Reggaetón Animal

Immigrant dreams, dirty dancing, and the revolution: Meet the new Latin hip hop of Maria Isa and Danny y Elliot

Today Danny lives in Hopkins, and says he couldn't care less who thinks he's hardcore. "When I started writing, I never thought that it would be music," he says. "Most of my family, none of us graduated from high school. To have somebody doing something and sticking with it, like me and Elliot with this music, it's a big impact. I guess it's a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel."



Tony Nelson

"The thing about reggaetón," says Maria Isa, a wooden cask drum between her legs, "is that in bomba, this is a turn—" .

She slaps out the dem bow on her drumhead. "That's the reggaetón snare," she says, "with the girls spinning. And that's how we started flowing through bomba."

Bomba is a folkloric music and dance of Puerto Rico, developed by African slaves brought to the island in the wake of Columbus, and Isa has become an icon in local hip hop by combining the tradition with reggaetón. The idea arrived through osmosis. Sitting in the classroom of St. Paul's El Arco Iris Center for the Performing Arts, she says she first walked into the folk-culture school at age five, and now she teaches here.

"Most of these kids aren't even Puerto Rican," she says, tucking her dark mane under a ball cap. "The majority are kids of color from an urban setting, and they're looking at this as kind of another home, to get away from the stuff that's happening outside on the street. That's exactly what it was for me."

She began singing and rapping in English and Spanish as part of the now-disbanded Many Styles, recording a 2005 benefit CD for the Boys and Girls Club located in the St. Paul West Side neighborhood where she grew up. Now Isa includes members of her bomba ensemble Raices ("Roots") as part of a full live backing band, taking the First Avenue stage last August with boys and girls dressed in "traditional" garb (most wearing the trapped expressions of children in a school recital) during the Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop. Isa rocked a green army cap with a red star that night, flanked by a male and female dancer in tight camo. Because she rarely sticks to dem bow, Isa never claims to play pure reggaetón. Instead she's sort of a Clash, Public Enemy, and El Vez for Puerto Rican nationalism rolled into one.

Isa hit her stride during "Santa Maria," losing her shades to show her wide, striking glare. "I'm working 24-7 just to get farther," she rapped in English. "Making money singing songs/Not like my prima makin' money shaking it in a thong/But who am I to judge when we all do wrong?"

At a moment when even Ivy Queen, reggaetón's great feminist exception, dresses like a porn star, Isa says she fights the pressure to take it off. "I don't think I need to be wearing a bra and underwear to get onstage and flow," she says. "Just because every other guy before me is rapping about 'we want a girl to take off her clothes,' and 'we wanna perreando.'"

She laughs. "It's like, cool. You're going to have these girls onstage before me with half their clothes on. But I'm going to come on and be like, 'I'm wearing clothes, I'm still being sexy, and I've still got some stuff to say.'"

The first female performer in local reggaetón has good reason to be sensitive to issues of equality and authenticity. The last time a Minnesota-born woman recorded an international hit in a tropical style, it was the Andrews Sisters with "Rum and Coca Cola," 60 years before Daddy Yankee poured 2004's "Gasolina" over reggaetón's brushfire. Comedian Morey Amsterdam had stolen the old calypso from Trinidad's Lord Invader before passing it on, tweaking the lyric to transform an uneasy satire of native prostitution ("working for the Yankee dollar") into a blissful whitewash of same. The artist born Maria Isabelle Perez Vega couldn't be more different. Conscientious and radical, she has spent most of her young life immersed in the study of Puerto Rico, a thing inevitably woven through reggaetón like cornrows.

Isa's mother, longtime St. Paul community leader Elsa Vega-Perez, was active with her father in the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panthers, and both parents came out of the New York City Housing Authority's Baruch House on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (Isa still visits family there, and in Puerto Rico.) When Isa was a girl, her mother used to call her "mi Lolita," after Lolita Lebrón, the Puerto Rican nationalist who led an armed attack on the United States House of Representatives in 1954. Pardoned by Jimmy Carter 25 years later, (Lebrón had fired her weapon in the air, proclaiming upon arrest, "I didn't come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico."

In seventh grade, Isa hoped to interview the historic figure while making a trip to the U.S. territory in 2000. But the octogenarian activist was busy protesting in Vieques, the island municipality then being used by the U.S. Navy for bombing practice. (Isa recently discovered that her manager, Melisa Rivière, was also among those arrested at the time.) Now Isa is working on a song about Lebrón. "The first thing people think of when they hear 'Lolita" is a whore," says Isa. "But as a woman in hip hop and reggaetón, I grew up really looking up to Lolita Lebrón as a woman who led something, with the guys following her. I wanted to freestyle and join ciphers [improvisational rap circles], but that was a guy thing."

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