Ceci Bastida is not an activist, despite the label that critics try to pin on her, but she does believe artists can’t be isolated from the act of creating music without social consciousness. Bastida recently completed a tour of California with the Schools Not Prisons initiative, a program that advocates for increased funding to educational institutions rather than correctional facilities. And in November she released Sueño, a perceptively uptempo six-track EP with assists from Aloe Blacc, Mariel Mariel, Spoek Mathambo, and Mexrrissey, the Spanish-language Morrissey cover band comprised of herself and a supergroup of Mexican indie musicians.
The Tijuana-born singer-songwriter has lived in the U.S. for 11 years, and was inspired to write “Un Sueño,” the project’s debut single, after 43 students went missing in Mexico in 2014. (The students remain unaccounted for.) Her fervent harmonies compel listeners to exist and resist against the repressive realities of the current political moment. Bastida provides an alternative to the present — be it Mexico’s scandal-ridden government or Donald Trump’s one-sided law-and-order rhetoric— and Sueño delivers a potent message on its final track, “No Nos Pararán,” which translates to: they won’t stop us.
Bastida is working on a second full-length album and a planned 2017 tour with Mexrrissey. She recently spoke with The FADER about Sueño, the importance of social activism, and why investing in marginalized youth is vital to building a better world.
The debut single, “Un Sueño,” is dedicated to the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Mexico. It’s been more than two years now, and the families of the students have yet to receive answers about their missing relatives.
More than anything, at this point, the families of the students who disappeared need answers and I can’t imagine a harder thing to deal with than not knowing what happened to your kids. If you know that they died, it’s horrible, but at least you know what happened. When you don’t have answers, I can’t imagine what a nightmare that must be. The song was inspired by them, but it’s really a situation that Mexico’s been dealing with for a long time — not just the 43, there’s thousands — and it was dedicated to them and to their families because the families have stayed super strong and demanded answers. They haven’t backed down. When the government offered them money, they said “No” and kept demanding answers, so it’s dedicated to them and their strength and their persistence in wanting something different.
You have a collaboration with Mexican Institute of Sound on this EP. You are also in Mexrrissey, a Spanish Morrissey cover band, with Camilo Lara, of M.I.S. Has being in Mexrrissey influenced your sound and where you wanted to go with Sueño?
I had been working on a lot of the songs before I started working on the Mexrrissey record. The collaboration that I have with Camilo was the last one I worked on for this album and, even though I’ve known him for many years, it was definitely because of working with Mexrrissey. I think what happened with this band is that I rediscovered all these artists and how talented they are, and it inspired me to think about working on more songs with some of them. I talked to Chetes, for example, about writing and getting together. Musically, his music is so different from what I do. But it just kind of opened my mind up a little bit to experiment and see how other people work. I tend to work by myself so much, and I’m so used to it, that sometimes I feel that it’s a good idea to take a little bit of a risk and just get together with someone who I would have probably never worked with if it weren’t for this experience that we have together with the band. I’m just curious as to what will happen if I can connect with other people and see what results.
How would you describe the sound you are going for on this record?
I was just experimenting and not limiting myself, and not thinking that the whole EP had to have a very specific sound. I work a lot with Alex Epton, who’s a producer that I’ve collaborated with on my two previous records. He’s based out of New York, and he’s worked with a lot of hip-hop artists and a lot of electronic stuff. I just wanted to try a track with him, which is the one with Aloe Blacc. It’s a little more dance-y than I would normally do, but I wanted to try something different and sing differently, so it’s more about allowing myself to just do whatever felt right and not judge the music before I work on it. With Mathambo, it’s kind of his track in a way, he worked on the music and I edited it a little bit. I mean, not edited, but I put it together in a way that I could sing on top of it and worked on the lyrics and the melody and he produced it. It’s a sound that I wouldn’t have achieved if it weren’t for him. I just wanted to take advantage of working with these people that I admired and not worry about what that would end up sounding like.
“You connect with songs because they’re either honest or true to the artist. The idea of being fake is not something that I want to be.”
Some of the songs are taken from your last album, such as “Cuervo” and “Vas a Verme.” What was the reasoning behind that decision?
I wanted to include “Vas a Verme” because I had a guest on it, a Chilean rapper, and I wanted to release a different version of that song; I wasn’t able to on the first album. We decided to keep “Cuervo” because musically it’s very different from the rest, but “Vas a Verme” has a guest. The rest of them, at least most of them, have different guests, so it ended up being an EP that was very much about collaboration. It was a way for me to take a breath a little bit away from the last album, which was so focused on the violence. It was so specific in a way and I wanted to try working with other people and experimenting a little bit, so it was a break from that, and also a way of putting out these songs that I like that I was working on with some people.
On your last album, La Edad de Violencia, you had an English cover of Cody Chestnutt’s “Look Good In Leather.” Most of your songs are sung in Spanish. Do you ever feel pressure to do more songs in English? I’m curious if that’s something that goes through your mind when you’re working on your music.
I don’t worry about it, maybe because I’ve been living in this country for 11 years. Most of my days I speak English, but for some reason I express myself better in Spanish, my first language, and when I write, I write mainly in Spanish. I’m used to mixing the languages a bit, you know, because I’m from the border and that’s kind of what you do. But doing a full song in English hasn’t come out of me naturally, and I don’t want to force that. I don’t want to do something in English because it might bring me more “success” or crossover appeal. I don’t want to do things for that reason. People have mentioned it to me. People ask me that question all the time, like record labels ask me: “Would you do this song in English?”
I don’t say that I would never do it but I’m not going to do it because somebody asks me to. If I do it, I will do it because it feels OK to me. If it feels natural and organic, otherwise I’m singing in Spanish. You might have a bigger audience and you might reach more people. I get it. I’m not offended; I understand, but I know, then, at that moment, they probably don’t understand what I do.
I want people to connect with the music. I think that’s everybody’s hope, but I think that when you do things for the wrong reasons, people notice, and I can’t imagine somebody connecting with a song that I write when my reasoning for writing it is to get some sort of success. You connect with songs because they’re either honest or true to the artist. The idea of being fake is not something that I want to be.
You performed with the Schools Not Prisons tour recently. What led you to join the initiative?
It’s a super important thing. When the people who were organizing it approached me and explained what they wanted to do, I wanted to be a part of it because I believe that we should invest in the youth. As cheesy as it might sound, that’s the only way we can change our world.
The truth is that the kids that are punished the most that are in detention or expelled are mainly kids of color. A lot of these kids are unable to come back to school and then everything goes wrong — you feel like people are not investing in you, people are not protecting you. They’re not given any sort of opportunities, so how does anybody expect these kids to go on the right path? School is vital. I noticed it as I was looking for schools for my daughter; finding good schools is a hard thing. If you live in a certain area where schools are terrible and they don’t have financial support to give the arts or books or anything like that, then you know it’s going to be difficult. It’s really hard to be able to come out of that system and beat the odds, when everything seems to be against you. I think it’s an incredible thing [Schools Not Prisons] is doing, and I definitely wanted to be a part of it. I met people who are incredible who do work with different prisons and people who help people that are in the prisons come out and feel supported.
You get put in this category of a “musician activist” and I’m curious how you feel about that label. Is that something you’re really proud of, or do you not put too much weight on labels?
I never describe myself as that ever because I don’t do that much. I do talk about issues and try to get involved with different things. I’m very focused on social justice issues, such as immigration, but as soon as I meet people that are actually working on these issues everyday, I know that what I do is minimal. I just have conversations about these things, and I try to participate as much as I can with performing or talking a little bit, but they’re the people that are actually doing the work. I’m just lucky enough to be able to be part of it. I think of myself more as a musician, a performer, but these issues are super important to me and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I don’t think I would ever describe myself as an activist. I feel like that’s a very strong label that I’m not sure I deserve necessarily.