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Friday, December 3, 2021

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Arts + CultureMusicLa Doña takes on the world with 'Algo Nuevo'

La Doña takes on the world with ‘Algo Nuevo’

The magnetic Mission singer-trumpeter blends her mariachi background with reggaeton, more on new independent album.

Some people use alter egos or artistic identities to create a persona distinct from their own. But for Cecilia Cassandra Peña-Govea, being La Doña is her Latina and feminist self multiplied by two. The San Francisco native is vocally and musically speaking out about love, her home girls, living in the city, and social justice. 

La Doña is a rebellion against the male-dominated music of hip hop and reggaeton, vibrantly crafted within her diverse cultural upbringing in the Mission District. She’s powerful, she’s leading the new generation of Latinx, and she’s got the vocals and trumpet skills to prove it.

Just before her upcoming Algo Nuevo album release party and performance at Amoeba San Francisco Fri/12 and her show at KQED headquarters on Wed/17, 48 Hills sat down to talk with the emerging artist at Universal Panaderia Bakery.

48 HILLS At age 7, you started playing with your family in a mariachi band. Was that when you discovered your passion for music? Or was it just something you had to do as a kid?

LA DOÑA I think it’s a lot of things. I think that my experience was only different because it was operating a different arena—but I think that everybody that has a very focused childhood hobby, or sport, or artistic medium and experiences the same thing. [For example] you’re starting from when you’re a child and we don’t have that much autonomy over our lives. We don’t really get to decide over everything that we do. Are we doing this to fulfill the most human part of ourselves that we already know we need to make connections with people?

We want to spend time with our family, we want recognition and connection. We already have those desires, so it’s really hard to interrogate that and be like, “Did I like it? Was it fun? When was it cool, when was it not cool?” Those questions are hard to even think about, because when you’re younger it’s just a way to hang out with your family. They were playing gigs so I would hang out with them.

Then you had moments where you’re playing at Mission Culture Center as a Latina or one of the spaces of community and culture, and you do feel very fulfilled and excited, and proud. Just very enthusiastic of presenting with your family, and presenting your cultural traditions and practices.

It’s always a mixed bag and I would say that it still is. Being an artist now, obviously I have more autonomy than when I was seven. It’s part of a larger movement of energy, and I am at the helm of it. With doing anything around your art, unless it’s solely for yourself, as a meditative practice or whatever, I think there is always going to be some component of “Do I feel good here? Is this what I want to do? Is this comfortable? Is this positive?” The fact of the matter is it can’t always be that all the time.

48H I find this so relevant, because how do you know you want to do this for the rest of our lives while not disappointing your parents, but also doing things that you love? It’s a little bit hard especially in our culture.

LD Exactly, and from my position I played music with my family for my whole childhood and adolescence. Then when I was about 17 or 18, I drew back from a lot of it. I said, “That’s not what I want to do, that’s not where I have the energy to put in,” so I did step back a lot from it.

On the flipside, I can understand that I was doing music to please my family and to be doing it with them and to be in community with them. On the other hand, was I rejecting music just so I can create space from them? Maybe I did like music and maybe I still wanted to play music, but I was just trying to have more space so I could really decide if that’s what I was about.

What has been important in my trajectory, and also what I think is important for all artists, young artists, is that your relationship to your artform is going to change all the time, and it’s that kind of observance of the relationship—and the dynamism of your craft and of your medium and practice—that makes a sustainable relationship. You might go in a completely different direction, and I think having that understanding and patience with oneself really does make you feel free and happy where you’re at with your practice.

La Doña at Stern Grove

48H If we look now at urban artists, it’s mostly men, and they’re always talking from the male perspective. I feel like you are able to enjoy being a woman, while also talking about the struggles, and incorporating that into your lyrics. Have you experienced challenges of being a feminist working in hip-hop and reggaeton, which are male-dominant genres? 

LD I think that I faced that struggle more as a listener. Not to obscure the presence of super-powerful female reggaetoneras, or hip-hop producers, rappers, and MCs, but more to say that in my consumption of those genres you do consume a lot of violence and anti-feminist ideologies.

I think that as a listener that was a struggle, but when it came time to my own music it was completely liberating. I love this music and I love the styles and I enjoy them from all these different traditions, many of them are rooted in a very machista or male-dominant cultures and systems. When I was doing my thing, I was like, “Damn dude, I studied so much about so many different types of music, and now I get to do exactly what I want.”

Now, I get to sing about what I want, I get to act how I want, I get to hear what shares my story and also shares my ethnic upbringing as well. That felt like a huge liberation for me, but at the same time I occupy more spaces than just being an individual artist. I am a teacher, and I work for Pandora radio, and I exist in a lot of different spheres.

48H Being surrounded with your family of musicians, was there anything you listened to as an escape, or any artists you yourself wanted to listen to?

LD In middle school, I started listening to a lot of reggaeton like Don Omar, Luney Tunes, and I started listening to a lot of hyphy music like Too $hort, Mac Dre, E-40, like all the Bay music. Definitely when my parents would hear, they would just [say] “OK mija, go do your thing.”

Those two genres were my escape, but we listen to such a diversity of music that it really could change day to day. One day we’re listening to funk, the next day we’re listening to Jimmy Cliff, the next time we’re listening to cumbia from the Gaita era, and the next moment we’re listening to mariachi for days and days. It was always changing. It was always new and different in the house. I really didn’t need to assert any type of artistic difference or consumer difference in the household.

48H I think that reflects onto your music, because you’re not sticking to one genre. You play son jarocho, or cumbia and reggaeton. It really reflects what you listen to, your culture, and how the city of San Francisco influenced your work.

LD Yeah, totally. Back in the day, San Francisco was a very diverse place, especially among Latino/Latina people. There was a lot of Central Americans, Mexicanos, a lot of South Americans, so people from all over. Not only was there flavors from different places, but there was also a demand from that kind of music.

Growing up and playing with my dad’s band and with the family band, I feel like my stuff is so diverse because so was the stuff that I was playing with my dad’s band. People were open and they wanted to hear that type of music. That’s kind of how my ear was trained and also how I relate to my audience. If you don’t like this [sound], then what about this? Oh, you like that, OK I’ll give you a little more, but also hear this. It’s always like a magic show, you know?

You always have to keep it fresh and interesting, but still there should be at least one component that the audience can connect to and that they feel there is a congruence between the songs.

48H There was an article that mentioned your dad considered trumpets a male instrument.

LD No, not at all. In the music industry and among male musicians, especially Latinos there is always that vibrato of “I’m going to teach my sons this.” If I show up to a gig people will be like, “Oh you must be the singer or you must be the dancer.” No, I’m the trumpet player. My sister plays band accordion and I play trumpet.

I think the way that I treat my students and the way my sister is raising her kids is very different from the way that we were raised, but really very similar in that we are more trying to unlearn our gendering. My mom was a second wave feminist, so she was more [about] femme power, which gave us a lot of privileges in our way of thinking, and feeling open and brave and entitled to be in male-dominated spaces. Even attitudes and characteristics, and that definitely had to do with trumpet and accordion, too, and the style of music we’re playing as well.

48H Your music focuses on social issues and racial justice. The song that you wrote “Chuparrosa” took a personal turn, because you wrote that about Sean Monterrosa and you wanted to unify Black people and Latinos against racism. I thought that was a good way of activism, because music is something integral to our culture and our community.

LD Everyone does what they can. I think that being radical or being an activist can translate, and take place in any of your jobs or any of your arenas. It’s all just your lens and how you present your work.

That was a very tough moment for me, obviously for everybody. COVID killed everybody in a lot of different ways. Some people literally, some people creatively, some people career wise. A lot of suffering happened during the first year of Covid. For me, personally I had to cancel my release, a couple tours and shows. I didn’t feel like I wanted to do music, and who knows how long it was going to last.

My favorite thing is to perform, and everything else is so much hard work and it doesn’t bring that much back to me. It’s like yelling into a void sometimes when creating music. You’re putting stuff out and you don’t know if people will listen and you don’t know if it will make an impact. You can stop tomorrow and nobody will notice. I think I was definitely in that space where I was over this, and [felt] I had nothing to say and there was no reason for me to make music anymore.

When Sean was killed, I felt like I had just woken up again. I might not have a huge platform, but I have a platform, and I can keep talking about this. People learn through art, people learn through music, people learn through theater. All of these different methods of communicating truths and radical ideology, and social justice movements and all that happens through art. If the fastest most productive way for me to communicate these ideas that I have and that I think are super urgent is through music, then I need to do that. That’s when I made “Chuparrosa.”

48H Now that live performances are coming back, how do you feel with two upcoming shows?

I’ve never really believed in destiny or fate. I’ve always believed in myself, I believed in my timeline. I believed in the plans I made, I believed in my ability to make things happen. When COVID came, I really had to let go of that, and let go of the idea that if I work hard enough, I’ll get what I want when I want it.

Because that’s not how it goes. That’s just not how it works and it will break your heart. Now my practice is just to be flexible, to be open, to see what comes and to still walk in the same direction and work ethic, but who knows what’s going to happen. I just think if you do a good job and you do that with integrity, and you treat the people around you well then you can’t end up in too bad of a place. That’s what my outlook is now. I do believe that the energy you put out comes back to you. 

48H Algo Nuevo was self-produced and has been self-promoted. How was that meaningful for you?

LD Yeah, being independent, self-releasing it, and not releasing it under a label or distributor, and being the creative director, being the musical director, and the executive producer—just basically being over every single component. I am very proud of that work, and having a beautiful end product.

I’m never proud of myself, so to say that is really big. To have something that looks good, sounds good, feels good and is different has just made it better that no one paid for it besides me. It sucks, because there’s so much support that I needed along the way and so much further that the project could have gone, but I wouldn’t do it any other way with that project.

48H Last Friday was the release of your collaboration with San Cha. The song “Oveja Negra” is very beautiful because it’s about seeking acceptance.

LD San Cha is like the first friend I made in LA. I went and she was randomly having lunch at the same café that I was at, and somebody said she does rancheras. I introduced myself, and we met up later that day and we played music for hours. We drank tequila and sat in her beautiful house and just jammed for hours. She was my first real friend in L.A. There was a lot of industry people that were around, but I didn’t feel at home with anybody. I felt at home with San Cha.

48H Did the two of you write this song together or did you just offer your vocals?

LD San Cha was the primary songwriter on this one. It’s her story about how things are with her parents and her family, and how it has been not only to share her queerness and her partner with them, but also her career choice and her desire to be a performing artist.

I was happy to join her on vocals, and I did the trumpet parts as well. Something that she told me that meant a lot to me was that she wanted me to be a part of it because we’re both queer Latinas that are doing different types of music and calling upon different traditions.

I also think she wanted me to be a part of it because she really felt a connection with my family when she came up here. We had a party and she became emotional. Half of my family is queer and we’re doing shit that was not typical of a Latino family back in the day. We’re still extremely open, radical, loving, and caring.

We’re very close in that way, because we’re accepting of each other. You want to hang out with people who love and support you, and also who are cool themselves. I think San Cha felt inspired in the time that she spent with my family and that’s why she wanted to have my presence in the song.

48H Another theme in your music is San Francisco. Most people want to move out of whatever hometown or city they live. What roots you back to San Francisco and inspires you to write music about the city?

LD I think that it’s the people. The answer is always the people. It’s my family, it’s my friends, it’s my students, it’s the people that I’ve seen growing up on the street. It’s the people, and that’s what I say in “Quando Se Van” that “No eres nada sin tu gente.” There’s no San Francisco without the people that work for it, that make it, that make the food for it, that play the soundtrack of it, that paint the walls of it. If they want a tech industry town, they can have a million buildings looking like the jail cell condos and they can have a million millionaires, and they won’t have nothing. Without us, they don’t have San Francisco.

48H How do you feel knowing your work is being recognized and it’s reaching national audiences, and it’s not just something local?

It feels good. It’s weird to go to a different state and they’re singing your lyrics. It’s like “What the fuck.” The Internet is everywhere obviously, but it’s still a trip. It feels really good and it makes me really proud to hear other artists from the Bay be like, “Thanks for putting San Francisco on, thanks for repping.” At the end of the day if it’s artwork that means something for somebody else, then it should be accessible to anybody who wants it.

48H Your music videos show many spots in San Francisco and local artists that I recognize, and it’s always cool to spot those.

LD I’m just super blessed. All of my homegirls are creative, so I’m not the type of person to call and ask, “Hey do you have any hot girls that can be in my video?” No, that’s not my style. If I don’t know them, they are not getting on my set. I just feel really blessed to have really, really good friends who are also extremely good at what they do creatively. We are able to always inspire each other and collaborate, and help each other out with our projects, and that’s what makes it worth it. If I had to work with a bunch of people I didn’t know then I probably wouldn’t be doing this.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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