By Princess Jiménez •
In the Dominican Republic, where supposedly moral society and the Church often espouse virulent homophobia and transphobia, an unusual alliance has appeared among the very poorest: singers and producers of popular music genre Dembow are working with queer people and trans women, who have become huge stars in their own right. Princess Jiménez writes for Kultwatch about how some trans women are using ultra-visibility and social media fame to navigate a hostile environment.
“Because no one can be shinier than me!” Says La Shakata (as she is known in social media) to her fans in one of her Instagram videos, while applying an industrial amount of highlighter on her cheekbones, before going out with her friends to a non-gay night club in Bonao, a small town in the Northwest of the Dominican Republic. This flamboyant 19-year-old, who’s usually yelling out catch phrases, twerking, and wearing fabulous outfits in almost every one of her social media posts, is part of a group that refers to themselves as Mujeres Modernas .
Mujeres Modernas, or Modern Women in English, is a term created by working class and poor trans women in the Dominican Republic, widely used by queer social media influencers like La Shakata and La Kisty to define their gender identity. They have transformed their queerness and experience of growing up in poverty into a powerhouse expression that uses colorful language to talk about confidence, self-esteem, perseverance, and claiming a space in the mainstream through, surprisingly, Dembow. I have a love and hate relationship with Dembow. When I was younger, I used to hate this loud and popular music. I recall when I lived in the Dominican Republic, when taking the public guaguas (buses) the driver would often play the music on the radio at a volume so high I felt like I couldn’t listen to my own thoughts. Hoping this unbearable torture would end quickly, and biting my tongue in order to stop me from yelling at the bus driver while sweating profusely in the middle of a hot, normal day in the island… Imagine listening to the same songs everywhere, loudly; pure hell. Nowadays, after years of reflection, traveling, and having read Paulo Freire, I understand Dembow’s daring and resilient origin, and enjoy it (in small doses). The general idea in Dominican society about this music genre is that it lacks class, that it is tacky, annoying, and with extremely problematic lyrics, which only reflect some of Dominican society’s values, normativity, inequality, and expectations. With time, this genre,
They have transformed their queerness and experience of growing up in poverty into a powerhouse expression that uses colorful language to talk about confidence, self-esteem, perseverance, and claiming a space in the mainstream through, surprisingly, Dembow.
Dembow is inspired by Jamaican Dancehall music and Panamanian Reguetón from the 90s. It was created by Dominican low-income and working-class teens during that same decade by changing the tempo, structure, and instruments, and performing in a local vernacular. DJ Boyo, Dominican Dembow’s first DJ, used Jamaican dancehall music to create the first Dominican Dembow song in Guachupita, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Santo Domingo.
In the middle of its campiness, its butchering of the Spanish language, its sensual and fearless dances, and its problematic lyrics about women and money, it seems like some queer and transgender working-class people have found a space where they can express themselves.
How come some queer people seem to be able to thrive in such a subculture?
“Well, first of all, I’m a super fan of Dembow. It’s a valid music genre and the public, from different ages and social classes, connect immensely with it. I can say without a doubt that in Draguéalo parties it is pivotal to include Dembow music, and the whole audience dances it ‘bien bailao’. Say yes to Dembow! ”
Carlos Rodriguez is a Dominican LGBTQ + activist, director and founder of Draguéalo, an artistic collective that encompasses entertainment, art, and cultural events focused on inclusiveness, which celebrates artistic expression and diversity in the Dominican Republic through parties and live shows. Draguéalo parties, inspired by the popular 80s New York Ballroom scene, are about offering a festive and mixed space where people compete in different categories and themes for prices, as well as just coming to enjoy all the spectacular performances. Draguéalo produces other types of events as well: from drag shows, bingo afternoons with drag queens, voguing classes, drag make-up classes, and cinema forums, to storytelling for children. The end goal is to offer alternative events that can also educate and entertain. The latest edition of Draguéalo was the “Maldita Primavera” (Damned Spring) party.
Dembow has always had a reputation for being a homophobic music genre and being for “tigueres” and machos, but nevertheless we see that some Mujeres Modernas have been able to work and make events in places where this music is played, as well as visit non-gay nightclubs, why do you think they are able to do that?
Carlos Rodriguez: – I believe there have been artists who have helped break those taboos about Dembow being homophobic, or at least not promoting homophobic attitudes in their discourses. “Crazy Design” (member of the former Dembow duo Los Teke Teke “) has been one of the first artists of this genre who has been LGBTIQ + inclusive since the beginning of his artistic career.
– On the other hand, regarding Mujeres Modernas , Dominicans like to celebrate people with diverse gender expressions from a popular imagination perspective. This is very palpable during the (Dominican) carnival, even in the LGBT Pride parades that take place in the country. It has to do with the stereotyped idea that people have about the LGBT community, that it is circus-like and flamboyant. In my understanding, these expressions and how people receive them are valid, regardless of whether the receiving end handles the topic of diversity with the correct terminology and from an inclusive perspective. What really happens is the general public is being sensitized to the LGBTQ + community, and for me this is a good way to start educating the masses.
Los Teke Teke (now dissolved) was one of the most successful Dembow duos in the Dominican Republic. During the peak of their career they made this song and video, where they only have Dominican Drag Queens as models, and no cis-women as dancers. The message is calling for the normalization of transgender people in society. One of the parts of the song says “She is a woman without a pussy, so what ?!”
Both the Mujeres Modernas and Dembow artists come from poor Dominican neighborhoods. These queer social media influencers grew up listening to that music and might also have seen teenage boys improvising rap lyrics in the slums with their friends, dreaming about becoming as famous and rich as their idols.
Another important characteristic both Dembow and the Mujeres Modernas have in common is that they have invented words and terminology in order to express their craft and interpret the world that surrounds them . Sometimes it feels like one is witnessing the creation of a new language, and sometimes I even can’t keep up with the new words and phrases that Dembow singers seem to pull out of their flamboyant blouses. It’s like both groups create a sovereignty within themselves, using it to navigate a society that, thanks to social inequality and racism, has tried to limit the spaces they can navigate. Their curious creation of new words is also a consequence of the lack of education and cultural activities in their communities.
A lot of Dembow singers and Mujeres Modernas haven’t even finished high school. However, their “reinterpretation of the Spanish language” and creation of new words have been part of them claiming a space in the Dominican mainstream and thriving. La Shakata and La Kisty have capitalized on their social media success and make a living thanks to endorsements and gigs in mostly non-gay night clubs. Their shows are very popular among working class and poor Dominicans. Dembow, which started as music for the people of the poorest neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic, today is listed by all social classes in the Dominican Republic.
It’s like both groups create a sovereignty within themselves, using it to navigate a society that, thanks to social inequality and racism, has tried to limit the spaces they can navigate.
However, not everyone in the Dominican LGBTQ + community sees Mujeres Modernas and Dembow music as positive forces.
A few months ago, La Shakata said very homophobic and transphobic comments on an Instagram live video, trying to sound funny and raunchy to her thousands of fans. Because of this incident, she was disqualified from participating in the “Trans Queen Category” in the Pride celebration in the Dominican Republic 2019.
Jean Sano is a Dominican LGBTQ + rights activist and human rights advocate. He is a member of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Youth Advisory Panel in the Dominican Republic, where he is currently working on the design of the 2019-2030 National Youth Plan, which will contain public policy actions to improve the quality of life or LGBTIQ + youth in the country. At the same time, he is an ambassador of the United Nations Free and Equal Campaign. This initiative promotes equal rights for the LGBTIQ + community in the Dominican Republic.
What is the situation of LGBTQ + activism? how do you see the future of LGBTQ + rights in the Dominican Republic?
Jean Sano: – LGBTIQ + activism in the country began a few decades ago to fight HIV / AIDS in the (LGBTQ +) community. Being one of the affected populations, different leaders emerged to make the collective visible and make sure it had access to health services. Today the country has moved on to other issues, such as guaranteeing the rights of all and all members of the Dominican LGBTIQ + community. There are more than 20 LGBTQ + organizations that are usually associated with specific groups, so there are trans women networks, lesbians’ associations, gay men’s groups, etc. At this moment, the (LGBTQ +) community is focused on two fights; to promote anti-discrimination law and guarantee access to justice. The law will create a legal framework that will protect sexually diverse people and other vulnerable groups. On the other hand, We are working to make sure that the Public Prosecutor’s Office does not ignore cases in which LGBTIQ + persons are victims of violence, and that perpetrators are judged by the Dominican justice system. This is a fight that will take us years. If we manage to get the anti-discrimination law enacted, the next step will be to promote bills that would legalize civil unions or marriage among LGBTQ + people, changing names and gender in documents, etc. However, one of the biggest challenges facing LGBTQ + community is facing is not agreeing on these issues. It will be necessary to work together with all the organizations in the community to articulate our demands and work out concrete proposals. On the other hand, the government, which is widely influenced by both Catholic and Evangelical churches, has not been so receptive to our proposals.
We know that our country is very conservative and homophobic, but at the same time we see that Mujeres Modernas like La Shakata and La Kisty are part of the mainstream. Do you believe their experience helps more LGBTQ + Dominicans navigate Dominican society? Why do you think they are so successful in the world of Dembow?
Carlos Rodriguez – The exposure of people like La Shakata and La Kisty does not help the LGBTQ + rights conquest in the Dominican Republic, quite to the contrary. While it is true that the new generations are more receptive to queer people, there are still many stereotypes about LGBTIQ + people in the country. La Shakata and La Kisty fulfill one of those stereotypes: to make people laugh. They reaffirm the biggest cliché that society has about queer people, which is that sexually diverse people are clowns. That’s precisely the reason why they have been so successful in the world of urban music. They behave like society expects non-heteronormative people to behave. In the long run, this generates a vicious circle in which society expects everyone in the group (LGBTQ) to behave like that.
– This inherently prevents LGBTIQ + people in the country from occupying other spaces because they would always have their behavior questioned: if they are “suelta mucha pluma”, if they are too effeminate, if they are too noisy, etc. I will not be pessimistic and say that the fact that those Mujeres Modernas are big social media influencers contributes nothing. It is true that their visibility is a form of activism that allows society to understand that there are different types of people. However, the characters they portray in order to maintain a following in social media are often exaggerated and vulgar and can show a bad image of the LGBTQ + community.
La Shakata may only have been trying to appeal to her Instagram audience or trying to be funny, but it’s not hard to understand how extremely problematic such statements can be. Nevertheless, one must also keep in mind her background and that, as Paulo Freire explained “the oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom”. The fight for equality in marginalized minorities must also happen within those communities. I think it is important to know how Christian churches have a lot of social presence and power in the country, and how they said these horrible and bigoted statements while navigating their own identity.
In their quest to express themselves and create new languages Dembow singers and Mujeres Modernas have made mistakes, sadly. However, neither group has ever had the intention to become society’s moral compass – unlike the upper class, which is also homophobic and transphobic, but presents itself as the ideal in the creation of a perfect and functional Dominican society. There are complex discussions within the Dominican LGBTQ + community that are worth listening to (which the interviews included in this article are a small sample of) and learn from them as quiet but supportive allies, while also rejecting transphobia and bigotry in general. Nevertheless, I am not excusing what La Shakata said.
We know that our country is very conservative and homophobic, but at the same time we see that Mujeres Modernas like La Shakata and La Kisty are part of the mainstream. Do you believe their experience helps more LGBTQ + Dominicans navigate Dominican society?
Carlos Rodriguez: Yes. It is evident how the Dominican people receive them. Right now, they are the influencers with a diverse gender expression who have the most impact in social media. Coming from a country where those expressions are regularly dismissed, I can tell they have both contributed to increasing understanding among a lot of people. What they have done has great merit.
Even though there are a few female Dembow female singers, it is always the male performers who have worked with Mujeres Modernas and drag queens. They don’t just follow each other on social media but it’s not weird to see Dembow groups collaborating with not only Dominican queer social media influencers, but also drag queens and other queer performers and dancers, mostly without using them as props or making fun of them, but as performers, including sometimes producing their music. One example of the laughter is La Delfi, whose first successful song in 2012, called “Dame Leche” (please, don’t ask) was produced and featured Jhon Distrito, a very popular Dembow singer and producer back then. This song was mainstream and extremely popular with the general public, including working class, cis Dominican men.
Originally published on Kultwatch, this article was written by Princess Jimenez, an intersectional feminist, critical thinker and anti-racist, Black Dominican living in Sweden who is fun at parties and loves memes. She is the host of Mango Podcast.