‘Drag Race’ Star Aja on Practicing Santería: “Media Misrepresents Afro-Caribbean Practices as Evil”

Courtesy of Aja

Hit reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race has released dozens of fierce stars into the world, but few breakouts can hold a candle to the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent of Brooklyn livewire Aja. The 24-year-old spitfire – who was adopted into a Boricua family at a young age, and grew up around Puerto Rican culture – appeared on RPDR’s ninth season, which aired last year, and returned for the third season of the show’s All-Stars series earlier this winter. These runs cemented Aja’s legacy as one of the franchise’s all-time fan favorites through infamous callouts, show-stopping performances, and a genuine, relatable wit that would easily gain an instant Cardi B co-sign if Aja crossed her radar.

Like all artists beginning to feel confined within a medium, Aja is focused on stepping out beyond the perceived limitations of drag performance. Aja recently debuted as the face of designers Marek+Richard’s Fresh Vibes fashion line and their EP In My Feelings, dropping this Friday, playfully showcases their love of speed rapping, ballroom “Ha” samples, and kawaii aesthetics.

In an interview with Remezcla, Aja discusses their desire to create music that lives beyond a drag character, coming up in New York City’s ballroom scene, and the way the video for new single “Brujería” aims to challenge misconceptions about santería. Aja will also be appearing at RuPaul’s Drag Con in Los Angeles this weekend, so get your tickets and meet-and-greet passes while they last.

Most fans are familiar with your time on RuPaul’s Drag Race, but moving forward they’ll be following your work independent of the show, like your new EP In My Feelings. What vision did you have for the record going into the studio?
A lot of people asked if I had all this music written down in a book or something, but the thing is, before I ever started doing drag I wanted to become a rapper. My friends thought I was ridiculous, but I had a Tumblr with really bad raps I made when I was 16. After I got the platform, I knew I wanted to work on music and not necessarily from a drag point of view. People think the EP is coming from Aja, the drag queen, so they’re expecting really tacky drag music about lip-gloss and high heels, but I’m actually giving you a non-binary standpoint and it’s coming from my heart and soul as a person.

You shared your faith with the world while on Drag Race and placed it center stage in your new video for “Brujería.” Can you tell us about your practice of santería and your experience discussing it publicly?
I grew up practicing santería and something that I wanted to challenge with [“Brujería”] is how [the] media misrepresents Afro-Caribbean practices as evil, demonic, Satanism, or witchcraft. At the beginning of the video I’m dressed as the devil, but in a later scene I’m wearing all white – pure, innocent. I rip the horns off and throw them on the ground. At that moment, it’s symbolism for me throwing away what the world thinks that I practice. Going forward it shows you the real beauty, the dancing, the fun, and that we’re just forces of nature coming together and being at peace.

Ballroom beats are all over In My Feelings, and your signature performance style often incorporates voguing, duckwalking and death drops. Can you tell us about your time in the New York ballroom scene?
I grew up in New York in the early 2000s and was 12 telling everyone I was 16, a recurring theme in my life. I would hang out with the banjee kids all along the Christopher Street Pier and they were just voguing down and getting their lives. And there was Escuelitas – where if you didn’t have an ID you could pay an extra $40 and get in, which is probably why they’re closed now – and I would go see kiki balls all the time. But yeah, I love a good 808 and a [“Ha” sample]. A few of the tracks on the EP have it, others are straight trappy, and some are just up a different alley.

Courtesy of Aja
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“We’re just forces of nature coming together and being at peace.”

As a Brooklyn native, can you describe the environment you grew up in and how it shaped you as an artist?
The Brooklyn I grew up in was completely different. I kind of didn’t know white people existed until I was in middle school. But then everybody started moving in and the rents [started] rising, so things started changing [at the] expense of a lot of culture in the neighborhood. When I started doing drag in New York I felt subject to a lot of racism, colorism, and classism, particularly in Manhattan where the bigger queens were white and their protégés were getting fast-tracked. I felt like I had to work three or four times as hard to make something of myself.

How do you deal with the naysayers that criticize drag queens for making original music?
That market is very controversial and there is no particular reason why I wouldn’t consider myself a drag artist, but I think parody-heavy drag music is very different from what I’m doing. As a drag queen, I find myself boiling down to burlesque and hosting, but when it comes to my music, I love the dichotomy of blurring gender lines to the finest maximum. I’m looking at myself in a completely different light and I know it will take time for people to get used to that, but I think of Adore Delano, who I consider a full-fledged musician more than a drag artist. Her music is on the charts reaching beyond queer audiences. Look at Pabllo Vittar, in Brazil. She uses drag as the medium, but she is a pop star. That is how I want to be recognized: a rapper [and] a musician who does drag.

Aja’s In My Feelings EP drops May 11.