In the Dominican Republic, where the supposedly moral society and the Church espouse often 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 refer 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 if I could not 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, travelling, and after 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, which came out of the poorest Dominican neighborhoods, has become one of the most profitable, famous, and mainstream music genres in the Dominican Republic.
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 teenagers 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 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 am 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 which 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 type 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 of 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 to 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 to break those taboos about Dembow being homophobic, or at least do not promote 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 since the beginning of his artistic career has been LGBTIQ+ inclusive.
— 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 the 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 succesful 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 have also 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 if one is witnessing the creation of a new language, and sometimes even I am unable to 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 listened to 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 everybody in the Dominican LGBTQ+ community see 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 for 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 Youth Advisory Panel of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 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 of 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, like 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 an anti-discrimination law and to 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 Office does not ignore cases in which LGBTIQ + persons are victims of violence, and that the 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 name and gender in documents, etc. However, one of the biggest challenges the (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, therefore I do not believe that the current situation will change considerably in the near future, unfortunately.
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 that their experience helps more LGBTQ+ Dominicans to navigate Dominican society? Why do you think they are so successful in the world of Dembow?
— The exposure of people like La Shakata and La Kisty does not help the conquest of LGBTQ+ rights in the Dominican Republic, quite to the contrary. Although 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 sexual 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. You only need to watch Dominican films or local TV to realize that gays are always ridiculed in comedies.
— This inherently prevents LGBTIQ + people in the country from occupying other spaces because they would always have their behavior questioned: if they “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 is important to know how Christian churches have a lot of social presence and power in the country, and how she said these horrible and bigoted statements while navigating her 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 an 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 that their experience helps more LGBTQ+ Dominicans to navigate Dominican society?
Carlos Rodriguez: — Yes. It is evident how the Dominican people receives 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 regularly get dismissed, I can tell they have both contributed to increase 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 is not weird to see Dembow groups collaborating with not only dominican queer social media influencers, but with also drag queens and other queer performers and dancers, mostly without using them as props or to make fun of them, but as performers, including sometimes producing their music. One example of the latter 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 among the general public, including working class, cis Dominican men.
La Delfi started her career in the 2009, becoming a very successful mainstream Dembow performer, and performing in mostly non-gay night clubs in and out of drag. In “Mariquiqui” (which was also very popular among non-gay people) she challenges homophobia and transphobia in Dominican macho culture.
When it comes to homophobia and transphobia in Dembow songs, I listened to more than 30 Dembow songs while writing this article, and none of them had any transphobic or homophobic lyrics, messages, or words, including the songs in this article. I tried to find Dembow songs with transphobic or homophobic lyrics, but I couldn’t. The “negative messages” that one can see reflected are sex, partying, drugs, and easy money, like in any traditional rap or pop song. Two big reasons why Dembow is perceived as extremely problematic can be that Dominican society is very conservative, and that the music is associated with uneducated and low-income people. Interestingly, merengue and bachata (also Dominican music genres that nowadays are considered national treasures) were also rejected by upper class people for a lot of years when they started out, because they were considered too vulgar and unsophisticated.
Another thing both Dembow singers and the beautiful Mujeres Modernas might have in common is their fashion style. Male Dembow singers still dress like cis men, but they sometimes play with the boundaries of “masculine” clothes by wearing very flamboyant and flashy outfights, jewelry, and primped hairstyles, even in their everyday lives. The main aesthetic objective of Dembow artists is not to look tough or macho, but to look good flashy, expensive, and cool. For example, one time Dembow singer El Mayor was criticized for wearing Gucci women’s shoes, and his reply was “I think they are really cool”. Sometimes I wonder myself which one was first, El Mayor or Las Mujeres Modernas? Both groups seem comfortable in their own skins and care very little about people questioning their fashion choices and how they present themselves in society.
El Mayor is one of the biggest and most popular Dembow singers in the Dominican Republic. The main model in this video is La Kisty, one of the Mujeres Modernas who are famous social media influencers in the Dominican Republic. The song’s main message is to tell haters to “go fuck themselves” while twerking.
One of the most important characteristics Mujeres Modernas and Dembow artists have in common, which seems to help them to connect with each other, is that both groups are openly and constantly looked down on and criticized by most of the Dominican middle and upper class, including in the media. They are considered uneducated, low-class, tacky, and that they both represent the worst things of Dominican society. For example, Niní Cáffaro, director of the Dominican National Theater, has vehemently said that he would never allow Dembow artists to perform in such a prestigious stage, in order to “protect it”. Both Mujeres Modernas and Dembow singers are constantly used unfairly as scapegoats for society’s evils. The exaggerated perceptions about both communities may be due to the fact they are looked at through the lens of an extremely conservative society.
What’s your opinion on Dembow?
Jean Sano: — For me Dembow is a musical style that is looked down on. It means that it is a rhythm that was born from the most marginalized and excluded communities in the Dominican Republic, especially from the outskirts of Gran Santo Domingo. Dembow is the result of a combination of the lack of cultural activities that the youth from those areas have access to and foreign musical styles, mainly from African American culture. That rhythm is contagious without a doubt, and with time it has acquired characteristics which distinguishes it from other musical genres in the region. Nowadays Dembow is an unique musical style. Dembow’s lyrics showcase the everyday in the country’s low-income neighborhoods, which is why violence, machismo, and toxic masculinity are the main message in the lyrics. I personally try not to judge Dembow lyrics from my own moral values. I believe that one of art’s main objectives, in any of its forms and expressions, is to reflect the interpreter’s reality. You can’t expect Dembow artist to write about anything else because the machista, misogynistic, and violent reality they sing about is the only thing they know. Nowadays there’s a discussion (in the Dominican Republic) about how Dembow influences the youth negatively. I believe that everyone who lives in this country knows about our society’s many vulnerabilities. One doesn’t need to listen to a Dembow song to know about men being violent against women or planning drug trafficking. To me, if one wishes to change Dembow lyrics, society must change first. As long as the country remains immersed in poverty, Dembow lyrics will showcase all of poverty’s evils.
Even though both Dembow music and Mujeres Modernas are mainstream and famous, there are certain echelons of privilege they have a hard time accessing. For both groups it is hard to travel outside of the Dominican Republic because is hard for them to get travelling visas due to their social class. Some Dembow singers, even though they are very popular, must be sponsored before travelling to perform for Dominican communities in the United States and Europe. To this date, none of the most famous Mujeres Modernas have travelled outside of the country. For both groups is also almost impossible to access certain social circles, like upper-class and educated circles. Gay night clubs in the country are usually for middle-class, upper-middle class and rich people, and some, a few years ago, would even forbid drag queens and transgender people from coming because they were “too queer”.
The worlds of Dembow and Mujeres Modernas seem to connect, flow together, cooperate, and claim spaces with their craft. And these amazing displays of campiness, ratchetness, and magic are, considering all their limitations, art forms that have helped them navigate society, and use whichever tools they can to thrive. One of the main tools Mujeres Modernas use is social media, not only to make a living, but to use their visibility as a form of activism. Thanks to La Shakata I came across Draguéalo, which has received support from internationally famous drag queens like Laganja Estranja and the Puerto Rican April Carrión, who even traveled to Santo Domingo and worked with them. They also showcase non-conventional drag and gender expressions.
Do you feel that Dominican drag scene is gaining new momentum thanks to social media?
Carlos Rodriguez: — Yes, that’s a big part of it. Social media and the internet in general have helped people to be able to access all types of information. The Dominican queer scene has become more well-known and is growing, and every time the number of people who come to Draguéalo events grows. I believe it is not only for the queer community but also for the general public that is looking for alternative options for fun and entertainment, which has connected with the queer and diverse community.
Draguéalo is also a form of activism, why is art as a form of activism important?
— Yes, Draguéalo is a form of activism. After several years of diversity-focus activism through photography, film, and education, Draguéalo is a new form of activism. Actually, it has been a wider and a more direct form of activism because of the audience that goes to Draguéalo events and the way the public interacts with it, how they have received these events, how they identify themselves with the brand, and how they have become frequent patrons at our events, and in one way Draguéalo becomes part of those people’s night-life/mariconistica (gay) “religion circuit” in Santo Domingo. To see people’s support is what motivates us to keep putting love and dedication into this project that is still in baby steps. Having Draguéalo’s family growing within the community (LGBTQ+) is the end goal.
Hija de Perra, the queer Chilean artist, once said “Of course! Because the crossdresser has no other space but to be a hairdresser or in street prostitution.” Ideally, we would see queer people everywhere, not only as performers, comedians, or social media influencers, but also as people who can go and be whatever they want, who can navigate society easily and go wherever they please. But while we wait for that to happen, this bunch of queer, working class people have built their own way to navigate society and thrive; by being loud and having the nerve to exist as publicly as possible, and using a space like Dembow culture. They might look like two different galaxies, but they coexist in an unusual symbiosis in a post-colonial and warm Caribbean island. What does the future hold? I cannot tell, sometimes is hard to see it when every day is summer, but I celebrate the little battles and recognize the ones who are giving visibility to transgender people in unusual spaces, those creating a queer window in Dembow music.
Image description, featured image: One of the most successful Mujeres Modernas, social media influencer La Shakata. Photo credit: Carlos Rodriguez