Ms Nina has logged on
Ms Nina is power walking through the cobbled streets of her Madrid neighbourhood. She’s running late for a hair appointment that she’s had booked in for months, and if she misses it, she won’t be able to see her favourite stylist until she’s back from a lengthy US tour. Her hair, currently a brassy shade of blonde, has been long overdue for change. “I’m dyeing my hair darker, I’m tired of this colour,” she pants down a WhatsApp line. It makes sense, I say, her hair has been this colour for a while. “I’m tired of it,” she retorts. “I want to feel like myself again.”
The ascendant reggaeton star has spent much of her life trying to mould herself to her surroundings. Real name Jorgeline Torres, the 29-year-old was born in Córdoba, Argentina, a city sat at the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. At home, she was a quiet child who mostly kept to herself while her parents loudly blared music, windows open wide – and she’d always privately hum along. Her mother was a fan of cuarteto, an upbeat genre pioneered in their hometown, but she also listened to Mexican balladeers Juan Gabriel and Thalía. Her father, who leaned more towards rock, imparted his influence on Torres and her brothers, teaching her how to play guitar at a young age. “I regret not keeping up my guitar practice. It would have been a nice skill to have to contribute to my brothers’ Argentinian folk band back then,” she tells me. “It’s also a shame that the situation isn’t good in Argentina because I miss the people, our way of life and everything, to be honest…” she trails off.
© Felipe Longoni
When Torres was 14 years old, she and her family left their home in Córdoba in search of a better life. They ended up in Motril, Spain, a small coastal town on the southern tip of the country. It was a difficult transition as a teenager. “I’m an immigrant, what’s easy about that?” she deadpans. Nothing, I tell her, I’m also a Latinx immigrant in Europe. “Well, at least I didn’t have to learn a new language, I guess.” Torres speaks in insouciant strides, always tempering bold statements with softer counter-comments, as if she isn’t sure how her words are going to land. This is a habit she picked up when she was in school, a period of her life she looks back on with contempt. “The truth is, I was very insecure in school. I was very shy and treated myself like I was inferior. I was unhappy, I felt like I was ugly and a freak.” So she did what any normal teenager would do – she turned to the internet.
Finding a community on Tumblr, Torres first gained recognition for her earliest artistic love: graphic design and collaging. Her blog – which still exists on the site – is a kaleidoscopic explosion of pop culture: the background is a play on Louis Vuitton’s iconic white monogram print, superimposed twinkles appear on every other photo, as does Lisa Simpson’s infamous eye-roll. There are rainbow-treated collages of 90s icons like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Tupac, all layered under millennial-friendly slogans with a feminist slant: “I’ll smile when I feel like it”; “I only accept apologies in cash”; “puta”. Each day, her following grew higher, eventually reaching the tens of thousands – something Torres, still timid and in her early 20s by this point, never expected. In real life, she was an introvert with fluctuating self esteem but online, she was a cult hero. “At first getting attention online was overwhelming, but eventually it made me feel good,” she explains. “I’m grateful for the internet, because without it, I would never be the artist I am now.”
This over-the-top aesthetic would eventually characterise her output as Ms Nina, the internet’s princess of reggaeton – and Torres’ alter ego of sorts. She didn’t always know she wanted to be a reggaeton artist, though. In fact, she didn’t even know she could be one. She doesn’t produce or play any instruments and, by her own admission, “can’t sing”. But with her newfound confidence, she decided to give in to the musical impulses she never explored when she was younger. After connecting with Bay Area reggaeton singer La Favi online, the two collaborated for 2016 single Acelera, Ms Nina’s first official step into the world. The pair joined forces again that same year for sleepy dembow ballad No Eres Bueno, but it was Torres’ first solo endeavour, 2017’s Tu Sicaria (‘your hitwoman’) that would carve her out as a singular voice in reggaeton’s new digitally-drenched direction: neo-perreo.
© Felipe Longoni
First coined by Chilean artist Tomasa del Real, neo-perreo – a reference to reggaeton’s distinct style of dancing – started off as an underground subculture working in tandem with the mid-2010s mainstream boom of the genre. In this corner of the Latinx scene, artists and fans alike are sex-positive, queer-inclusive, ultra-feminist and, crucially, extremely online. Pulling reggaeton’s breakneck dash in exciting new directions, neo-perreo’s fresh electronic bent often melds with more traditional Latin sounds; it’s not uncommon for artists to fold salsa, merengue, vallenato and cumbia into the mix. Given her digital influences, it’s no surprise that this is where Ms Nina found her artistic home. “Let me make this clear: I’m not a reggaeton purist,” she declares. “I pay homage to all the music I was raised on, the music that helped me when I was down and helped me raise my spirits. Who cares if I mix old and new sounds? It makes my music more freaky.”
Ms Nina’s highly-anticipated 2019 debut mixtape, Perreando Por Fuera, Llorando Por Dentro, is definitely freaky. It’s also determined and unmistakably anchored by female sexuality, a document of an artist who knows exactly who she is – and a far cry from the “awkward person” she once was. “This ass is admirable/ Like me, no one has it/ I was told your girlfriend is jealous/ It’s not my fault I’m delicious,” she sniggers in Spanish on Te Doy, backed by an oscillating dembow beat provided by Mexican producer El Licenciado. I ask if her lyrics are a vehicle for self-acceptance or a tool for education. “Both,” she responds. “Without realising, I write music with messages to help us all feel sexy and free. But I’ve always had a filthy mouth and the people who take it the wrong way are close-minded. Not everyone is shocked by my music. Even my own father has conservative tendencies sometimes, and look at the daughter he got!” She erupts into laughter.
The mixtape’s title, translating to ‘perreando on the outside, crying on the inside’, could be taken as a post-ironic internet gag – after all, she was once fuelled by re-blogs. But between the barbed rhymes about one night stands and stealing your man, there are pockets of vulnerability. “Today I woke up sad again/ And I don’t know why/ Because I have it all/ How stupid” goes the translated refrain on Resaca, her most bare – both emotionally and sonically – track yet. She tells me that this is a side of her that she struggles to express, both as Jorgeline and Ms Nina. “Honestly, I have a hard time talking about my emotions,” her voice quietens. “There are days where I’m not OK, there are days where I feel hot, I feel ugly, I want to dance, I get my heart broken, and well, I think my lyrics reflect that conflict.”
© Felipe Longoni
She is also seemingly at the centre of another conflict. Torres rose as part of Spain’s growing reggaeton scene, which has catapulted artists like Bad Gyal, Bea Pelea and Yung Beef to international stages. But it’s a movement that has been criticised for appropriating the Afro-Latinx-pioneered genre, ignoring the effects of Spanish colonialism and white privilege. Reggaeton isn’t everyone’s for the taking; it’s a genre that had to be fought for, a style of music that is political in and of itself – from the worn-in seats of Panama’s diablo rojo buses, where the first dembow riddims rung out in the late 70s, to the housing projects in Puerto Rico that brought the sound to the mainstream. When I ask Torres if it’s isolating being one of few Latinas in the midst of this controversy, she is hesitant to answer. After all, this is the country that took her in as an immigrant and the scene that nurtured her talent. Following a long pause, she finally replies: “People care about Latin art now when they didn’t before, and it does bother me a bit, but it was always going to be like this, when something becomes popular…”
For now, she’s happy to focus on herself. When she’s not playing sold out shows from Mexico City to Berlin, she’s at home with her cat Lupita, usually cooking (“avocado is my favourite food!”) and dancing around her kitchen to old school reggaeton. “It’s the only way I stay away from toxic situations and stay sane,” she laughs. “Every night I go to bed as Jorgeline – the girl who is quiet, chill and likes to eat. I’m just normal, you know?”
I recall the time I saw Torres ambling around the artist area at Bilbao BBK Live last summer. The area, nestled in the contours of Mount Cobetas, doubled as a viewing platform for the city’s most visceral sunsets: warm yellows, cloudy pinks, a deep terracotta. It was as if the view was handpainted for an Instagram backdrop – something Torres also felt, as she got a friend to take photos of her in front of it. In this space, she’s off duty; your everyday Jorgeline Torres, dressed down in leggings and a t-shirt, who is more preoccupied with taking selfies and picking through the catered snack table than commanding a room.
But when she steps on stage, Ms Nina is revealed. She swaggers around, never staying in one place for too long. She throws it back, whining her waist and popping her back with a knowing control. Her eyes are glossed, her mauve lips plump and perfectly lined. The crowd – a bobbing sea of mostly young, queer Spanish- speakers – hang onto her every word, waiting for a mandate to drop it down to the floor, kindred in perreo. She takes a moment to catch her breath in between songs, often calling on everyone to get rowdier. In this moment, it’s hard to ever picture Jorgeline Torres as a social outcast. Here, she’s an adored star with a curious depth and a mischievous smirk, reggaeton’s very own Rihanna. For her final address, she pauses longer than usual, patting down the kinks in her skin-tight orange trousers. Then she looks up with a palpable glare. “Yo soy Ms fucking Nina!”
Photography: Felipe Longoni
Styling: Hottie Ken
Makeup: Miss Diamondz
Hair: Fernando Martinez
Ms Nina appears at Sónar, Barcelona, on 18 June