In this candid interview with the late Jenni Rivera from Billboard's Dec 3, 2011 issue, the Mexican-American banda queen discusses the many challenges she faced -- including domestic violence, being a single-parent of three, and working in the male-dominated Regional Mexican music industry -- on her way to becoming a superstar. You can pick up this issue, which includes a speciale Jenni Rivera package complete with a feature on her music and branding, photos, and tributes HERE.
Jenni Rivera, 1969-2012
When the inaugural Billboard Mexican Music Awards launched in October, the star of the show was banda queen Jenni Rivera.
Not only did she take home the artist of the year award, but the Long Beach, Calif., native was also honored with the El Premio de la Estrella accolade for her achievements as a philanthropist and entrepreneur.
Lauded for her professionalism during the awards show, the singer/songwriter has always stood out among the macho cowboys of norteño music. After all, it's been more than a decade since she became an artist just to prove to naysayers that she was capable of putting her own stamp on the male-dominated genre. And she did just that by refusing to play the stereotypical submissive female, instead casting herself as an outspoken, tequila-imbibing feminist.
Needless to say, earning the respect of her peers and critics was a challenge. Not even her famous last name-her father, Pedro Rivera, founded the record label Cintas Acuario, and her Grammy Award-winning brother Lupillo Rivera was already on his way to becoming a narcocorrido icon-could convince detractors.
The fans, though, came easier. Having always identified with the hardworking woman behind the marquee lights, they've helped make her a regional Mexican superstar, according to her label. Multiple platinum and gold records hang in her San Fernando Valley mansion.
What's more, her devoted followers have helped her blaze new trails as a live performer: In Los Angeles, she is the first female banda artist to sell out the Gibson Amphitheatre (2006), the first Latin artist to sell out the Nokia Theatre (2009) and the first female regional Mexican artist to headline the Staples Center (2011).
All this success has come with its share of drama both on and off the stage. Infidelity, domestic abuse, arrests-Rivera has been through it. And while these trials and tribulations are regular gossip magazine fodder, they have also served as inspiration for her heartfelt lyrics and raw performances. The key to Rivera's longevity has always been her authenticity, from the moment she first grabbed a microphone as a divorced mother of three trying to pay the bills to her present-day status as a multi-hyphenated performer who is really a businesswoman at heart.
Now, she is attempting to conquer a new legion of listeners with her latest studio album, "Joyas Prestadas" (Fonovisa/Universal). For the double-disc collection, she reinterpreted the ballads of such '80s sirens as Lupita D'Alessio and Rocio Durcal as both pop and banda songs. The first single, "Basta Ya," a collaboration with legendary crooner Marco Antonio Solís, has reached No. 24 on the Hot Latin Songs chart.
Rivera reflects candidly on her roller-coaster ride to stardom, talking about her struggles along the way, the fears that come with touring border towns, the burning desire to be the Mexican-American Oprah Winfrey and why early retirement may be on the horizon.
Billboard: How would you sum up your career now?
Jenni Rivera: I've been recording since 1993. It was a hobby for six of those years. In 1999, I decided to do it full time and take it seriously. When I started getting so many haters and closed doors, I decided to prove that it could be done. I was a divorced single mother of three at the time and a size 12-not your typical model artist that labels feel work for the music industry.
There were so many no's because of my music, how I looked and because I decided to enter a male-dominated genre. They thought that I was crazy.
The adversity and struggles ended up being my blessing. That is where my following came from. My fans would say, "She's really like us. She looks like us. She talks like us. She acts like us. She goes through what we go through." Here I am 13 years later.
What attracted you to the norteño genre?
That's the first music that I listened to. Not just norteño, but mariachi. Mexican music runs through my veins. I loved it. Growing up, my father didn't allow us to listen to English music at home. That's all I heard. I had no choice. As I got older, banda started coming in and I started liking it.
We had our own music stands in the local swap meets. We sold cassette tapes at the time, and that's how we made a living. We stepped it up a bit when my father opened his own record store and eventually started his own record label.
Do you remember your first performance in front of an audience?
The first time I got onstage was in 1993, a few months after the father of my first three children and I had separated. We had been together since I was 15. Because of domestic violence and other issues in our relationship, I got the courage to leave him. When we split up, my friends picked me up and took me to a nightclub called El Rancho Grande in Carson, Calif.
That's the night I discovered tequila. A single mother that had never gone out before, in a nightclub with tequila, wasn't a good mix. My friends dared me to go onstage and sing. I was a little tipsy and sang "Las Nieves de Enero" by Chalino Sanchez, who had passed away close to a year before. After I was done, all the other drunken people applauded me. I liked it. Since my dad wanted me to be an artist, I figured he already had a record label; maybe I could have access to the musicians and the studio. That's when I started recording.
It must have been tough to pursue a singing career as a single mom.
I had no choice but to work hard. I was a straight-A student, went to college, and I loved business. I never thought I was going to be a singer myself. It came accidentally. When I started getting called for events at local nightclubs, I'd leave the kids with the babysitter and go work and make $100. All I wanted to do was bring cheese, tortillas, beans and whatever else I could get for the refrigerator.
What challenges did you face at first?
It's a male-dominated genre. It was hard knocking on those doors to get my music played. One radio programmer in L.A., the meanest son of a bitch in the world, threw my CD in the trash right in my face. I'm glad I went through that because it gave me the gas to keep on going. It made me say, "One day, I'll prove to this guy that I can make it."
When did you start writing your own music?
I wrote my first corrido, "La Chacalosa," in 1994. I was telling a story about a female drug dealer that learned the business from her father. At that time, corridos were hardcore. I figured if I'm the only female that's going to sing one, it's going to attract attention. People still love it to this day.
Did writing come easy to you?
My inspiration is always what I think my fans want to listen to. I often write about social problems. If I'm not going through it or I haven't gone through it, I want to make sure it touches someone. That's what I base my music on. I'm really in touch with my fans. Through their emails, letters and stories is how I decide what music I'm going to perform.
In 1999, you switched from Sony to Fonovisa/Universal. How was that change significant?
It was very big. At that time Sony was very successful and had a long list of artists that were more successful than me, regional Mexican musicians like my brother [Lupillo Rivera] and other artists that my father had licensed out to them. I needed to get out of there and go somewhere that I could get more attention. I gave Fonovisa the album "Que Me Entieren Con la Banda" [which contained the single "Las Malandrinas"], and they were the ones that marketed it.
"Las Malandrinas" became a huge hit.
"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. The song blew up. People became interested. That's when Jenni Rivera the artist was actually born.
What better way to attract attention than to females? I am a female. I know all about us. There are more females in the world than men. I always thought that was the market to go after. Those are the buyers and the people who understand me. That's why I continue to write songs like that.
Are you a malandrina?
Always have been since I was in school. I'm the top malandrina!
You scored your second hit with "Mi Querida Socia" from the Latin Grammy Award-nominated album Dejate Amar. Did it feel like you had arrived?
I started playing more across the U.S. I thought, "I could do this for a bit longer." And then it just snowballed from there and got bigger and bigger.
In 2007, you sang about your crazy life in the autobiographical album "Mi Vida Loca."
That was more of Jenni telling her story through music. My life has been so put out there by the media that I figured I might as well put it out there myself, in my own words and through my music. I wanted to clear up speculations about my private life.
You've dealt with more than your share of drama. How has that shaped your career?
I always try to put a positive spin [on it] no matter how difficult the situation, criticism or scandal may be. Why am I going through this? What have I done wrong? What have I done right? How am I going to learn from it and how is my following going to learn from it? It molded me as a woman to be able to put up with adversity. Since my music and my onstage persona is 80% of the woman in me, then obviously it has to shape my career as well. I bring a lot of my life onto the stage. Something like "La Chacalosa," which is fiction, would be part of the 20% that doesn't apply to the reality of my life. But everything else-my divorces, the sexual abuse on my children, having to pay spousal support-it shapes the woman, the artist and the music I'm going to perform.
Jenni, the performer, loves to drink tequila and cuss onstage. Is that part of the act?
People love to see that I'm as normal as they are. They think that it's a big deal and an honor for their artist to take a shot with them. As for the cussing, I've tried to tone it down as much as I can, but when I do it, it's to make my audience laugh. But mainly it's to show that I am accessible. I am just like you. Not better.
Speaking of fans, you've had a few run-ins with disrespectful audience members and were arrested for hitting one with a microphone in 2008. Does your own reaction surprise you?
Just because I'm 42 years old does not mean that I'm not going to make mistakes. We all become upset when we're attacked in a negative way, especially at work when you're trying to support your kids. I'm the first one to admit that things can be done in a different way.
Is the banda audience a bit more rowdy?
Our music is so passionate and heartfelt that it goes line and line with alcohol. You listen to our concerts and take a couple of shots of tequila. And alcohol makes everyone act differently. That's when some people go the other way and instead of applauding, they do dumb things.
You've played Juarez and other Mexican border towns plagued by violence. It has to be scary.
Obviously, I've heard all the stories. A lot of my friends, colleagues in the business, have been kidnapped or murdered or whatever. You do think anything can happen. The best thing that I can do is pray and ask God to give me grace while I'm onstage and get me safely back home. There's not much that I can do. I have my security team in Mexico, but otherwise I'm pretty simple when it comes to traveling.
Simple? Isn't your nickname "la Diva de la Banda"? Yet you're always so down to earth.
It depends on what you [think] the term "diva" means. To many people, diva means you're hard to please. To me a diva is someone that works hard to be at the top of her game.
Speaking of that, you started producing your own work with 2008's "Jenni." How did that change your career?
I've always chosen and controlled my own music. I began producing in 2008 because the day will come when Jenni will not want to record music, and I want to prove to future artists that I can produce them. I can be known as a producer and be in the music industry in that way. That's why I began doing it, so that the title was there and it was my production.
In 2009, you took a break from banda and put out the ranchera album "La Gran Señora."
That was very daring, and it marked my career in a positive way. I had been successful with banda for so long that people said, "Why do you want to fix what's not broken?" But I wanted to grow. Believe it or not, banda is more limited. The people that listen to banda will listen to mariachi if they find a good album that they feel is worth buying, but there are certain nationalities that will listen to mariachi and not banda. Those were the people that I was going after.
Commercializing a ranchera album is much harder. There had not been a successful female mariachi artist in a long time. It was a big risk, but it was a risk that I was willing to take. La Gran Señora ended up being the biggest-selling [regional Mexican] album of 2010.
You already had the blessing of ranchera icon Vicente Fernandez.
I have pictures of him carrying me when I was 4 years old onstage at the Million Dollar Theater here in L.A. I'm such a fan of his. One day [in 2007] I went to one of his concerts and he recognized me and asked me to sing with him. He loved to watch me sing while he smoked a cigarette and took a tequila shot.
The next day he was interviewed on a radio station here in L.A. and they asked him about inviting me onstage, and he said, "I love the way she sings. She is a complete artist all around." When I heard those words I was driving and had to park on the side of the freeway just to listen to this and cry. For him to support my music and always have something positive to say, that's a blessing.
For your new album, the double CD "Joyas Prestadas," you're reinterpreting anthems by '80s singers like Rocio Jurado and Ednita Nazario, as both ballads and pop songs. What are your goals for this album?
I listened to those songs as a teenager and never imagined I would be recording them one day. The plan with the banda is to keep the audience that I have now, but extend it with the pop. That's the goal: to reach my people and acquire more.
Is a crossover into the Anglo market part of the dream?
I don't know if I would be willing to struggle in a general market and go mainstream. Before I retire, I would like to do an English-language country album. I love the storytelling in country songs. I think it goes hand in hand with what I do now, but in another language. I love Gretchen Wilson. I'd probably pee my pants if I met Brad Paisley. Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton. I'm that type of chick.
It's not the first time you've mentioned retiring.
I'm a woman of goals and accomplishments. I've accomplished a whole lot in my music career. Now my heart is set on having a TV and radio show. I want to be able to talk to the people that love me and get paid for it. I want to be the Mexican-American Oprah Winfrey. That's what my goal has always been.
You're on your way. You recently launched a four-hour radio program called "Contacto Directo Con Jenni Rivera." That's a lot of time to fill.
I'm a communicator. I want to touch different subjects-relationship problems, social issues, immigration, gossip-whatever people are going through. I want them to hear firsthand how I feel. Plus, I get to play music and clear up gossip about myself. It goes by quickly.
We have a segment called "Que Haria Jenni"-what would Jenni do in my situation? I have a forgiveness section. If there's somebody that you hurt, we can connect you to that person and smooth everything out so that you guys can be friends, lovers, business associates or whatever. I want to do positive things for my people.
You have so many different businesses-fragrances, jeans, sportswear, cosmetics and soon hair products. Do you consider yourself more of a musician or a businesswoman?
I am more of a businesswoman. That's what I've always been. Since I was a little girl, I'd find something to sell to make some extra change, and that continues. Singing is my job. I will always be a businesswoman, but not always an artist, a musician.
Is there anything else you want to accomplish?
I'm satisfied. I'm living a true Mexican-American dream. That's the story I want to tell through my autobiography, which will hopefully be done soon. I want to inspire other human beings.
It's a dream that didn't come easy.
I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth. My parents were immigrants. They were pregnant with me when they crossed the border illegally. I was the first one born in the United States. They came to this country to give my brothers a better life and here they were pregnant with me. My mom was very honest when she told me, "Mija, I tried all kinds of home remedies for you not to be born, but you were a survivor since then." When she told me that I refused to exit her body that just gave me more power. I've been a survivor ever since I was in my mother's womb-and I will continue till the end.