At a time when the political utility of the Afro-Latino label is as urgent as ever, it’s easy to forget that the journey to embrace that identity isn’t always immediate. Before recording her sophomore album Black Terry Cat (ANTI- Records), Boricua-Cuban artist Xenia Rubinos did not identify as Afro-Latina. So when she embarked on the recording process this time around, Rubinos envisioned the album as a vehicle to explore her brownness and blackness, to rediscover her place in the African diaspora.
That’s why hip-hop is Black Terry Cat’s lifeblood. “I was listening to a lot of hip-hop at the time. It was a new exploration for me, getting into Slum Village and KRS-One, as well as going back to Erykah Badu, which was starting to become my daily diet,” she explains. Rubinos lays those influences bare on Black Terry Cat; the record vibrates with clanging percussive interludes, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and deep pocket backbeats. It’s a clattering, experimental triumph that leaps from thick funk basslines to spooky horn sections and then to broken-down hip-hop beats, like a kid playing with Legos. Above it all, Rubinos’ warm, smoky voice flutters about, revealing a vocal dexterity and a slew of alter egos the listener is constantly trying to catch up with.
Rubinos thanks Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for reminding her to use her voice as an instrument. But the journey to authenticity in those different vocal characters wasn’t necessarily intuitive. “I was listening to Chaka Khan and Rufus’ ‘Tell Me Something Good.’ I was channeling her a lot on my first vocal takes as I was writing ‘Lonely Lover.’ I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really trying to emulate the sound of all these women who I admire, but what I really want to do is challenge myself to find what I sound like and who I am.’”
And on Black Terry Cat, she does. Take “Mexican Chef,” a ruthless critique of the oft-undervalued labor brown people perform every day in this country. In Xenia’s world, something that political becomes joyful and snappy, like a punk playground rhyme. “French bistro, Dominican chef/Italian restaurant, Boricua chef/Chinese takeout, Mexican chef,” she spits, locking and loading the sniper. “Brown walks your baby/Brown walks your dog/Brown raised America.” She aims. “Brown cleans the house/Brown takes the trash/Brown even wipes your granddaddy’s ass.” Critical hit.
“What I really want to do is challenge myself to find what I sound like and who I am.”
There’s also the prismatic brilliance of “I Won’t Say,” inspired by Abbey Lincoln’s 1966 essay “Who Will Revere the Black Woman?” Over deceptively innocent twinkles, Xenia condemns oppressive and Eurocentric beauty standards. “She talks about the black woman being mistreated, undervalued, about her nose being too big, her mouth being too loud, her hips being too wide, about not being this vision of ladylike gracefulness,” explains Rubinos. “I paraphrased that and called the song ‘I Won’t Say’ because I was feeling that way about the same shit,” she laughs. It’s a fitting title, and captures the passionate – but perceptive – mood of the record as a whole. Rather than being an activist’s call to arms, Black Terry Cat is about uncovering the way white supremacy infiltrates our personal lives, and finding the weapons to fight it.
Xenia Rubinos creates a space that’s musically rich, artistically flexible, and captures the fullness of her identities. It’s a tall order, but she’s started to carve out her own corner of the music industry. “I don’t know if I’m really trying to start a movement myself. I was just making my music and trying to do something new.”
For her, making that intervention as a Latina is paramount. We talk about the homegrown musical movements that Latinos have helmed in the U.S., but according to her, none matches the versatility and depth of hip-hop. “That I know of, there isn’t one for a first-generation Latino or Afro-Latinos. I just don’t feel [that] there’s this movement of cultural revolution that is akin to hip-hop or jazz, which are truly American art forms [that] originated here,” she sighs.
It’s not just the cultural movement that’s missing; it’s a comprehensive vocabulary to talk about Latino music and musicians, too. In the past, journalists have carelessly misidentified her music as “Latin.” “There has to be a way to talk about all these things and celebrate where we are from. I’m proud from where I’m from, but I don’t feel like I’m trying to preserve my music…I think that my culture plays into that because it’s part of who I am, but I also don’t think it’s the totality of my work.”
Magic Trix, her 2013 debut, played with Spanish-language lyrics, but musically, the album falls far outside of that commercial category. Black Terry Cat features no Spanish-language songs at all. By characterizing her rhythms as “Latin,” music critics aren’t just perpetuating myths about the Latino experience; they risk essentializing it too. Xenia doesn’t have to shake maracas, play the güira, or sing in Spanish to be any less Latina. To impose inaccurate and anachronistic language onto her music doesn’t just do a disservice to her artwork, it actually presumes that there is an acceptable (and narrow) Latino experience in the first place.
So Rubinos is calling for an industry-wide upheaval. “I think it’s really important for all of us – people who are creating the art and people whose job it is to talk about the work – to come together and figure out new words to use,” Xenia continues. “I feel we have to keep talking about this on a larger scale so that we can move forward and uplift the work.”
“My culture is part of who I am, but I also don’t think it’s the totality of my work.”
That frustration with the existing lexicon is part of the reason Rubinos gave herself artistic license to let loose on Black Terry Cat. “On this album, I was challenging myself to not be afraid to just say what was on my mind, even if I didn’t know what was right or what was wrong, or if I knew everything about what I was saying. Just giving myself the space to talk about things for the first time.” That’s perhaps most evident on “See Them,” a work of free association that is her favorite song on the album. “It feels like a Choose Your Own Adventure piece that goes from section to section,” she explains. “The way I’m singing sound kinds of choppy, then next I sprinkle some brown girl magic vibes in there…it was really freeing. I feel it was very accurate to my original idea and that doesn’t always happen in recording.”
The free spirit of “See Them” translates to the rest of the album, producing a collection of 14 songs that aren’t necessarily meticulous, but breezily cohesive instead. On Black Terry Cat, Rubinos documents raw moments of personal and political liberation, and collapses them into a snapshot of her artistic potential. By the looks of it, that journey of rediscovery and personal growth has freed her creatively, too. “I used to hate going into a studio. It felt like going to the dentist, and now it feels like it’s the place where I want to be, where I can do anything.”
Black Terry Cat is out June 3 on ANTI- Records. Rubinos will play a record release show on Saturday, June 4 at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn.