Intersect: How Mala Rodríguez and Rihanna Rewrote the Rules of Their Careers on ‘Bruja’ and ‘Anti’

As society slowly and painfully becomes more “woke,” we’re more careful than ever to identify and condemn cultural appropriation — the ugly exploitation of a culture for selfish gains. But not every cultural exchange is exploitative, and whether it’s through an exploration of personal identity, mutual respect, or just genuine curiosity, artists are constantly borrowing and sharing art and influence from other cultures. Through Intersect, a column by Matthew Ismael Ruiz, we’ll take a look at a pair of bands or musicians whose music represents a coalescence of disparate cultures to make something new.

At 37 years old, María “La Mala” Rodríguez Garrido is a grizzled veteran of Spain’s hip-hop game. Her career started as a teen in Seville in the late 90s, where she gained notoriety in the jarcor scene for her masculine growl, which directly contrasted with her femme aesthetic. With a wealth of vocal talent, bad girl bravado, and a marketable style, she was quickly snapped up by Universal Music Spain at the turn of the millennium, going on to record several albums, tour internationally, and soundtrack feature films.

By the time she released Bruja in 2013, she was firmly in her thirties, with few commercial peers in Spanish rap. She retained her trademark growl, but used more sparingly, it felt more like a tactical weapon than a gimmick. On Bruja, her confidence projects her strength, absolving any need to scream or bark as much as she may have in the past to prove her toughness. She can still cut with the best of them (“tú eres mi puta/no te la saco de la boca,” she brags on “33”), but the real achievement is the album’s sound. Bruja is the apotheosis of her hybrid style, one that marries flamenco, boom-bap hip-hop, laptop trap, and 70s soul — in a package that feels uniquely her own. Bruja sounds like the record she was born to make.

The most self-assured release of her career, Bruja is evidence of the potential of young talent given more creative freedom, a reminder that hip-hop is a universal language ripe for vastly different interpretations. A close analogue is Rihanna’s Anti, the singer’s eighth LP, released four years after one of the most storied runs in pop music history (from 2005–2012 she released 10 no. 1 singles, with seven of her eight LPs certified platinum by the RIAA). That record betrayed Rih’s love of soulful ballads (“Love on the Brain”) and smoothed-out stoner jams (“Same Ol’ Mistakes”), in addition to the dancehall-inflected pop (“Work”) that made her famous. Their styles and musical influences differ greatly, but both women had to work long and hard to get to the point where they could embrace experimentation to its full potential, to direct those major label dollars to fund the albums that they wanted to make, which eventually became their marquee records. And when they established themselves enough to get the room to really explore, they proved that their artistry was more varied and complex than most might give them credit for.

While we chatted with La Mala via Skype from her home in Madrid, she actually hails from Andalusia, a region best known for flamenco, bullfighting, and Moorish architecture. It’s also home to a surprising catalyst of La Mala’s diverse musical influences: the U.S. Navy.

“Machismo is an old concept that we must overcome. And I feel that I can do it.”

To understand how the U.S. military plays into the musical influences of a Spanish teen, it helps to understand the history of La Mala’s home province, Cádiz. Anchored by an ancient port of the same name, which sits just west of the Strait of Gibraltar, the province’s harbor has been a strategic naval outpost since its days as the westernmost port in the Roman Empire. Christopher Columbus used it as a home base for his second and fourth gold-stealing campaigns to the New World. And long after the decline of the Spanish Armada, the Americans would arrive in the wake of World War II, parking ICBM-armed submarines at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, aimed squarely at their former allies in the U.S.S.R.

The number of personnel at Naval Station Rota peaked in the 80s and early 90s, at the height of the Cold War arms race with the Soviets. Rodríguez spent her early youth in Jerez de la Frontera, frequenting the nearby beaches, absorbing the culture brought and shared by the thousands of servicemen and women and civilians that lived and worked at the station. “I heard a lot of music there,” she recalls. “I liked to listen to R&B, and the Moroccan music [on the] radio from the border.”

The sailors also brought with them one of the U.S.’s hottest imports at the time: hip-hop. While the likes of Biggie, Nas, and the Wu-Tang Clan were planting their feet firmly in the mainstream and reaching international audiences, Rodríguez latched onto early records from various ends of the American hip-hop spectrum, absorbing the Digable Planets’ jazz vibrations, the intricate narratives of Slick Rick, and Scarface’s horrorcore powerviolence. Early Spanish hip-hop was still mostly riffing off what they heard from the states, but Barcelona’s 7 Notas 7 Colores and Andalusia’s own Nazión Sur made an impression on her.

At home with her parents, she mostly heard jazz and flamenco, but also a “strange mix” of “Rocio Jurado, Miles Davis, and Pat Metheny.” Attracted to “big voices” from an early age, female crooners such as Lole Montoya served as peculiar precursors to the power of her signature style. “I think I really wanted to do things and [work with] a lot of people with strength,” she says.

La Mala came up alongside groups such as La Alta Escuela, La Gota Que Colma, and SFDK. She stood out from the very start — she sounds harder than any of her contemporaries on tracks like La Gota Que Colma’s “No Hay Rebaja” and SFDK’s “Una de Piratas.” When hip-hop exploded in Spain around 1998, Spanish rappers began to take ownership of their language’s opportunities for unique original flows, utilizing short syllables to spit at a dizzying pace – La Mala included. “When I use a dialect like Andalusian, the words change,” she explains. “They become different, shorter…they play more and it is easier for me to play with them.” Before long she had scored a deal with Universal Music Spain to record her debut LP, Lujo Ibérico, and share her Andalusian take on hip-hop with the rest of the world.

As she came into her own as an artist, the disparate influences of her youth began to gel; she countered the jarcor flow with a cante jondo singing style, weaving flamenco-driven guitar tracks into the same track list with G-Funk era beats (“Alevosia”). She told her own versions of gritty street tales (“La Niña”), wielded her sexuality with an empowering authority, and even let herself get a little weird (“Flores, Vitamina y Mucho Sexo”).

The freedom to take risks with art is the freedom to fail.

When she started writing Bruja, her fifth full-length, it had been 10 years since her debut. Lyrically, she’s at her most self-assured, weaving a narrative of self-determination, agency, and a rejection (or reclamation) of machismo. The verses on “Quien Manda” (“Who’s the Boss?”) read like a declaration: “Y si ya tengo el agua que me da la lluvia/Si conozco lo grande que me da el cielo/Si ya tengo lo oscuro que me da la noche/Si entiendo lo que pasa cuando arde el fuego/Si se abren los caminos cuando hay estrellas/Si puedo vivir con lo que cae al suelo/Si no me falta la esperanza gracias a la mañana/Yo no necesito poder.”

On Anti, Rihanna eschews her bread-and-butter club-ready radio jams in favor of emotive laments and couch-locked doobie soundtracks. A year before the album’s release, Rih explained this sonic shift as a purposeful creative choice. “I’ve made a lot of songs that are just really, really big songs. From the jump, they just blow up,” she explained in an interview with MTV. “I just wanted to focus on things that felt real, that felt soulful, that felt forever.”

Not unlike Anti, the songs on Bruja are a reflection of the history of La Mala’s musical taste, rather than her professional track record. You can hear some Digable vibrations from the stand-up bass on “Miedo a Volar,” and that tinny Fruit Loops trap snare on “Cuando Tu Me Apagas.” And she’s just as comfortable spitting over horn samples and reggae guitar (“Caja de Madera”) as she is singing a sultry hook.

These are roles that women don’t typically get to play on pop’s biggest stages.

Lauryn Hill she’s not, but Rodríguez can still confidently slip some cante jondo in between a rapid-fire flow with elegance and aplomb. Rihanna wields a similar confidence on Anti as she stretches R&B to incorporate her tastes, from the cringe-inducing crack in her voice on “Love on the Brain,” to her fearless cover of a white indie rock band’s biggest hit. Bruja and Anti are more than the sum of the parts La Mala and Rihanna have consumed throughout their lives, but you can certainly hear pieces of them all throughout each record.

The freedom to take risks with art is the freedom to fail, and the financial risk that Bruja’s quirks would be lost on La Mala’s audience is clearly smaller than that of Anti (though she shrewdly mitigated that risk from the jump). But while La Mala’s sales have never been in the same universe as Rihanna’s, each case illustrates a creative risk proved justified: Anti went platinum two times over, and Bruja earned La Mala her second Latin Grammy. And it’s no accident that as each artist solidified their own agency, the perspectives in their music take on themes usually prescribed to male artists, such as sexual dominance and physical violence. It’s one of the reasons the mid-career works from these women are so striking; these are roles that women don’t typically get to play on pop’s biggest stages.

If nothing else, Bruja and Anti show what happens when women artists control the presentation of their music in a patriarchal industry, and are given the agency to make art on their own terms amidst a sea of testosterone. And for La Mala, at least, that agency has always come from within.

“A person with self-esteem [cannot be] fooled by advertising,” Rodríguez says. “Machismo is an old concept that we must overcome. And I feel that I can do it.”