Emily Estefan is Making Music and Doesn’t Care What You Think About It

Photo by Omar Cruz

Emily Estefan is offbeat and a little weird, and she likes herself that way. In the crook of her right arm, she has a tattoo of precise, linear block letters that spell out the word “alien”— the extraterrestrial, otherworldly kind that doesn’t fit in neatly with other earthlings. She got the ink a couple of years ago, just before she covered her entire sleeve with a dragonfly in memory of her grandfather and curls of peonies representing feminine strength and beauty.

“When you’re born, you don’t pick what you look like or where your moles are or whatever. But when you get a tattoo, you’re making a permanent decision about your body. It’s like being present for something you’ll have forever that you decided — completely by yourself,” she said.

Deciding things autonomously, in some ways, reflects the quest Emily has been on the last few years while working to release her debut Take Whatever You Want. She started the project when she was 18 and it turned into a full-fledged exercise in finding her voice and parceling out her identity from her ultra-famous last name. That she’s the daughter of Cuban-American industry titans Gloria and Emilio Estefan is something Emily downplayed while creating the album in her college apartment at the Berklee School of Music in Boston — in an act of self-reliance, she wrote the lyrics; arranged the melodies; played piano, guitar and drums; and did the production on all 14 songs.

Photo by Omar Cruz
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The 22-year-old is walking into an industry where it’s common to see children following in their parents’ musical footsteps. Some budding artists pick up the mic with more handholding than others: Vicente Fernández ran onstage to help a five-year-old Alejandro Fernández finish a song he’d forgotten the lyrics to, while Enrique Iglesias borrowed money from a nanny to record a demo behind his dad’s back and released his first songs under a different surname. The offspring path comes with its own slew of burdens, and no matter how much fame celebrity scions garner, they never quite escape the question of whether or not their successes are know-how or nepotism.

“What was important to me was that I wanted to do this all myself.”

Navigating the tangles of lineage can be hard enough. Emily also has to contend with her family’s larger-than-life presence in Latin music. The Estefans are worth $500 million, have 26 Grammy awards and hold one Presidential Medal of Freedom. Time Magazine dubbed Emilio “the godfather of the Miami sound” in 1999, and the iconic producer has worked with some of the mainstream’s most popular acts, including Ricky Martin, Shakira, and Jon Secada. As much as he’s lauded, he’s also criticized: He has been accused of wielding an iron-tight grip on Latin music and building an establishment that doesn’t always favor newcomers. Many independent artists boycotted the first-ever Latin Grammys, insisting the award show overrepresented acts championed by Emilio and Sony Music.

Gloria brushed off these claims, saying, “The ‘Mafia of the Estefan’ thing is funny to me. The only intention of that mafia is to promote Latin music in the U.S.” Still, the family’s reputation and influence makes their independently minded daughter’s journey an interesting proposition. Emily’s strategy so far has been to take agency of her music and chart her own course: Instead of getting a heavy push from her mom and dad, she released her debut through a small label she started herself (and playfully named Alien Shrimp, an allusion to her “alien” persona and tiny frame.)

“A lot of people just assume I could have just signed onto my parents’ label, but the point is that nowadays as an artist, you have the opportunity to make music literally in a laptop in your underwear. You can make a kickass album on your own because it’s all at your fingertips. But you can make the best album in the world and not have any way for people to hear it,” she explains, adding, “What was important to me was that I wanted to do this all myself, and I wanted to find a partner distributor that believed in me and didn’t want to change or own my vision.”

Emily’s vision comes partially out of a quirky personality that doesn’t fit into the polished veneer people might associate with the Estefans. She’s unforgivingly eccentric — you get that just from browsing her Instagram account, which is dappled with videos of Rapuela, the hip-hop alter ego Emily made up for her grandma. Emily beatboxes while her abuela — Gloria’s mother — spits rhymes about everything from Thanksgiving dinner to cooking.

And while she embraces her own peculiarities, Emily isn’t disassociating from a household that she says allowed her to blossom. When she was 8, Emily asked her mother for a drum set and began learning percussion by ear. She would join her mom onstage for a few songs as a tween. By 13, she was gigging all over Miami and playing in punk, rock, and funk bands. Throughout the years, she picked up piano and guitar, too. After briefly considering a career in medicine, she went off to the Berklee College of Music to study percussion and philosophy.

“You can’t tell me who the fuck to be.”

In school, she decided she wanted to try singing and composing her own music. She had never sung in public before and her first performance was for an audience of one: her mom. The incident moved Gloria to tears, and Emily rushed back to school to craft an unexpected string of songs that exploded out of her “between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.” Those tracks were intense and explorative, and they eventually formed Take Whatever You Want. Emily kept the emotions as raw as she could — she even opted against recording her vocals in her parent’s studio in Miami because she wanted the feelings she’d captured in her own apartment to remain honest.

She tackles her upbringing in one of the most personal tracks, “Purple Money,” and the struggles of being a woman in “Take 5.” On the album opener “Ask Me,” she’s grappling with her own sense of self; Emily explains that song is written like a letter from her past to her present, where she gives herself permission to move forward with her own music and career, despite what others may think.

“Everybody is like, ‘Man this is a really sad love song. Who messed you up?’ And I’m like, ‘Me! I did it! I really did a number on myself!’” she said.

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One theme that Emily has found herself revisiting in her music relates to the societal pressures around who she should become as an artist. Her very first music video — “Fuck To Be,” directed by Gloria — plays with the expectations that come not only from being a woman, but also from her family history. As she rips off pageant costumes and blonde wigs, she sings, “You can’t tell me who the fuck to be,” answering questions her audience may quietly have been thinking.

Emily performed the song at Festival Miami last month, kicking off the concert over a drum set and showing off her prowess as a percussionist. Even though the album was released three years after it was made, Emily has been reconnecting with the music again through live performances that solidify her place as an artist and musician in her own right.

“When I look back, the songs are just a capture of an energy and a time. I’ve grown as a musician, but that doesn’t invalidate any of the emotions that went into making this album. I stand by it,” she said.