Dominican dembow is a sound all its own and reflective of the Caribbean nation’s local rhythms in music like bachata and merengue. It stands apart from other so-called urban Latin genres in that “it remains Black in representation,” as Panamanian reggaeton historian Katelina “Gata” Eccleston points out to Refinery29. Unique to dembow is also how the music is danced, which clearly draws from footwork inherent to juke, syncopation in breakdancing, and afrobeats movement. In many ways, the genre is a celebration of Blackness, but it has failed to extol Black women. “It’s been incredibly difficult to move in this industry,” La Moyeta says. “To this day, I get bullied a lot online for the way that I look. I get a lot of offensive comments toward my skin colour, a lot of ugly words about the way I act and speak. But with time, it’s almost like you have to grow thick skin and come to understand that there will always be ignorant people with something to say.”

In many ways, the genre is a celebration of Blackness, but it has failed to extol Black woman.

Hailing from La Romana, Dominican Republic, La Moyeta has been one of the foremost voices and necessary figures of dembow. Women in the genre over the course of the last decade have been white or light-skinned Latinas, including La Materialista, La Insuperable, and Milka La Mas Dura. La Moyeta lives up to her moniker as a bodaciously shaped Black woman in Dominican society and shows up as the first Negra in dembow to reach the kind of visibility and success she has. What’s more, her lyrical aptitude is unmatched. Songs like “Tienes Que Pagar,” which earned more than 1.3 million in YouTube streams since its summer of 2020 debut, are representative of La Moyeta’s standards in men and dating, holding the lot accountable for their financial bearings. The following summer she was featured in “Bobolonga,” a quintessential bajo mundo cut promoting all the free-living, ass-cutting, smart comedy and colloquialism popular in dembow records that amassed more than 3.2 million in views. “Tú me quiere' dar pila de masa pero, si lo agarro, te lo dejo arrugado como una pasa,” she spits in her verse, challenging thirsty men’s ability to keep up in the bedroom. 
Some of the most important people on the ground documenting the movement are also women. Dominican journalist, dembow student, and creator of multimedia agency El Recap, Jennifer Mota, says men have more to lose than gain in the erasure of women: “We’re the No. 1 consumers of music. When we think of the proverbial movimiento specifically, a lot of men go into the studio with the mindset of creating songs for women. When we leave out women from this conversation, or don’t create that visibility for them in music, we’re also erasing our experiences in sex and love, our experiences in el barrio. You’re erasing these women’s experiences in the world that absolutely can be related to across borders.”
As Mota suggests, disallowing women and nonbinary voices from the dembow conversation is diminishing the opportunities to connect with the audiences that matter most. Tokischa, for example, a pro-sex and pro-queer rapper from Los Frailes, Santo Domingo, has been able to have such an impact on the youth because places like the Dominican Republic are hyper-conservative grounds where women barely have human rights. Women in dembow like Tokischa, La Moyeta, La Perversa, and Yailin La Mas Viral—who are demanding space in the historically male-chauvinist and anti-gay genre, and asserting sexual agency and bodily autonomy on an island notorious for its deplorable femicide rates and anti-abortion attitude—are quite frankly revolutionary. “It’s opening doors for other women and opening conversations to other parts of society that we need to value more and better understand,” Mota adds.  

Women in dembow are demanding space in the historically male-chauvinist and anti-gay genre, and they're asserting sexual agency and bodily autonomy on an island notorious for its deplorable femicide rates and anti-abortion attitude.

Tokischa’s “No Me Voy Acostar” is a good example of the allyship power behind dembow. It helped co-sign and expose to larger audiences Black women like La Perversa and Yailin La Mas Viral, who started out dancing in music videos and were not initially taken seriously as recording artists. The NSFW video is set in the streets of Santo Domingo during the worst of the pandemic shutdowns, and the girls protest DR’s toque de queda and right to party, while expressing sexual freedom and carnal desires in witty banter and catchy rhymes. “Le doy deo' a Molly, le doy lengua a mari, me la' singo a la' do' porque 'tamo en un rapaparty,” the song opens with a metaphor about being in a threesome involving ecstasy and weed. 
Visibility in dembow is still building and the collaboration among its women will continue to move the genre forward and expand its reach and influence. But dembow fans might prove to have the upper hand. “Black women, in this case, female dembow fans, have a distinctive power in that they’re the ones who set the tone, who set and validate these street trends before they reach mainstream,” Gata reminds us. “If these cultural moments are not reflective of those that carry the culture, it speaks volumes about your respect for what is the actual culture™.”
Mota is hopeful that the advancements in technology will continue to bolster the voices of women artists, and Black Dominican women specifically. Speaking on the “bonafide dembosera” La Moyeta, Mota says, “I’m proud of women like her for leveraging the Internet and using social media to rise in a society being shaped by a pandemic, limited performance opportunity, and biased industry practices.”

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