Photo by Fabio Piva

How Women Are Fighting For Representation in Latin American and Spanish Battle Rap

While Cardi B and Nicki Minaj dominate in the U.S., women in this scene are still waiting for their break.

By Thor Benson

They say a large crowd of people is capable of anything. As I entered Red Bull’s Batalla de los Gallos International Final, a freestyle battle rap tournament that took place in Buenos Aires on December 9, this particular crowd felt more unified and determined than any I’ve witnessed. They filled the stadium to the brim. The synchronized chants of the crowd sounded like an approaching army. Fists were raised into the air, demanding that the show begin.

Batalla de los Gallos features freestyle rap artists from all around the Spanish-speaking world. Rappers from Spain, Colombia, Argentina and elsewhere congregate in front of these crowds to see whose skills are best. It’s been going on since 2005, and these events that happen throughout the year often draw well over 10,000 people. The judges choose a winner who does not receive a tangible prize, but victory can launch a career. Arkano of Spain and Aczino of Mexico, for examples, are two performers who have become bigger in the Latin American and Spanish rap scenes because of these battles.

Across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, both artists have reached over a million followers, and in 2016, Arkano set the Guinness World Record for longest rap freestyle by performing for over 24 hours in a public square in Madrid.

Though the number of women attending these battles is growing every year, the audience at these events is largely young men, and a woman has never been among the international tournament's final competitors, including this year in Buenos Aires. It’s indicative of the culture that surrounds the battle rap scene where Latin American and Spanish machismo goes full-bore.

Guillermo Rodríguez Godínez, 24, who performs as Arkano, told me that many of the men competing tend to use sexist language. He admits that women are often objectified and hyper-sexualized. But, having been introduced to hip-hop by his older sister who was a rapper and graffiti artist herself in their Spanish hometown, Alicante, Arkano tries to do things differently.

“I always try to avoid falling into the trap of using sexist language in my freestyles,” he said. “If my rival in a battle starts to say sexist things, I do the opposite and call it out.”

Photo by Fabio Piva

Arkano performs at the 2018 Batalla de los Gallos International Finals.

Though none of the competitors in this year’s tournament were women, Red Bull did make sure the event featured female emcees. The DJ for the event was Nicole Atenea Nazar, a Chilean woman who performs under the name DJ Atenea. I spoke with DJ Atenea and other women at Batalla de los Gallos. They were quick to confirm that sexism is a major issue in the scene, but they often hesitated to elaborate, perhaps worried about being shunned for calling out the issue. It was as if they were concerned about being seen as the “other” by speaking out about the obstacles women like them face.

DJ Atenea said she sees sexism in the culture, but she tries to ignore it. She did note she’s the first woman to DJ a Batalla de los Gallos — perhaps a sign of progress — but it didn’t come easily. Women need to fight hard to get into the scene, Atenea explained.

“It’s true that women struggle to be included, but you shouldn’t let that be something that limits you,” she said.

Mary Ruiz, 38, a Spanish emcee who also helped host the event, said men don’t trust you when you try to get into the scene. You have to prove yourself as a performer first, and then, eventually, they start to accept you as another rapper. “When women come into the rap-battle scene to compete, they look at you like you’re an alien,” she said. Though not a rapper herself, Ruiz, who performs under the name Queen Mary, has seen it happen repeatedly to others.

Photo by Fabio Piva

Queen Mary emcees in Buenos Aires for the 2018 Batalla de los Gallos International Finals.

Luyara Cerena, better known as Tink, an emcee and rapper who lives in Argentina, agreed, adding that women have to blend in with the men to some degree and can’t be too aggressive. Things are getting better for women, but it’s taken a long time.

“It’s a struggle every day — meeting new people and fighting your way into the scene,” she said. “You have to give it your personal, female touch but also fit in with what the scene is about.”

Some don’t see it as a problem of the battle rap scene specifically, though. A Mexican rapper named Cerco, another emcee at the event, blamed Latin American and Spanish culture generally. “It has to do with society and how things are done,” Cerco said. “It’s sad, but every year you see more girls.” As Cerco implied, Latin American and Spanish society have faced an issue with what we might call toxic masculinity for many years.

What’s depressing about the lack of women in these competitions is that the major rap battles like Batalla de los Gallos can change an artist’s life. Like playing soccer competitively in this region, doing well in rap battles can take you from rags to riches. Cerco himself said he comes from an impoverished, dangerous town in Northern Mexico, and he had little to his name before he got into the rap scene. Now, he says, he’s more financially stable and gets to travel the world for rap events. He said many of the other men in the scene are just like him.

In the United States, after years of misogyny in a male-dominated scene, women like Cardi B and Nicki Minaj are now topping the charts alongside their male counterparts. Women in Latin America and Spain are still waiting to achieve this status. For years, lists of the top Latin American and Spanish rappers have been nearly entirely dominated by men. And though rappers like Roja, Rebeca Lane, and more have been talking about the sexism in this culture for years, they have yet to earn the credit they deserve.

In the end, the latest Batalla de los Gallos was won by a talented, local Argentinian rapper called Wos, who himself has an audience of 1.2 million followers on Instagram alone. Though his performance was its own spectacle, and matched by the intensity of the energy in the arena, one hopes some women will be seen competing with him at the next Batalla de los Gallos International Final in Spain. A culture that only hears half of its voices misses out on some of the best ideas.