Reggaeton In The Age of #MeToo : Alt.Latino This week, we have a thoughtful discussion of the genre's sometimes controversial depiction of women.

Reggaeton In The Age of #MeToo

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From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras.

We are living through an amazing moment, a cultural shift in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, a raising awareness among some men of distinguishing inappropriate behavior toward the women in their lives and in general. It is particularly significant that the incidents that sort of launched this national conversation happened in the artistic community with the revelation that Hollywood big shot Harvey Weinstein didn't live up to his leadership role in the film industry, some women even going as far as calling him a serial rapist. Now, there have been accusations in various industries - media, politics, the hotel industry.

But let's get back to the arts because one of the ripple effects of all this is a critical reexamination of artistic expression within distinct cultural groups. And today, we add to that national conversation by taking a look at women and reggaeton.

We're going to play some music, and we're going to talk about it with some special guests this week. Petra Rivera-Rideau is an assistant professor of American studies at Wellesley College. Her area of expertise is the examination of race in Latin American and Latino or Latinx communities here in the United States. She also studies popular music and is the author of "Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics Of Race In Puerto Rico." She joins us from the campus of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. Professor, welcome.

PETRA RIVERA-RIDEAU: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CONTRERAS: Also with us this week is Omaris Zamora. She's assistant professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Kansas. She is a transnational Black Dominican scholar, a research expert whose area of expertise includes Black and Latino studies, as well as issues of race and gender and sexuality as they relate to Hispanic Caribbean cultures. She is also an accomplished spoken word artist and poet, and she is talking to us from the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. Professor, welcome.

OMARIS ZAMORA: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONTRERAS: So we're not in class. I don't think my grade's going to get dinged. So I can call you guys by your first name, right?


RIVERA-RIDEAU: Yes. Please do.

CONTRERAS: No professor. All right. "En La Cama" by Nicky Jam featuring Daddy Yankee. Let's play a song. Petra, you have assembled a list of songs that we want to talk about today. And I think that we should start off with listening to a little bit of music. So let's do this - I'm going to pick a song from the list of music that you sent me, and then we're going to open up the conversation about what we're hearing and also get a little bit of background, a little bit of history of reggaeton, because I think that's one thing that's really misunderstood is its origins and its history...


CONTRERAS: ...And how it ended up here. So I'm going to play "En La Cama" by Nicky Jam featuring Daddy Yankee.


NICKY JAM: (Singing) Dime en la cama todo lo que quieres. Yo me meto contigo donde sea. No me importa la misión que me tiren, quiero verte sudando como quiera. Dime en la cama todo lo que quieres. Yo me meto contigo donde sea. No me importa la misión que me tiren, quiero verte sudando como quiera.

DADDY YANKEE: (Rapping) Qué bella camina esa muchacha cuando la veo desnuda. ¿Cómo dice? Qué bella camina esa muchacha, oye esto. Ella le gusta que le den duro y se la coma. A ella le gusta que le den duro y se la coma, ¿qué? A ella le gusta que se la coma. Ella le gusta que le den duro y se la coman. Y es que yo quiero la combi completa, ¿qué? ch***a, culo, teta.

CONTRERAS: Oh, my gosh. OK. As I tell my sons, that'll be enough of that.

ZAMORA: I'm over here dancing in my chair.



ZAMORA: That's a classic.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. So what makes it a classic? What are we hearing? And for those who don't speak Spanish, what are some of the things that are being said there?

ZAMORA: I feel like this is a classic because this is before, at least for me, before reggaeton becomes a lot more mainstream. One of the classic things about it is that the whole - the beat is very - is a little more classic in terms of reggaeton, and it has a lot of Puerto Rican slang that is relatable to reggaeton. And in terms of the lyrics, the interesting thing about the lyrics is the part where he says, yo quiero la combi completa, meaning that he wants the whole combination - right? - of these different parts of her body and the different things that she likes to have done in terms of her sexual pleasure - right? - what gives her pleasure. So I think it's definitely a classic in terms of reggaeton of being very unfiltered - good rhythm.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: I sent you this song, too, because Nicky Jam is an artist who's incredibly popular right now. And I think a lot of - for example, my students here at Wellesley, when we talk about Nicky Jam, they think about him singing a lot of very romantic, what they consider some romantic songs that have been big hits for him. But this is kind of old-school Nicky Jam. And so...

ZAMORA: That's right.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: ...It's pretty explicit. And it's, I think, a part of his career that people sort of - unless you've been listening to reggaeton for a long time - kind of forget that he was around earlier, which is part of why I wanted to play Nicky Jam. But I agree with Omaris that the sound - it's a lot less embellished and poppy. And it was also a pretty, you know, sexually explicit song.

CONTRERAS: Let's talk about that, sexually explicit. Now, is that by nature? Is that - does that have any kind of character of misogyny at all?

RIVERA-RIDEAU: There are two ways of looking at it, right? So Omaris describes the song - and I don't know, Omaris, you should jump in for sure. But when you described the song, you were talking about, like, what gives the woman pleasure, and I think that's one way of looking at the song. And then I think there's also a lot of people who present songs like that as completely objectifying because the lyrics are - you know, when he says he wants the total combination, he's outlining very specific body parts - you know, the breasts, the butt, the vagina, right? - and using slang terms for them.

And so I think - I don't know. I mean, I feel like the question about, is reggaeton misogynistic? Are these misogynistic lyrics? I feel like we need to make that question a little more complicated. Lots of people would say yes. My mother definitely would say yes. My mother would be, I think, worried if I played the song in front of her.

But the other reason why I say that is because historically, you know, this has been the constant thing that people say about reggaeton, right? This is such a misogynistic music. It promotes violence against women. It promotes supposedly immoral sexual behavior. And this kind of argument has been used to not only discredit reggaeton, but, in my opinion, also demonize a lot of the communities that reggaeton comes from, which have historically been working-class Black or nonwhite - right? - in a Puerto Rican kind of racial context - urban communities that are subject to a lot of structural racism and disenfranchisement and have historically - communities that have historically been attributed with a lot of stereotypes around sexuality and violence and things like that.

So I feel like we can't divorce that conversation about these accusations about reggaeton's misogyny from some of that larger social context, which is why I want to make it more complicated.

CONTRERAS: What you're saying then is that it's two separate realities, in a way. What's offensive or questionable to one demographic or one group of people or even one listener may not be the same thing to another listener or another demographic, just based on their background, where they come from and what's the norm and how they grew up.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: I mean, I think maybe, right? But I also don't want to give the impression that everybody in these communities are interested in sexually explicit lyrics, right? So I think it's...

ZAMORA: Right.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: ...The kind of constant discussion about reggaeton as a misogynistic thing, which is an old conversation, right? This is something that's been happening ever since reggaeton started coming out, you know? That question needs to be contextualized in a different - in a way - right? - and it needs to be talked about in terms of different matters of taste. But also, like, another question I have is, like, why are we always obsessed with talking about this in reggaeton and not in bachata or not in salsa or, you know, not in Latin pop, right? Like, what is it that makes us constantly anxious about misogyny in reggaeton?

And I'm not trying to say that reggaeton needs to be let off the hook - right? - that we don't need to hold people accountable for troubling lyrics and things like that. But I also think it's problematic if reggaeton is the only space where we're doing that.

ZAMORA: One of the things that I think about, particular to this song and many songs of this particular time in the early 2000s and late '90s of reggaeton, is that there's a lot of - right? - kind of like this song where Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee are talking about what this woman likes and what pleasures her. And a lot of times we're like, well, I want to hear it from her. You know, I want to hear it - if this is what she likes, let her say it. But at the same time, lyrics like this kind of connect with some women because they're like, yeah, that's what I like.

And I think one of the things that this kind of conversation about reggaeton being misogynistic is that I feel that many times it comes from a very kind of classist perspective, a perspective that really highlights respectability politics when it comes to the sexuality of women. And it almost shuts down that women cannot be sexual beings, and they don't have sexual desires that they can voice so that they can have voice and be part of a popular scene, which is something that I appreciate of reggaeton in some ways - right? - and it's not always thought about that way.

So I think it's problematic to sometimes say too quickly - right? - that something is misogynistic, for example, a song like this because it's talking about the sexual pleasures of a woman or what she likes or what is out there. And it's like, well, are we out here also policing women's agency on what can be said and what cannot to a certain degree? And if they want to partake in this particular kind of scene or this music genre, it's...

RIVERA-RIDEAU: Yeah, I agree with that, too.

ZAMORA: ...Right? - that's part of the conversation, as well.

CONTRERAS: You are listening to ALT.LATINO. We're talking about reggaeton and reggaeton and women. And I want to go back to something you said, Petra, about the history. Can you give us a little bit of a snapshot, OK? The 30-second version...


CONTRERAS: ...Of history of reggaeton, which, of course, is impossible. But just to give an idea of where it came from. What is the timeframe we're talking about? And who were the people that were making it initially?

RIVERA-RIDEAU: Yeah. I mean, yeah, it's really hard to do this in such a quick snapshot, right? Because part of it, too, is that there's debate about reggaeton's origins...



ZAMORA: The great debate.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: So the story that I tell you is probably going to make some people mad, right? There's lots of different stories of reggaeton's origins. But in terms of this particular song, since Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee are Puerto Rican, I'll talk about it in Puerto Rico, which is where a lot of people associate reggaeton originally, although there's reggae en español scene happening in Panama that has also been credited as, like, part of the origins of reggaeton.

But in Puerto Rico, we're talking about, like, the early '90s, late '80s, this moment in urban, working-class places in Puerto Rico where you have - like, hip-hop, where the main person would be the DJ, right? And so you have this DJ, like DJ Playero, DJ Negro, who have this kind of cohort of rappers. And they piece together beats from hip-hop, from dancehall, from Panamanian reggae en español, and they create these beats. And then a series of rappers will come on and rap over them.

And this was music that was recorded and then informally distributed initially on mixtapes, and then eventually on kind of island-based record labels until finally, in the mid-2000s, we get the breakout of Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" in 2004 that, I think, kind of pushes reggaeton - I wouldn't say necessarily beyond Puerto Rico because there are certainly people in the United States listening to it and people in other countries listening to it, but it kind of pushes it into the mainstream in terms of pushing it into this formal, global music industry, right?

So that's my brief - kind of very brief snapshot. I mean, because I do think that it's quite complicated. But what I want to stress is that, you know, at least in the Puerto Rican context, it was these, like, urban working-class neighborhoods that reggaeton was associated with in its beginnings on the island.

CONTRERAS: So let's play another song from the list. This is "Rakata" from Wisin & Yandel.


YANDEL: (Singing) Salte.

WISIN: W con.

YANDEL: (Singing) Si no estás bailando con ella, salte.

WISIN: Y, Yandel.

YANDEL: (Singing) Si no estás perreando con ella, salte.

WISIN: Luny, medio millón de copias obliga'o.

YANDEL: (Singing) Si no estás bailando con ella, salte.

WISIN: El dúo de la historia, en "Mas Flow 2" - ¡zumba!

WISIN AND YANDEL: (Singing) Para hacerle - rakata, rakata - si se me pega voy a darle. Rakata, rakata - esta noche quiero hacerle. Rakata, rakata - si se me pega voy a darle. Rakata, rakata, eh-eh - me toca a mí.

WISIN: (Rapping) Campicu, llegó el frontú. No trates de apagarme porque te apagas tú. W, apágale la luz. Mami, acelera duro ese cucú. Tiene veinte enemigas, dos amigas, pantalla en la barriga, tatuaje en la vejiga. En el culipandeo ella mata la liga. Siga, siga.

WISIN AND YANDEL: (Singing) Para hacerle - rakata, rakata - si se me pega voy a darle. Rakata, rakata - esta noche quiero hacerle. Rakata, rakata - si se me pega voy a darle. Rakata, rakata. Eh-eh - Nelly, nos vamos).

WISIN: (Rapping) Le gusta que Wisin la hale por el pelo. ¡Grítalo! Papi, dame lo que quiero. Siente la presión del callejero. !Grítalo! Papi, dame lo que quiero. Bizcochito, dame un beso con sabor a caramelo. !Grítalo! Papi dame lo que quiero. Cielo, a ese trago le hace falta hielo. !Grítalo! Papi, dame lo que quiero. Pues tenga lo suyo, sin orgullo. Yo tengo el agua pa' ese capullo. Mami, deja el murmullo. Coge lo que es tuyo, tuyo.

WISIN AND YANDEL: (Singing) Para hacerle - rakata, rakata - si se me pega voy a darle. Rakata, rakata - esta noche quiero hacerle. Rakata, rakata - si se me pega voy a darle. Rakata, rakata, eh-eh.

WISIN: (Rapping) Luny, ahora hay que trabajar de medio millón pa' arriba. Tú sabes, el dúo de la historia. W "El Sobreviviente" con Yandel, ellos lo saben. "Mas Flow 2," el que para ventas. Este disco no hay quien lo supere. Matando la liga, "El Arma Secreta," sin miedo. Nelly. "Mas Flow 2." W "El Sobreviviente" con Yandel. El dúo dinámico.

CONTRERAS: We've been talking about reggaeton, but, like, in the past tense, right? About the early days...


CONTRERAS: ...And the stuff was going on. Let's just move it up to right now and let's just talk about "Despacito." And we're not going to play the song, everybody - OK? - because we've heard it enough.


CONTRERAS: You know what it sounds like, and you've seen the video. But let's talk about that. And let's start with the most recent performance of the song at the Grammys in late January with the dancers - the performance that happened on the stage. Petra, can you talk a little bit about what we were seeing and then what some of the reaction was?

RIVERA-RIDEAU: Yeah. So the performance of "Despacito" - you know, this was a big deal, I think, to have a Spanish-language song performed at the Grammys. And what was performed was with Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. Justin Bieber was not there - right? - so it was the original version of the song. And it's a pretty typical performance, in my opinion. You know, they've performed the song in many places. And the one thing that I think was different about it is that Zuleyka Rivera, who was Miss Universe and is the love interest in the music video, comes out at the end of the performance in a very revealing outfit and dances while they sing.

And that caused some controversy, you know, on the internet. There were a lot of people talking about her being inappropriate or why is she wearing - you know, she was wearing this very sheer outfit. So she was, like, appeared practically naked and all these things. I think that there's a reason why they are getting the brunt of this criticism, right? And it falls into this kind of stereotypes of Latino men as being hypersexual, dangerous Latin lover people. And I - my question is not that we shouldn't criticize them, but why are we criticizing them and not, you know - and nobody else, right? Or why are we so worried about that and not the fact that, like, very few women actually won awards, right?

CONTRERAS: Well, I'll answer that, OK? Because, you know, I'll be honest, I'm on - when I was watching it, my first reaction was, you know, we have this very important moment, as you said - a Spanish-language song being performed on the Grammys - not on the Latin Grammys, but on the main Grammy telecast. It's a very important part. And here we go with girls with barely any clothes on, and all the men are dressed, completely dressed. There was no guy with short shorts on, right? And to me - and maybe I'm just, you know, the fuddy-duddy deal. It's like, oh, my God, what are you guys doing? Right?

But, I mean, but it's still - I get a lot of reaction on my Facebook page. It's like, that was our moment. And why did we have to go for the sexualized identity like that, you know, when there was so many other things or so many other ways to portray that? That was my reaction. And...


CONTRERAS: It was popular reaction. I was more concerned...


CONTRERAS: ...With the representation of me on the telecast.

ZAMORA: So here's the thing - right? - because I like your question, Felix, and this thing that, Petra, that you're also asking, is that - right? And I'm just looking at this, and I'm like, but, guys, this is what sells. Right? And, you know, we can't get away from capitalism. We just can't, you know? And that's what's going to - you know - these things are the things that are going to - you know, these are the people who are going to be commodified to sell. "Despacito" sold, and now we see on the grand stage. And here's the other thing that - maybe some people will kill me for saying this.

But I think it was really weirdly interesting that the Grammys was doing this thing with the white roses and the #MeToo movement because honestly, I feel like it's a movement that - right now it's all about feminism. And I feel like, well, this movement about feminism and #MeToo is also being commodified and sold, right? It's like...


ZAMORA: OK, let's get everybody watching the Grammys. And let's make sure that we add a social justice turn to this because now everybody wants to be radical and everybody wants to be woke. So we're going to have - you know, we're going to sell the sexualized performance as usual, but we're also going to sell to the radical feminist women who may not watch us if we don't have this.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: And the other thing is that "Despacito" is also a song about sex. And I think that's worth pointing out, right? I mean, they may have this whole thing about the ocean waves and all this language, right? But it's a song about sex. And I think people forget that.

CONTRERAS: And is that - so is that a good thing? Does it oversexualize the Latino culture and Latino men? Does it take away - because the men are singing it, does it take away from the power of the women to control their sexuality, with us noting by the way, that the song was co-written by a woman?

ZAMORA: You know, I don't know in terms of taking away entirely, especially women's involvement into the song and things like that. I mean, the song is about sex, and - but it's so coated in let's fall in love slowly. Let's do this slowly. So I think it comes off very romantic - right? - which ends up becoming more socially acceptable for mainstream radio and just listeners, right? They don't really pay too much attention to the lyrics, I feel.


ZAMORA: So I feel like - right, they really don't.

CONTRERAS: You think?

ZAMORA: It's all about the rhythm, right? It gets you dancing.


ZAMORA: And then when you look at the lyrics, that's when you start realizing and making all the connections, right?


ZAMORA: But I think that in some ways - I mean, I don't know. I'm really on the - what's the word? - edge about this because in some ways, it's still misogynistic, right? And it's still kind of - it's these men speaking for these women even though there is a woman as - that's involved in the writing of the song but not necessarily in the performance and the selling of the song upfront - right? - in center stage, which - I think that's the part that kind of bugs me - that I just wish there were more women who are voicing that for themselves...


ZAMORA: ...Instead of men for them.

CONTRERAS: OK. so let's use that to transition to another video, OK? One of the songs you sent in is by Ivy Queen. So tell us a little bit about Ivy Queen, and then we'll play the song.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: Ivy Queen is arguably the most visible woman in reggaeton or has historically been. Her career spans a lot of reggaeton's history, right? So she's starting out in the early '90s before reggaeton gets poppy (ph). And then she puts out several albums eventually, you know, picked up by major record companies. And I think she's really important for a lot of reasons, not only because she's the most visible woman and has had such a long career.

But I also think - and I also think musically she's interesting, right? She's been able to have a long career because she's been able to adapt to different styles. She uses her voice in different ways. And I really like her. So the song that I sent to you is a song called "Quiero Bailar" (ph), and it's one of her first kind of big hits once reggaeton, you know, breaks into more of, like, the Latin music mainstream, so to speak.


IVY QUEEN: Señoras y señores - yes? - bienvenidos - welcome - al party. Agarren a su pareja por la cintura y prepárense porque lo que viene no está fácil. No está fácil, no. Yeah, eh. (Rapping) Yo quiero bailar, tú quieres sudar y pegarte a mí, el cuerpo rozar. Yo te digo, sí, tú me puedes provocar. Eso no quiera decir que pa' la cama voy. Quiero bailar, tú quieres sudar y pegarte a mí, el cuerpo rozar. Yo te digo, sí, tú me puedes provocar. Eso no quiere decir que pa' la cama voy. Lo que quiero es besarte. Papi, te lo juro te me acercas y late mi corazón. Si lo que quiero es pegarte yo no tengo problema en acercarme y bailarte este reggaetón. Que los dos tengamos que sudar, que sudar, que bailemos al ritmo del tra. Que me haga fuerte suspirar, suspirar pero pa' la cama digo mira na', na', na'.

(Singing) Porque yo soy la que mando, soy la que decide cuándo vamos al mambo y tú lo sabes. El ritmo me está llevando, mientras más te pegas más te voy azotando y eso está bien. A mí no me importa lo que muchos digan, si muevo mi cintura de abajo para arriba, si soy de barrio o tal vez soy una chica fina, si en la discoteca te me pegas y te animas. Sabes que los dos tengamos que sudar - a sudar - que bailemos al ritmo del tra - tra - que me haga fuerte suspirar, suspirar pero pa' la cama digo mira na', na', na'. Yo quiero bailar, tú quieres sudar y pegarte a mí, el cuerpo rozar. Yo te digo, "sí, tú me puedes provocar." Eso no quiere decir que pa' la cama voy. Quiero bailar, tú quieres sudar y pegarte a mí, el cuerpo rozar. Yo te digo, "sí, tú me puedes provocar."

(Singing) Eso no quiere decir que pa' la cama voy. Te quiero explicar si en la discoteca nos vamos a alborotar, si los dos solitos nos vamos a acariciar es porque yo quiero y no me puedes aguantar. No te creas que me voy a acostar. No es así, bailo reggaetón pero no soy chica fácil. Si quieres ganarte mis besos y mis panties no es de esa forma, papi, cógelo easy, easy, cógelo, baby. Mujeres, pa' la disco a bailar. Ven demuéstrale a tu man que es la que hay, hay, ha - original. Mujeres, pa' la disco a perrear pero que él no se crea, puede jugar. Y como ya expliqué que los dos tengamos que sudar - a sudar - que bailemos al ritmo del tra - tra - que me hagas fuerte suspirar, suspirar...

CONTRERAS: OK. So for those who don't speak Spanish, why don't you give us an idea of what she's singing about?

RIVERA-RIDEAU: She's talking about dancing and how, you know, you can provoke me on the dance floor, we can sweat together, you can make me breathe hard. But I'm not going to bed with you at the end of the night. And that's essentially the song.

CONTRERAS: That's a bold statement. Very bold statement.

ZAMORA: It really is.


CONTRERAS: And how common is that?

RIVERA-RIDEAU: There aren't that many women artists. And so I think that's part of what makes Ivy Queen important, you know? And so I think to - part of how common it is - I mean, it's - I don't think it's that common - right? - because there's not that many women who have the stature and the kind of recognition of someone like Ivy Queen, right? But I also think that we could expand our conversation. I'd love to hear what - Omaris, you know, has been writing about Cardi B, and I'd love to, like, expand the conversation to include someone like Cardi B who isn't necessarily a reggaeton singer, but kind of operates in similar worlds.

ZAMORA: It's interesting. I mean, I love Ivy Queen. I think this song is so pivotal in terms of female agency and reggaeton, especially because she's saying, hey, we're going to twerk on the dance floor and we're going to get really close. But I get to decide if - when this is going to happen. I get to decide whether I want to have sex with you or not. Ivy Queen is one of the biggest inspirations for Cardi B, and Cardi B says this. So she has a lot of respect for Ivy Queen. And even though Cardi B is not necessarily a reggaetonera, she does have a lot of influence in terms of a lot of the current reggaeton artists, Latin trap artists. And she has done collaborations with Ozuna, who is a very current reggaeton artist, as well as Messiah, who is a Latin trap artist - Dominican. And it's interesting because in one of the songs, she calls herself the mother of Latin trap, which I think is really interesting.

And she has a lot of these - she's very much still in conversation with Ivy Queen and someone who really owns their sexuality and has a lot of agency about her own body, right? Someone who was a formal stripper and who has - who is very knowledgeable of how to make money for herself, but also very knowledgeable of how to work the business - the music industry. And her lyrics are very infused with being the boss, which is one of the things that Ivy Queen says in the song, where she gets to say, you know, I'm the boss, and I get to decide when things happen. And in the same way, Cardi B decides that she is the boss and gets to decide when things happen and tell people, hey, I've made it, and look at everything that I have. I just - all I can think about is boss. She's a boss.

CONTRERAS: I want to thank our guest, Petra Rivera-Rideau. She's an assistant professor of American studies at Wellesley College. And also Omaris Zamora, assistant professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. Thank you both for being on the show this week.

ZAMORA: Thank you for having us.

RIVERA-RIDEAU: Thank you for having me. It was fun, yeah.

CONTRERAS: What do you think of all this? If you have an opinion, if you have a thought, you can reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter. We are NPR's ALT.LATINO. You've been listening to ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. Thank you for listening.

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