Tomasa del Real’s neoperreo playground
Somewhere in Los Angeles, Tomasa del Real is just drying off from a dip in her building’s rooftop pool.
Noticeably relaxed over the phone, she seems eager to hear how my communication skills have fared during quarantine. “I know that’s a weird question to start with!” She lets out an involuntary giggle, and before long I’ve erupted into a fit of laughter too. The ascendant reggaeton star has a habit of lifting the mood – whether she’s lighting up stages with her futuristic dembow or making incoherent jokes in Spanish on Instagram Live. Recently, though, del Real admits she’s been feeling uncharacteristically subdued. “I’ve been feeling a real lack of energy, which is weird for me…” she drifts off. “I just wish I was home.”
Born Valeria Cisternas, home is Iquique, Chile. The small, Pacific-facing coastal town, where she tells me she enjoyed a “nice, normal upbringing” surrounded by the world’s most arid desert, the Atacama. “Growing up by the sea but also in the desert was an interesting contrast,” she elaborates. “It’s a different culture to the rest of Chile, where you’d usually find trees and greenery – Iquique was totally bare. Our culture is pagan culture.” This proximity to such extreme natural disparities, she tells me, is what helped her grow up as an extrovert. As a student, she got her kicks by being subversive – whether that was as the class clown, getting into fist fights with her classmates or drawing in her cherished notebook during lessons. “Somehow, I never got bullied. I was actually very popular and never had any problems,” she confesses, sounding surprised by this admission herself.
After school, Cisternas harnessed her skill for illustration to pursue a career as a tattoo artist. Working in traditional design, she was highly sought-after in Chile and beyond. Still, the dead periods between clients would feel long and arduous, and her boredom would make her “skin crawl”. Using a newly-gifted MacBook Air given to her by her mother, Cisternas decided to make use of the downtime. “I started exploring GarageBand, making shitty beats and singing over them. The only thing worse than the beats was my voice…” She erupts into laughter again. Cisternas speaks in small whirlwinds, always pausing to give me time to process her words – a subtle demand to be understood. “It’s funny, I never dreamt of being a singer growing up. I was just your average e-girl who grew up on MSN messenger. I just used technology to my advantage.”
In 2016, after five years of tattooing full-time and producing on the side, she released her first official single Tu Señora, a syrupy reggaeton track in collaboration with fellow Chilean producer Talisto. The song gained traction on SoundCloud, racking up thousands of plays within hours. That same year, she dropped her debut album Bien Y Mal, which translates to ‘good and bad’, via Enciclopedia Color – a local DIY media collective. The record features raunchy reggaeton born for the club, with songs about savage hangovers and vampire role play over pounding dembow beats, synth lines and electronic flourishes noticeably wonkier than reggaeton’s traditional 4/4 stomp. But Bien Y Mal also felt heartfelt and unguarded, with songs like Arena Modernisima and Bonnie N Clyde painting portraits of a woman learning to assert her dominance.
But it was with her career-defining sophomore LP, 2018’s Bellaca del Año, that she built her very own Latinx cyberworld. Roughly translating to ‘horniest of the year’, the album is true to its name. With its razor-sharp production and Cisternas heavily leaning into Auto-Tune for the first time, the album was a pointed departure from her previous, proudly DIY sound. For the pummelling Barre con el Pelo, she even enlisted Puerto Rican legend DJ Blass, the prolific producer who helped shape the careers of trailblazers like Daddy Yankee, Ivy Queen and Wisin y Yandel. Cisternas wasn’t just bridging the old school with the new school – she was reinterpreting reggaeton altogether, using its foundations to build something entirely new, on her own terms. Third album TDR effectively crystallised her nascent sound, and it wasn’t long before a fresh generation of internet-obsessed reggaeton fans bowed to their new leader.
Then, one day, something significant happened. Asked by a journalist to define her style of music, Cisternas unwittingly blurted out something that would turn her own rise into a movement. “I just let out ‘neoperreo’ because it felt like the only right way to describe it,” she says. “I don’t consider myself a reggaeton singer – that feels like cultural appropriation, almost. What I do is different. It’s perreo – neoperreo.”
Perreo is the style of dance attributed to reggaeton; an unrestrained form of grinding born from dembow. Neoperreo, as Cisternas coined it, is “danceable, Latinx, new”; a home for a generation who gleefully spent their time filling their PCs with viruses from LimeWire. Soon, others started to identify with the movement and the subgenre mutated into a subculture. Neoperreo became a universe for Latinx misfits whose aesthetic revolves around cult influences and internet culture: kiss curls, the smack of latex, the glint of a busted, rhinestone-laced Nokia 3310. When we speak, she’s got two small pigtails perched on each side of her head, like she’s a Latinx Harley Quinn – an agent of chaos that moves through the world with a mischievous wink.
Artists like Ms Nina and Tech Grl joined her clan after connecting online, and some of neoperreo’s most notable producers like El Licenciado, Paul Marmota and King Doudou followed suit. All of these artists were bound together by their hunger for experimentation and deconstruction, their willingness to fold in alien genres like house and techno into the mix. While reggaeton remains a central component of neoperreo, the scene feels splintered from it culturally. Reggaeton is often condemned for being an unrelenting boys club, locking women and LGBTQ+ artists out of the conversation. Neoperreo, in contrast, is led by women and queer people, occupying space in a surprisingly apolitical fashion. It signified representation to Latinx people with marginalised identities simply by virtue of visibility.
“I was just your average e-girl who grew up on MSN messenger. I just used technology to my advantage”
Inevitably, critics and fans alike started to project an ideology onto the subculture, claiming that it’s feminist reggaeton. Cisternas disagrees. “I don’t make music with feminism in mind,” she asserts. “I think being a female artist is a feminist act in itself, but I am reluctant to say my art is so specific. This is the problem with machismo – it focuses on gender too much. When you call my music feminist, you are focusing on my gender and not my art.”
I ask if it bothers her that people have misinterpreted her work. She deliberates for a moment. After a short pause, she says that everyone is free to interpret her music however they like. “If someone asks me I’ll tell them how I feel. But I won’t try to change their opinion. I’ll say my music is selfish, rude and politically incorrect.” It makes sense. Within her art, she embraces her sexuality in a disarmingly straightforward manner. “I want sex with you, never more with my ex/ I want you in front of me so you give it/ And finish on my belly,” she sings in Spanish on 4.20 alongside neoperreo affiliates Nass G and Tech Grl. The track’s artwork pictures two rabbits doing it, set to a purple backdrop with rising neon green flames. She tells me she picked the image, acknowledging how important it is for her visuals to reflect the lyrical content. “I feel like neoperreo is more realistic. You don’t need to make something beautiful and romantic for it to be art. Sex is art,” she asserts. “No bullshit fantasies, just real life.”
For Cisternas, ‘real life’ isn’t something she has been able to escape. As a Chilean, she has witnessed one of the most politically turbulent times in her country’s history. In 2019, in response to Santiago’s increased subway fare, privatisation and the inequality rife throughout the country, the Chilean people revolted. Protests began in the capital, which led to direct confrontation with the national police force. As the situation escalated, Chile’s president Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency, deploying the military to contain the public protests. Soon the riots spread to other Chilean cities and, on 25 October 2019, over a million people took to the streets to demand Piñera resign. By February 2020, 36 people were reported dead and thousands were injured.
With her family still living in Iquique and her best friends still based in Santiago, working away from home during this period was deeply unsettling for Cisternas. “They were killing people like there was no tomorrow!” she says, raising her voice in frustration. “But I think this is the start of a very important change, not just in Chile, but in the world. People are really waking up to injustice.” She doesn’t think real change will come quickly, however – not until developing countries are truly taken into account. I nod my head in agreement. Western societies are now faced with issues our families reckon with daily back home. When will I next find essential food, income, toilet paper? Will running water ever come back? This version of reality, a suspended limbo, is something most Latinx people can relate to.
It’s a feeling she also identifies with during her time in quarantine, this sense of displacement. Cisternas feels grateful for this time off – she mentions she’s been suffering with tour-induced sleep deprivation several times during our interview – but she can’t shake the general feeling of unease. It’s something we’re all affected by, as the world freewheels through this unique period of anxiety and history. Given our current circumstances, I ask her if she’s become more preoccupied with the mark she leaves on the world. “To be honest, I think I succeeded as an artist already. I feel like I have inspired so many people, that I lubricated something up that was very dry,” she giggles, acknowledging the sexual innuendo. Then she adjusts her tone. “I’ve done it. I feel complete.”
TDR is out now via Nacional Records