Interviewing Messiah El Artista is a bit of a haphazard endeavor. One second I feel like I’m trading stories with one of my primos in Santiago, and the next I’m reliving history with a long lost member of Dipset. That code switching is what makes Messiah tick, and he’s not shy about letting me know he reps the Dominican Republic and New York equally. “The good thing about Messiah is that I have the two cultures. I am Dominican because I was born there, and obviously I had the culture at home, but I also had the reality of being from here from New York. Taking the train and on the street it was all Biggie and Jay-Z. It was just hip-hop. It just hit me.”
Few rappers capture the bicultural tensions of being a Dominican New Yorker like Messiah does. Born to a musical family in Santiago de los Caballeros, the 25-year-old MC moved to Harlem in his youth. He grew up on merengue and balladeers like José José and Isabel Pantoja, but idolized New York rap juggernauts just as fiercely. He wrote his first song at the age of 11, but it wasn’t until he formed Tali & Messiah in his teens that his career really took off. In 2010, he decided to go solo, honing his breakneck flow and sly bacanería – the quisqueyano equivalent of swag. Messiah’s solo material first caught the Internet’s attention with a solid string of Spanish Drake and Future remixes, as well as with the charming tigueraje of “Tu Protagonista.”
Eventually, he crafted two collaborative mixtapes with Power 105’s DJ Flipstar, a fellow quisqueyano and Harlem neighbor who grew up a few blocks away on 142nd and Broadway. The fruit of that partnership, Ya Era Tiempo Vol. 2, is arguably a calling card for 2016 hip-hop en español – it’s filled with hyperactive snare rolls, stadium-sized hand claps, and deranged yelps and chuckles that would make Young Thug proud. Lyrically, it encompasses some of hip-hop’s more familiar themes, but somehow, curving your haters, feeling yourself, and overflowing in jiggling chapas sounds so much better in the bilingual dialect of Uptown Manhattan.
It’s half-charted territory for Dominican rappers. New York has been home to only a handful of Dominican MCs (Fabolous and AZ come to mind), and even then, those icons never painted their Dominicanness as a central part of their art. What’s perhaps the most intriguing thing about Messiah is the way his story has upended the predictability of career trajectories in the Latin urban music industry. Historically, the diaspora has favored (both financially and aesthetically) urbano artists based on the island, rather than those on their own home turf. As ethnomusicologist Deborah Pacini Hernandez writes, U.S.-based Dominicans have “been able to select from a range of musics from home to express and perform their Dominican identity,” displaying a longtime preference for the nostalgia that accompanies homeland sounds.
“I care about my goals, about my family, and what I’m here to do.”
It’s only in the past 15 years that urbano artists, who have layered their dominicanidad with the language of hip-hop and realities of urban living, have been able to use their talent to transform the popular music back home. In 2015, Messiah was hailed as one of the island’s breakout chart toppers, even catching up to major label heavy hitters like J Balvin and Farruko. “In the Dominican Republic, one of my biggest fanbases is the jevitos who don’t even listen to dembow. We’re talking about the young kids in the DR who listen to Spanish rock.”
It’s cultural capital that Messiah is well aware of, and an accomplishment he touts with pride. There are few hip-hop artists who have successfully imported their sound to the island. I mention Sandy y Papo, the mid-90s New York duo that captivated island audiences with their wacky, piano-driven take on merengue-tinged hip-hop. He shrewdly contextualizes his own success in their wake. “After them – because they were a duo – I was the first Spanish rapper from New York to get played here and then there, instead of the other way around.”
“Taking the train and on the street it was all Biggie and Jay-Z. It was just hip-hop. It just hit me.”
That’s not to say that Messiah doesn’t have well-respected forbears. Lápiz Conciente, for example, helped pioneer Dominican rap before Messiah broke out into the scene. But Lápiz remains a cult name in Dominican hip-hop, and his career lingers mostly inside the borders of the island.
Some Dominican rappers have succumbed to the lucrative and tempting power of dembow, reggaeton’s rowdy, twisted cousin. As Messiah describes, “Many dembow singers – before doing dembow – were rappers, but there comes a time when they want to take a shortcut, like ‘Coño, let me make dembow to see if I get played.’ What happened to your dream? You shied away from what you believed in.” Messiah has worked too hard and too long to let that ambition crumble in the face of cookie cutter industry pressures. “Many people make music just for the fame. There are people who have money for a studio, but who don’t know what it’s like to sacrifice themselves. I care about my goals, about my family, and what I’m here to do.”
He first chased these dreams on a small scale, passing out his mixtapes and CDs like any other street corner struggle rapper. Then came the sold-out shows at flashy Uptown clubs like Inwood’s Cliff or even Queens’ La Boom. Soon enough, that momentum catapulted his career into collaborations with reggaeton superstars like Zion y Lennox, Daddy Yankee, and Nicky Jam, along with one-on-ones with Jay-Z – all over the course of a year and a half.
After dropping “Robinson Cano,” his ode the baseball powerhouse, Cano hooked him up with a meeting with Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation agency represents the star pelotero. “I had a 20-minute one-on-one with Jay-Z. I think no Dominican artist has had that. And I know that [a collaboration] is not too far-fetched. Give me a year. All I need is for him to sing one word on one of my tracks,” he promises.
That kind of ambition is a refreshing return to the restless, punk spirit of DIY hip-hop, and it’s something that sticks with me throughout our conversation. Messiah doesn’t invoke the been-there-done-that nihilism that plagues so many artists these days, though the industry’s backwards, suffocating realities often force emerging artists to adopt such apathetic attitudes. On the contrary – Messiah is all about the hustle. “When people say they can’t, I’m like, ‘I’m testimony that you can, because I did it’. And I’m no miracle; my thing has been sweat and dedication, having talent and having a vision, sticking to it and keep grinding until one day, you know, you’re top dog.”
Messiah is all about the hustle.
Staying true to that story is something he’s passionate about. When I ask if he’ll ever release a full-length in English, he assures me, “Right now, I try and incorporate as much Spanish as I can. Since I started as a Latin artist, I want to claim my territory and then have that and go on to [something else].”
These days, Messiah is focused on fine-tuning his debut LP. “I wanna balance it out. I don’t want it to be too loquito, too protagonista, or too hip-hop. I’m making a new sound right now…I’m gonna do Spanish trap like Americans are doing it, but it’s never been done in Spanish before. I wanna do something cleaner, smoother on the ears.”
“I trust my music, I trust my talent, and I trust my fans.”
After that, he has his eyes on the highly coveted crossover success that eludes so many Latin artists. The difference is that Messiah relishes the challenge. “I was once told that it wasn’t about the arrival, it was [about] maintaining. I trust my music, I trust my talent, and I trust my fans…my biggest challenge a year ago was to get my hip-hop to the Americans because they were the ones who started hip-hop. Now my biggest challenge after that is to be recognized by the Grammys and the Billboards.” Judging by a recent appearance on Hot 97, where his lightspeed, tongue-twisting freestyle surprised even the skepticism of Pete Rosenberg, that dream doesn’t seem so far off.
Messiah isn’t just about taking what’s his, though. He’s also supporting the artists who share his slice of the pie. To tease the upcoming full-length, he hopes to record a collection of songs with features from Lito Kirino, Tali, and Kapuchino, “because they’re all artists who now have a voice because of what I did, because of the bravery that I had.”
Whether Messiah is solely responsible for launching the burgeoning movement is up for debate, and history may not write him down as its frontrunner, but there’s no doubt that he’s nurtured the sound and his craft with reckless abandon. “I’m living in a great position, economically, mentally, physically, emotionally – I’m good right now. And so I tell them, I can’t forget what I was doing before having this…Like Daddy Yankee said to me, ‘You are the leader of your movement. You are the Daddy Yankee of your movement.’”
Check out Messiah’s most recent video, filmed on tour in Europe. Keep an eye out for the self-titled LP, slated to drop this summer: