Navigating Whiteness in Latinx Spaces: Downtown Boys’ Victoria Ruiz Interviews Joey DeFrancesco

Editor’s note: In this conversation, Downtown Boys frontperson Victoria Ruiz sits down with bandmate Joey DeFrancesco to discuss the capitalist structures of the music industry and his new solo project La Neve.

Joey DeFrancesco could do anything he wanted. There would be safety and security working a full-time, salaried job for a labor justice non-profit. There would be pats on the back from peers and family members for joining the academy after he wrote an anthropology thesis on the power structures of the hotel industry. There would be wormholes of emotion and self-healing, if he focused on music only about his life. But what there actually is is a depth of musical skill and talent fueled by resistance, the fight for justice, and organized responses to the pain, confusion, and desire of the present and future.

One of the outlets in which he develops this talent is La Neve, a solo musical endeavor that complements his work in Downtown Boys and Malportado Kids. La Neve chisels through the rigid boundaries of electronic, classical, dance, and rock music. It’s urgent electropunk, featuring covers of Santa Lucia and Bruce Springsteen’s “Bobby Jean,” mixed with drum beats and space sounds. His musical incisions go deeper with the visuals, which feature images of Italian weddings, show makeup, and mundane family vans driving on the highway. It makes you wonder about the perfect family you never had.

La Neve’s second release, American Sounds, is due February 24 on Don Giovanni Records. Last month, he released the project eponymous lead single – a sunny spot in the fog and haze of post-inauguration stress and anxiety. While political regression and white supremacy take up so much physical, digital, and emotional space right now, in the video, DeFrancesco fights that dominance by putting his body and art in a very public setting — the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania. Pitchfork said that the track “claims enough space for non-binary bodies like DeFrancesco’s to not only stand, but sprawl out.”

The challenge that DeFrancesco takes up as a musician and activist is crucial. It’s what all white people who create with people of color should be doing – forcing themselves into spaces with marginalized communities and around people with vastly different personal experiences. But his rejection of comfort is filled with warmth and hope, with a hunger so real that you want to walk through every door La Neve opens for you. While art can open the door to the ride for us, the ride itself is not free. The cost is coming to terms with labor, identity, beauty, resistance, and power. This confrontation is not easy, but it would not be a confrontation if it were easy.

What is your process for writing music as La Neve?
A lot of the songs started as ideas that didn’t quite work for Downtown Boys, but that I still felt could work in some other context. But it’s always the same kind of process: just having either a lyrical idea or a rhythmic idea and then plugging into Logic, then just fighting with that idea over and over again until it becomes a song. I feel like I take a long time to finish songs; it’s a lot of pacing and wrestling with it.

What is your performance preparation like? Can you share what the preparation is like in terms of your own performance, visual projections, sound, etc.?
I try to do fairly full multimedia performances. Performing solo is hard for me (at the moment at least), so having lots of stuff going on helps me do it and I think makes for a more engaging performance. As for my appearance, I wouldn’t call it drag necessarily, though I don’t have a problem with it being called drag. I’m just talking about myself here – I want to emphasize that – because for many people, to be called a “drag queen” is a very real and very massive insult and a violent attack on their being.

I’m still not sure what to call myself, like genderqueer or genderfluid…I can never seem to find that right term, but it’s something I’ve known I’ve been since I can remember existing. I’ve gone to transition more fully a couple times, but I haven’t continued with it for various reasons – maybe I will at some point – but this is what I look like at the moment. Being in that position, performance enables at least a temporary full-on realization of who you want to be. Which is why I say the word “drag” is fine for me personally, because I think the drag community actually encompasses a much larger scope of gender identities than people sometimes imagine, and people perform in drag for a variety of reasons, and there’s some value in recognizing that.

While art can open the door to the ride for us, the ride itself is not free.

What are you hoping to get across with your new album?
Right now, as always, the goal is to use the music as some sort of weapon to attack the forces of injustice, which have of course recently become even more emboldened. This project is putting out a different part of myself than usual, so even just for me personally it’s a powerful thing to shoot out into the world to more loudly declare that I’m here. We’re going to need to do a lot of that in the next four years, as we always have had to.

You have been in various bands. Music seems to constantly “borrow” from other music. How do you choose what to sample and not? What is the power dynamic writing music exists in?
It’s something that needs to be constantly interrogated. Music is part of the power dynamics and capital relationships of the rest of the world, so it’s all built on stealing the labor of oppressed people. People of color built the physical infrastructure of this country, and they also built the cultural infrastructure, while white people profited and continue to profit off of both. Anything we do as white people, whatever our vocation is, is going to be within that context, so it’s always a question of, “How can we be acting to tear this down? How can we be acting to destroy white supremacy and work with marginalized people to redistribute resources and power?”

Music is no exception, so with every move you make you’ve gotta keep these things in mind, from where you book shows, to who’s in the shows, to who’s getting paid, to who you write about, and so on. So with sampling, we’ve got to be very careful not to reinforce those power dynamics. With Malportado Kids, for example, I think the press always said we were a “punk cumbia” band or something, but that was pretty inaccurate, as I don’t think we ever once used a real cumbia rhythm. We were most often using straight-up electroclash beats, and then sampling from a variety of things including “Western” classical music, from European folk music, as well as some Latin American music. We probably missampled in some cases, and that should always be talked about and interrogated…but it seemed like since the band was this collision of identities, that such a mix of styles made sense.

“Music is part of the capital relationships of the rest of the world, so it’s all built on stealing the labor of oppressed people.”

With La Neve, the same mix would not be appropriate. I think the only thing I sample into something else is a Television song, and that seems correct to sample, and maybe even good to change its meaning from a straight, classic guitar rock thing, and queer it more and politicize it more with this project. I only want to sample things out of my direct experience here, or things that I would be tearing down rather than stealing from.

What is it like being white and being in bands with Latinx people and with Spanish lyrics? How do you figure out your whiteness in it all? Are there formative or foundational moments navigating your position in a band with Latinx people, or specific moments in Downtown Boys that have influenced La Neve?
Music is not divided from society in the way people sometimes like to imagine, but is part of the broader power structure, so being white you’ve got the same positions of privilege you’ve got in the rest of society. And if you want to work to dismantle white supremacy, you’ve got to recognize that and actively work against it. And since Downtown Boys is a band of both Latinx and white people, these issues constantly come up.

Take for instance just press. The press treats the Latinx people in the band differently than me and the other white people that have been in the band. There is this constant need to question your authenticity, to get a good backstory that fits their narrative of “People of Color in Music.” We’ve had interviews where the interviewer straight up comes in and says, “So, what’s everyone’s race?” Then they ask the Latinx members about their family history’s and everything else, so they can work that into the story to get their preconceived narrative solidified.

“Music is not divided from society in the way people sometimes like to imagine.”

They simply don’t ask me those questions, and they never ask white artists those questions, except in this interview, which notably is for Remezcla. As white artists, we’re allowed to exist as making “universal” work, and our past, intentions, and authenticity are rarely questioned. And that has serious consequences for who feels like they belong in music and who feels like it’s an appropriate place for them to be. Being white within that, I do what I can to interrogate myself and other white artists, to support the rest of the band where I can, to speak up where I can, to step back where I should. That should be expected of anyone, and I fuck it up a lot, and learning from that is part of it. It’s a continuous task, and we white people need to intensify those efforts. With La Neve, I’m in the new position of being alone on stage, of having to say these things directly, and I’ve learned so much from Downtown Boys about what I need to say and why I need to say it.

La Neve will release American Sounds on Don Giovanni Records on February 24. Pre-order it here.