Si Tu Quiere Dembow: How La Delfi Sparked the Rise of Queer Dembow

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

In 2012, as La Delfi prepared to perform for her fifth show, the unexpected happened. She made her way towards the stage, then suddenly received word that El Lapiz Conciente was in the crowd and wanted to see her. This shocked the new rising talent. Not only was the father of Dominican rap sharing the same space as her, but he was interested in sharing words.

“He told me ‘I want to congratulate you for everything you’re accomplishing,” she recalls in an interview. Though receiving such a blessing may be labeled as the highest compliment in the urbano scene, for La Delfi it represented something much greater. El Lapiz was the first urbano artist (aside from her music collaborator, Jhon Distrito) to express warm approval early in her career. As the first openly gay urbano artist in the Dominican Republic, this gesture symbolized a notion of solidarity that was absent in Dominican society.

Bursting onto the scene with her feature on Jhon Distrito’s “Dame Leche,” she quickly rose to stardom for her unapologetic drag attire. As a fearless style icon, she wore makeup around her heterosexual peers and overlooked societal standards. “La Delfi created visibility for the LGBTQ community, crossdressing in her case, and for Trans women,” TRANSSA executive manager Chris King tells Remezcla. King and the organization work to unify and improve the Transgender, Transexual and crossdressing community in the Dominican Republic. “La Delfi [crossdresses] as an artistic expression… and that success opened the door for the trans community in a masculine space,” she says.

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
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It’s undeniable that much of Latinx culture is synonymous with toxic masculinity and sexual norms are regularly reinforced in our music, media as well as religious culture. A product of colonialism, the elimination of indigenous and African male sexuality and the rape of women, machismo is the lethal generational clap-back that has consistently harmed women and gay men. Urbano masculinity demonstrates the “tough and gritty” that is often associated with D.R’s el bajo mundo, or lower class, paired with the braggadocious attitude often highlighting male sexual culture — proving their manliness by expressing their sexual desires and dominance of the opposite sex.

In the ’90s just as Jamaica became the center of Carribean music, so did many of the ideologies rooted in fear and aggression towards the LGBTQ community. The founding riddim for subgenres like reggaeton and Dominican dembow spawned from Shabba Ranks’s 1991 “Dem Bow,” the Bobby Digital-produced track highlighted Shabba’s political views on imperialism, colonialism and homosexuality. The title, which means “They Bow,” compared gay sex acts with bowing down to the man.

Panamanian artist of Jamaican descent translated the lyrics as a way of embracing their roots in a time their community was discriminated against, eventually “Dem Bow” became El General’s “Son Bow” and Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia” and the word “bow” became a derogatory term for gay men and the anti-gay sentiments transcended to Latin American airwaves. A year later Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye” created much controversy for supporting criminal acts against gay men. Shabba was asked about his thoughts on the song when he appeared on an interview for the music show The Word and expressed that gay men “deserved crucifixion,” stating that the Bible advocated the death of homosexuals.

Art by Stephany Torres For Remezcla
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Considering the original context in dembow’s roots and the machista culture, La Delfi reclaimed a space meant to ostracize and reject the LGBTQ+ community, making her artistic career significant in what is Dominican dembow’s evolution. The impact was more than social, however, La Delfi’s mixture of drag performance, flamboyance, and Dominican phrases inspired a “gay flow” or gimmick in dembow. “It was the first time the combination was done in urbano. And I’m happy because my peers are using that same style,” she said in an interview in 2017, the same year Liro Shaq and Crazy Design dropped “Tembeleke,” a track that conveyed the style. Most recently the Brazilian-funk infused dembow “Solteroski” by Ariel Fortuna,Yeral and Leyenda Barrial Boy’z garnered over 30 million views with this same “flow.”

The “gay flow” is often interpreted as a mock by many in the community. In the Dominican Republic, those who exist along the gender spectrum have little to no protection against gender-based crimes. According to King and the TRANSSA archives, there have been over 48 crimes committed against trans sex-workers since 2006. “The biggest problem that affects the Dominican trans community is the need of access… the need to access education without discrimination,” she says. Many trans women turn to sex-work due to the lack of educational and professional opportunities and often battle violent and discriminative situations. “Sadly our education system does not consider diverse sexual education and nor does it have a perspective that recognizes different gender identities which results in the trans community having to confront a system that is machista and extremely influenced by the Catholic religion,” says King. The country’s elitism also plays a huge factor, though La Delfi was embraced in the urbano community, the artist did face discrimination by two media platforms that passed on conducting interviews because of the singer’s sexual preference.

When one thinks of queerness in Dominican dembow, La Delfi’s contributions will forever be recognized. After a few years on hiatus, La Delfi made an epic comeback in 2018 alongside La Materialista for the “Dame Leche/Cocoro Remix” and along Jhon Distrito for “Que Rico Todo.”

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Since La Delfi’s rise many others have found opportunities on social media and the music industry. Stars like La Shakatah Asota and La Kisty Rodriguez gradually pivoted to music since gaining an immense following on Instagram – dropping songs like La Kisty’s “Soy Mala” and what’s praised as the carnival song of the moment, “Tu Mario” featuring Joseibol.

The representation is starting to exist, but there’s more work to be done. The community would benefit from artists being at the forefront of social change and conversations. King believes that now more than ever influencers should be more vocal about the discriminations that gay men and trans women go through.“Sadly, the biggest stars of the community in the Dominican Republic do not use their popularity 100 percent to highlight this problem,” she says. The country’s conservatism plays an integral part in silencing queer artists. Allyship within the urbano community is extremely necessary to uplift the new generation of queer artists.

La Delfi was able to navigate many spaces because of the rappers and dembowseros that stood in solidarity with her. Today, building trust and a relationship between national artists and the LGBTQ+ community in the Dominican Republic should be prioritized as the next step. With support, queer artists can develop more conscious-focused messaging on their platforms to raise awareness of the discriminations and crimes that affect the community.