Xenia Rubinos may be proudly Afro-Latina, but don’t make the mistake of boxing her into an outsider conception of that experience. She is a brilliant composer and vocalist–and with her newest album, she is showing us that there are as many ways to be Latina as there are Latinas in the world. Out today, 6/3, Black Terry Cat is Xenia Rubinos’ sophomore effort, an experimental record that brings together elements funk, jazz, hip hop, and soul as an exploration of the complexities being Latina and part of the African diaspora.
Black Terry Cat boasts sick beats and complex composition, but it’s Xenia’s voice that steals the show. Her vocal performance has the controlled chaos of dripping honey, and is every bit as surprising and sweet. Indeed, on this record Xenia Rubinos finds her voice. And whether she’s questioning national borders on “How Strange It Is,” making immigrant labor visible on “Mexican Chef,” critiquing Western beauty standards on “I Won’t Say,” or reckoning with brown girl rage on “See Them,” she makes brilliant use of it–both aesthetically and politically.
On this album Rubinos asks us to consider big questions while forging a fearless musical style of her own, somehow remaining hopeful through it all. “Even though we’re going through a really dark cultural moment in our country, I have hope for what’s to come out of that,” Rubinos said. “I have a lot of hope in the people of this country getting our shit together and working on things that we believe in. And that force can help us get through this moment and move on to something far better.”
Black Terry Cat is an album that speaks to our cultural moment, builds on it, and gives us something entirely beautiful and new.
You say that when you were making this record you were rediscovering your brown girl magic. What does that mean to you, and what has it meant for you with the record?
There’s all these different ways of moving and getting things done that are not a Westernized, white American way of doing things, and I was really curious about exploring that in this album. I’ve been exploring it musically through hip hop and jazz and soul music and funk music–a lot of music that historically comes from black culture and innovation, and also finding out what is my place in that, being the daughter of immigrants. My dad was from Cuba, my mom is from Puerto Rico, and my mom’s side of the family is part of the African diaspora. My dad’s side was from Spain, so I’m a mix of these worlds. [I’m] finding where is that African connection in me, how does that live in me?
So many of the songs in this record are so fiercely political. Did the political uprisings that we’ve seen in the past few years influence your record?
The Black Lives Matter movement inspired me to look into myself and ask: How does it feel in this country? It definitely enabled me to talk about things that were on my mind. When I first started writing songs, when I was a teenager, I had so much less of a problem saying what was on my mind. I’ve been in a fight with words for the last ten years, to the point where I stopped singing for a while. And it’s been this journey coming back towards being OK with saying things. But I think it’s important to be able to voice your opinion, and the Black Lives Matter movement definitely empowered me to do what I’ve always wanted to do.
This album deals with some heavy political ideas, and you lost your dad right before you started recording. But despite all the grief I still hear so much joy in the album.
That’s definitely that brown girl magic. A lot of my culture comes from struggle, and dealing with maybe not the most resources, or bad situations, and it’s more about how you handle those situations. My dad passing was a complete shock to me, and I was just not in my body, for months. But I was really present in my music. Maybe that’s reflected in the music–in terms of how I’m trying to carry my grief and how to carry my pain. In Cuba, for instance, there’s this way of carrying your pain with your joy almost like it’s the same thing. Where there’s not really a difference between your joy and your pain, and it’s all part of being alive.
Your music is very experimental and brings in a lot of influences, I’m thinking about different experimental artists of color who have said that they are categorized musically based less on their actual sound than what they look like, or what their name is. Have you had that experience?
Yes, absolutely. And I get it, and what you look like is a lot of how people perceive you. But especially if your job is to talk about music and describe sound, you’ve got to try to do better. I understand why people are excited to talk about being Latina. For the first time we’re starting to see people who look like us, who give us a little bit of a foothold to understand our place in this country. But it’s also frustrating, because if I was white, it would be more about my music. And I know that my music is hard to categorize because there’s a lot of influences, but there’s a lot of people with really complex soundscapes. At the end of the day I’m part of that innovation, but people get stuck on my face and my name.
You use your voice in really creative and unique ways. How did you get to that as a style?
I went to school to be a jazz singer, and when I got there I realized–this is not me. So I got into composition, but I didn’t know how to play any other instrument other than my voice. So I would, just to get by, sing out every part that I was writing–for saxophone, for trumpet. Some of that early exploration in that music ultimately affected how I use my voice when I started singing again. I think about writing with my voice. I’m listening more to vocalists, digging on the way that Kendrick on To Pimp A Butterfly sounds like he’s 20 people, that interpretation. That’s something that I really wanted to focus on in this album. I wanted this album to be very voice centric.
What are you listening to now?
I’ve been listening to Slum Village, which is incredible. I’ve been listening to old Busta Rhymes, The Coming. This track, Still Shining, I try to play it every time before I go out onstage. Kaytranada’s new album is so good.
Rubinos will play an album release show tomorrow night at Baby’s All Right, tickets here.