Meet Santa Bandida, Venezuela’s R&B Bruja

Venezuela is considered the world leader in queen makers; the country’s 22 major beauty pageant titles are a source of pride to the Caribbean country. Family friends often asked Venezuelan artist Santa Bandida‘s (aka Marie Manrique) mother why the family wasn’t grooming the tall teen for evening gowns and impromptu questions. They were unaware of her musical aspirations, a passion that was built with every secret session she logged with her headphones.

Unbeknownst to everyone in her family, young Marie was practicing her flow to 2001’s Venezuela Subterranea mixtape, based off the Juan Carlos Echeandía documentary of the same name. The salsa-inflected tracks unite Venezuela’s hip-hop greats, like Guerrilla Seca, 187, DJ Trece, Dr. Scratch, and Vagos y Maleantes.

Manrique loved these songs. She already knew that she wanted to be a rapper, not a beauty queen. “You had a small girl from Maracaibo, Venezuela rapping to this from first to last bar,” she remembers. “I was supposed to be listening to other things like Britney and *NSYNC, Justin Timberlake, shit like that,” says Manrique. “I thought — we thought, as a society in Venezuela — that this was bad music. This wasn’t what girls should be listening to. Boys listen to this, not girls.”

As she got older, she started cultivating a tomboy look. People called her a marimacho, a derogatory term often used to describe butch lesbians. “I’ve always hated that word,” she says. “There’s a lot of hatred in it.” But she also couldn’t tolerate the sexist perceptions of women in the local hip-hop scene. “Latinas are so variadas, you know? But people just want us to be the video shawty. Or the girl on the picture of the city on the album. Or the girl they take pictures with. And it’s not like that.”

She sang with a jazz fusion group and had a brief flirtation with acoustic indie pop as Bloody Maria, but nowadays Marie is known to fans of internet R&B brujería as Santa Bandida. Earlier this year, she launched Wi Fi Wifey, a debut five-track EP inspired by the end of her relationship with a man she still calls the love of her life. “Eternidad” was the first song Manrique wrote for Wi Fi Wifey, the song that gave birth to Santa Bandida.

“Eternidad” is about a writer who renders a lover immortal by inserting them in their verse. It is joined by “De Antes,” a song inspired by an anti-fuckboy rant from Manrique’s friend, plus “Amstrdm,” the long-distance analyzing B side of “Eternidad.” The aforementioned Goldensquare remix and another by Brun OG – the first international producer that reached out to work with Santa Bandida – complete the album.

“People just want us to be the video shawty.”

Recorded, mixed, and mastered at Maracaibo’s Anahata Records, the finished product is a collection of incantations. “I call myself a bruja on the internet because I am a bruja,” Santa Bandida says. “People think it’s because brujería is trendy right now — nah, I’ve been a bruja for awhile.”

Santa Bandida’s low-pitched, fluid verses betray her earlier era as a battle rapper. The hooks reveal her ironclad beliefs that women are not to be limited by anyone — not trifling men, and certainly not anyone who thinks you have to be a man rapping about sexual conquests and big guns to be considered authentic.

After Wi Fi Wifey dropped, blogs started to call Santa Bandida the voice of feminism in Venezuela, a title that made her uncomfortable even as a feminist. But at the end of the day, if women were taking strength from the struggles she’d been through, the exposure was all good.

“I had girls telling me that they broke up with their boyfriend after listening to ‘De Antes,’ noticing they were fuckboys,” she says. “I had girls telling me that they get my struggle and that they understand where I come from with the whole ‘Eternidad’ deal. I don’t know, it makes me happy to know that girls fuck with me that heavily.”

The early success convinced her that she had to keep pushing. There are few functional R&B projects in Venezuela — Marti Ann being a notable exception — and ever since her early obsession with Venezuela Subterraneo, Manrique had struggled with the scene’s focus on violence. The traditional preference for larcenous narratives may be a reflection of the nation’s high crime rates, but nonetheless it struck her as being too negative a backdrop for the kind of empowering message she was trying to communicate. “You have to find a way to make it work, find a way to let other people know you’re Venezuelan and ready to work,” she says.

Singer Jesse Baez first came to Santa Bandida’s attention early this year, when he released his Spanish-language cover of The Weeknd’s “Tell Your Friends.” She struck up a friendship with him on the internet. He showed her work to producer Teen Flirt, the founder of Mexican label Finesse Records. They wasted no time in inviting Santa Bandida to Mexico for an extended visit.

“We’re heavily sentimental beings. I think that somehow we’re making endless things.”

She’s staying at the Finesse Records headquarters in Mexico City, a small, beautiful rooftop apartment where Teen Flirt lives and where singers Baez and Girl Ultra work with the label producers like BCOTB and Phynx. In the first week of her stay, she has already worked with Puerto Rican rapper Audri Nix and had “the best-best day of my life” in Monterrey, where she performed at Finesse’s Halloween party alongside Girl Ultra and NYC’s Riobamba. She slayed the crowd with Spanish-language covers of Tory Lanez’ “Super Freaky” and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Zaddy.”

In Finesse, she’s found the crew she didn’t have in Venezuela: a group of artists who have a similar desire to share their personal struggles with the world, free of violent posturing and limitations built on gender norms. “We’re not crybabies because we’re strong,” Santa Bandida says. “But we’re heavily sentimental beings. I think that somehow we’re making endless things. Our music is fucking endless.”

Maybe that feeling of infinity has to do with the label’s collaborative approach to development. “As producers, Finesse gives you the idea and you start developing it as an artist,” she says. “It’s like, ‘I want to change this; I want to change that.’ The ideas start molding around you and your project.”

An MF Doom-Sade mash up plays over the speakers. Santa Bandida asks for a few minutes to put on the rest of her makeup before she goes to the cafe downstairs for coffee. “You have to be ready, always,” she says. She is locked and loaded, ready to do this music thing for real. “I’m in a different environment now,” she says. “And I’m sure you’re going to notice that when you listen to the new shit.”

Santa Bandida won’t ever be Miss Venezuela, but that’s okay — she’s always been gunning for a different crown.