As Latin pop is breaking into the American mainstream, all eyes are on reggaeton. A rhythm that first developed in the Afrodiasporic communities of Panama and Puerto Rico, the genre has rapidly taken over the world, as artists like J Balvin, Daddy Yankee and Ozuna crank out summer hit after summer hit. Yet while these industry mainstays have found success in toning down the explicit lyrics of yore, in favor of a more suavecito, romantic dembow, an entire underground scene of sexually uninhibited, female-led reggaeton is moving the genre forward in unprecedented ways by reclaiming the perreo — a sexually suggestive dance that once shocked the sensibilities of Puerto Rican elites in the Nineties. The queen of this scene is Tomasa del Real: “I’m la freaky of the reggaetoneros,” she says with a grin.
In Chile, worlds away from reggaeton’s geographic origins, the 31-year-old singer is building on the innovation of her Caribbean predecessors to create neoperreo: a new movement of young reggaeton artists finding success in very specific corners of the internet and, increasingly, stages all over the world. In some ways, it’s not so different from the genre’s initial rise over twenty years ago — the DIY ethic is still going strong. Yet instead of bootleg tapes passed covertly between neighborhood kids, neoperreo circulates via files shared across the globe: from music, to photos and cover art, completely created with little more than a laptop and a phone.
With heavy, driving beats and ample autotune, Tomasa’s sound is cyber-tropical ecstasy, inspiring many women to be their nastiest selves on the dance floor. Through a mutual appreciation for underground perreo and pre-Y2K internet aesthetics — take the neon, pixelated graphics of old Angelfire pages — many young artists have connected on social media and coalesced under the neoperreo label, in no small part due to Tomasa’s work. What was first an interesting way to describe her sound to others became a hashtag, a series of parties and a YouTube channel — all platforms dedicated to boosting like-minded artists around Latin America and the world.
Although she’s a good few inches shorter than most people at her shows, Tomasa’s glittered claws, facial piercings and winning smile make her easy to spot. After her sweltering performance at this year’s Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York City, Rolling Stone met with the audacious singer to discuss the scene she’s nurtured and the politics that inform her music.
As a Chilean, how did you arrive at reggaeton?
In Chile we listen to a lot of reggaeton. I’m from Iquique, a small city in the north of Chile that’s closer to Peru than Argentina. It’s beaches, palm trees, reggaeton, Fast & Furious cars. We have people without [college] degrees but a bunch of money, because it’s a mining town. So when my mom gifted me a MacBook Air, I started recording myself singing, just regular girl stuff. And the most natural thing that came to me was to do reggaeton.
What do you think you bring to reggaeton as a female artist?
I think that this generation has never felt less for being women; [they] made music from their personality, not a need to prove that they can do it too. That’s what we’re bringing to the table: it doesn’t matter if you’re a man, or a woman, gay or whatever — we wanna make music together, for it to be good, and that’s it. We need to stop talking so much about our organs or sexual preferences and talk to women about our music, like any other musician.
What do you want people to feel when they hear your music?
I want DJs to play it in the club and for people to dance, and let go of their problems. In Latin America we have a ton of problems. In the U.S. people talk about choice — that if you get an education, you’ll be able to choose your life. We don’t have the choice to exit the ugly parts of what we’re living here in Latin America. So the only gift I feel I can give as an artist is happiness. Perreos these days are some of the coolest spaces because everyone comes — from rich to poor, trans people, gay people, heteros, all are coming together in the same spaces.
That letting go — saying the sexually explicit thing you’re not supposed to say, dancing low because it feels good — that’s something that comes up again and again in your music.
Old [Latin pop] idols like Chayanne and Ricky Martin talked about these fantastic love stories that nobody lived. Loves that no one I knew experienced, that my mom didn’t live, that don’t represent me. And suddenly there’s this music — organic, from the reality of the person singing it, and that people identify with more. I feel this generation got bored with those fantasies that we never lived, movies about ideal loves and Prince Charming[s].
Is there anything in Latin music that you’re excited about in this moment?
When I started to do this, never in my life did I think I would be invited to an event like this. Or to be interviewed like this, or that anyone would pay me for doing this. I always grew up seeing model-like women on TV with these gorgeous voices. For me it’s a blessing I stumbled into because my mom gave me a computer. The industry I think needs these new voices, and that’s what excites me. That next year people like Ms. Nina and Bad Gyal [can be] here too.
Your projects all have a particular visual aesthetic as well. How does it all fit together?
All of this internet art aesthetic is on purpose, but it’s also that this is what comes out when I create — because there were no other means to do it [other than from my computer]. And the thing is, you can do all this yourself. Anything that you see that comes out from me, I can tell people the program I used to record it and they can do it at home. That’s my aesthetic because I’m getting everything from the internet. And I think that’s also important to share with people, share the information.
I love that you share resources. Sometimes there’s a level of competition, but your online scene seems a little more…
Yeah, collaborative. As if to say, “we can all rise.”
You know with neoperreo, other people started using the hashtag. And we said “well, maybe we could do parties?” So we started doing parties. Then we got a Youtube channel. “Could we offer to upload our friends’ songs?” And we got a ton of videos. “Send me your music if it’s not on Spotify and I’ll help you get it on there.” And suddenly we’re a label? A channel? I don’t know what we are. I feel like if I’ve gotten a level of visibility, I’m going to take advantage of it to the max and I’m gonna bring everyone along with me so that you see them, too.