Latin music has a woman problem. At a time when the gender gap is smaller than ever in North America, the inequality between the sexes in the Spanish-language music seems to be growing. In the last four years, only two female artists have reached No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart — the most recent was a featured appearance from global superstar Shakira on a 2015 single from all-male Mexican arena-rock band Maná. Meanwhile, since April 2012, only seven individual women scored No. 1s on the Top Latin Albums chart — while 33 solo male performers held the highest slot (a gender tally that doesn’t include the masculine population of the many 10-plus-member bandas that topped the list during this period). And six of the seven women who did manage No. 1s aren’t exactly up-and-comers: Three are veteran performers with careers spanning more than 25 years (Gloria Trevi, 48; Thalía, 44; Ednita Nazario, 50) and three are dead (Selena, Jenni Rivera and Natalie Cole).
The seventh is Chiquis Rivera — daughter of the late Latin superstar Rivera — a 30-year-old vocalist whose first album, Ahora, debuted at No. 1 in June 2015. An outspoken regional Mexican singer with 1.2 million Instagram followers, Rivera bridges the gap between Latin music’s insular past and the genre’s rapidly acculturating, socially networked future. Offering a singular perspective on the overlap of gender and Spanish-language music, she’s come today to Edge Studios in Los Angeles for a Billboard roundtable on the considerable imbalance between women and men in the Latin pop world.
Joining her are four fellow rising stars who embody different values on the Latin spectrum. Newcomer Leslie Grace is a 21-year-old Dominican-American who made history at 17 as the youngest female singer to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Latin Airplay chart, and earned her third No. 1 on the Tropical Airplay chart in August 2015. There’s Mexican alt-pop singer-guitarist Carla Morrison, 29, one of the only Latin acts booked for Coachella, whose same-sex-marriage video tribute for her 2012 single “Eres Tu” has logged 16.5 million YouTube views. From the business side is Alexandra Lioutikoff — a former ASCAP executive whose recent appointment to the role of executive vp for Latin music at Universal Music Publishing Group makes her the first woman to hold that position — and Patricia Flores, 38, senior director of Latin marketing and touring at AEG Live/Goldenvoice, who most recently ran J Balvin’s La Familia Tour in fall 2015.
During the hour-long conversation, the five Latina influencers theorized about why women are so scarce on the Latin charts. Rivera faults radio programmers. Flores thinks it’s their “machista culture.” Lioutikoff says Latin female artists rarely collaborate, unlike their pop counterparts. In any case, they recognize it’s their responsibility to make the change. As Lioutikoff puts it: “We need to come together.”
There is a strong legacy of women artists in Latin music. But now, when there’s supposed to be more equality than ever, there are very few women on Billboard’s Latin charts. Why is that?
RIVERA: I go back to the whole machismo thing. Radio programmers feel there are more male radio listeners, but [labels say] the ones purchasing the albums and buying the tickets are the women. [Radio programmers] make it harder for us. The machismo really —
FLORES: The Latin culture is patriarchal, I completely agree.
GRACE: But I also believe it is harder for women to get airplay because artist development takes longer for a woman — so it takes a while before radio airplay catches on.
One label executive told me male acts looking for record deals tend to have more defined proposals than women.
LIOUTIKOFF: For women, culturally speaking, there are many obstacles involved. Their families say, “What, you’re going to be an artist? Are you crazy? Aren’t you getting married?” Not only that, I think women artists feel they need to be these perfect creatures — and men don’t.
GRACE: That’s why I was saying a woman’s artist development takes more time: A woman is supposed to be feminine, but strong; she’s supposed to be glamorous, but still identifiable — all of these things. But a man can look very nice, he puts out a song and the girls go crazy. In this instant-gratification era, managers and producers and songwriters [are reluctant] to invest in a woman because it takes more time.
But this isn’t the case in mainstream pop — and women are frequently on the charts. In late 2014, there was a record-tying 19 weeks of women topping the Billboard Hot 100.
RIVERA: In the mainstream, there’s more of an opportunity to be yourself, to be more original. The Latin market is very critical.
MORRISON: People put you down.
RIVERA: Your own people, they say, “No te vistas asi,” or, “You shouldn’t be wearing that.” I get that because I’m a thick girl. I consider myself pretty normal, but on television, I’m sorry that I look huge! Even in expressing yourself in music videos, people are so hard on you.
GRACE: Like, “What is she wearing? What is she saying? Why is she eating that?”
LIOUTIKOFF: It’s cultural. Los Latinos — somos muy critcones. [We Latins are very critical.] Mainstream female artists do crazy stuff all the time and put it online and everybody’s like, “Oh, my God! I want to be like her.”
FLORES: We are in a very machista [male chauvinist] society. We have many barriers we need to break through, on top of some of the challenges the mainstream has, but there’s just so much more opportunity in mainstream.
Playing the devil’s advocate here: Could it be that more women aren’t on Latin radio because their music is not good enough?
GRACE: When it comes to airplay, everyone’s chasing after what is hot, instead of taking a risk on what’ll be the next thing. Radio’s not [breaking new artists] anymore.
MORRISON: I went on tour in Latin America and South America and every radio station was playing the same boring songs. I’m in Argentina, come on! This is pretty far away from home and I feel like I’m on the same couch. I’m thinking, “Of course we’re not international — we don’t have big goals.”
LIOUTIKOFF: In mainstream pop, you have the great song, the look, and you have good producers. There are good Latin producers, but for some reason, they aren’t getting together with enough women to create hits.
What you’re saying is: It’s an industry issue, not a lack of creativity?
LIOUTIKOFF: Latin music is changing and it’s becoming very urban, and there are fewer women in that setting. That’s the reality, but you do have [Colombian pop-urban singer] Karol G starting to hit the charts. In Latin America, you have [female pop duo] Ha-Ash and there’s Carla in Mexico. I mean, there are women. But, do more men go to the labels to see if they can get recorded? I believe that’s the case. It’s not that you have the same number of women as men and the label says, “I choose the man.”
Carla had the “Eres Tu” video depicting a gay wedding, which is pretty revolutionary — and the album [Déjenme Llorar] was certified platinum in Mexico. Why was it successful there and not in the United States, where we’re supposed to be more progressive?
MORRISON: In Mexico, there’s a lot of — again — machos. But there are also a lot of open hearts and open minds that are accepting of [LGBT rights]. They celebrate that somebody’s talking about the issue, like, “Wow! She has some balls.” But then, there are dinosaurs who don’t want to change their mind-set. I wanted to go against that [conservative mentality] because of my image: I’m a chubby girl, I’m tattooed, I look like your neighbor. People can relate: “If she can do it, I can do it. I don’t have to be perfect.”
Have any of you been asked to compromise the way you sing, look or act? Has anyone said, “Chiquis, si, muy bonito, but you need to tone here, lose five pounds?”
RIVERA: Oh, yes. Definitely. “Lose weight,” they’ve told me that. Obviously it’s a battle I’ve had my whole life, but I love how I look. I feel like I’m a normal girl.
What about the challenges of a Latin female executive? Patty, are people resistant when you, say, land in Monterrey, Mexico, and you’re the promoter?
FLORES: Oh, all the time! Sometimes it’s based on my age. Because I look very young, they think I’m inexperienced and don’t know what I’m talking about.
How do you overcome that?
FLORES: You open your mouth, you start saying what you know, you speak as a professional, and you demand respect.
There is always talk that women are partly responsible: They are the biggest music buyers in the Latin market, but they only want to buy albums from the cute guys — Romeo Santos, Marc Anthony and J Balvin — and not music by women. How do you convince the female buyer to buy your music?
GRACE: You have to be authentic. You have to be relatable, but at the same time, strong and glamorous: “I almost envy you — but I don’t envy you because I feel like I’m your friend.” There’s such a fine line, and social media plays a big part in letting us say, “This is who I am without makeup, on my days when I’m at home — and I’m still that same person that is onstage, singing the songs you hear on the radio.”
LIOUTIKOFF: Woman buyers want to relate to woman artists.
RIVERA: Before, you would see the artist and she was so beautiful, she was untouchable — her body was perfect. Now, social media allows you to have direct contact with your followers and [allows you] to be yourself. I think that’s worked for me and that’s why I see a lot of women follow me — because I speak my mind. I try to empower them. But sometimes when I have a bad day, I’m just like, “You’re getting on my nerves right now. I don’t appreciate you saying that.” They need to see that realness.
GRACE: Chiquis goes there.
RIVERA: I do. Sometimes you have to show them, “I’m here. I’m listening. I hear you.”
Who were your female role models growing up?
RIVERA: I love very distinctive and strong voices, from Ana Gabriel to Alanis Morissette. I love Shakira, Gwen Stefani — and Paquita la del Barrio because she represents women. And obviously my mother.
GRACE: Having Dominican parents, but growing up in New York, I listened to lots of R&B. I loved Whitney [Houston], I loved Mariah Carey. I’m an old soul, too — Billie Holiday and those artists — but I also grew up in that [mid-2000s] girl-craze era when Britney Spears and Shakira were huge. At home, my parents would play lots of tropical music — obviously a male-dominated [genre], but it also had women like Olga Tañón, La India, Gloria Estefan.
MORRISON: I used to listen to a lot of Patsy Cline. Ana Gabriel, too. And Rocío Dúrcal was big in my mama’s kitchen.
Ten years ago, when Shakira crossed over with the Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Hips Don’t Lie,” it seemed like a watershed moment for Latin women. But that didn’t last. So why should we think Latinas will have more opportunity now when they aren’t even on the charts?
FLORES: We have more women in power now and they’re going to start making it more accessible for younger [women] artists and executives to come in and be great.
LIOUTIKOFF: Women still need to help women in our business when they can. I’m a great example — I am at a global company that is run by a woman who happens to be a big supporter of Latin music [Jody Gerson, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group]. The pieces are there — we just need to put them together.
Male urban artists — like Nicky Jam, J Balvin, even veteran acts like Daddy Yankee — collaborate with each other. That’s starting to happen in Latin pop, too, but not among women.
LIOUTIKOFF: Part of the problem is, the [Latin] piece of the pie in the U.S. is very small. [According to Nielsen’s 2015 year-end report, Latin music represents 4.5 percent of total music consumption in the United States.] So everybody is trying to protect his or her space.
RIVERA: We need to come together. There are so many girls I see on Instagram who make me think, “She has such a beautiful voice. Why isn’t she on the radio?” At the end of the day, I have to do something about it: Let me post her; let me bring her on my album, even if no one knows her.
GRACE: Artists don’t think that way in Latin because there’s such little opportunity. They say, “Oh, no! She’s going to take my spot.” That is not the way to think at all because you’re tearing each other down and then nobody gets there.
FLORES: That “mean girl” mentality — and that insecurity — is not the mentality of now. We are creating opportunities for the new generations. And that’s the change we’ll see in the next couple of years.
RIVERA: Just the fact that there’s a female presidential candidate excites me. Whether she wins or she doesn’t, she’s out there representing us. I’ve been using this hashtag, #eradelamujer [women’s era], because I really do feel that it is.
Speaking of which, who are you voting for?
GRACE: It ain’t going to be Donald Trump.
FLORES: It will not be Donald Trump.
RIVERA: I’m in between two. That is all I will say.
So we’re not all sold on the woman candidate just because she’s female?
LIOUTIKOFF: No. You have to be good at what you do.
FLORES: It’s exciting that we have a female candidate, but yes, they all have to represent.
LIOUTIKOFF: Like a male.
This story originally appeared in the April 30 issue of Billboard.