Catching up with Riobamba, the Brooklyn artist straddling music and tangible activism
The Ecuadorian-Lithuanian DJ, producer, and label boss stays busy.
Riobamba has made her name as a DJ and producer making space for chart-topping reggaeton to mingle with underground music urbana from across the Latin diaspora. Her mixes are exalting, joyous, sexy, and often reflect the Ecuadorian part of her heritage. Thirty seconds in and the music can transform any space into a perreo, which is especially important considering her belief that “music and community [are] inseparable things.”
She has taken that ethos and run with it –– even in spaces that weren’t interested in reggaeton just a few years ago. Beats and styles that Riobamba and her contemporaries have been spinning for years are now topping U.S. charts and more. And for the most part, that’s a good, exciting thing. But it raises new questions, too: Which voices, which faces, which stories are going to reach new ears for the first time? Who will profit and who will be further pushed to the side? Riobamba thinks about these ideas constantly. In her work behind the DJ booth and beyond it, she does not separate the cultural from the political.
As Riobamba was preparing to record the latest installment of her monthly Red Bull Radio show with Uproot Andy, Bien Buena, we chatted about her music, the record label she founded, and the relationship between art and politics.
You're the founder of Apocalipsis, a record label that works to promote music from artists that may not always get prioritized in other spaces. Could you speak a little bit more about the work you're doing there?
Apocalipsis is my baby. And it started out of a desire to have a much broader scope of representation for Latinx folk in the media and in music culture. I developed the confidence to do that after the past couple of years of working with Fania Records, which is a really historic and legendary label for Latin music. I was doing A&R and marketing for them and I wanted to transfer those skills to bringing up other artists and to create spaces for more voices in the industry. We're seeing this renaissance in Latinx music but there's really only limited and specific representations of Latinidad in the media and, not coincidentally, it's male and it’s light-skinned and it's very U.S.-centric in terms of marketing. I want to decentralize that.
The first release it's going to be an artist, amaF alaM, who's based in Ecuador who's indigenous from there from the Quechua community. And he does these really amazing ambient remixes of music that he grew up with and field recorded at home.The second release is from Kelman Duran, who's based in L.A. and is part of the Rail Up Collective for Afro-Latinx artists there. He is Dominican and grew up in the Heights in New York but does a lot of dembow remixes of things that he grew up with as well.
Your radio show, Bien Buena, is a platform to amplify and further showcase artists and issues that you care about.
The concept for the show is very much focused on electronic Latin music, but in a way that isn't making a delineation between mainstream and underground. Historically, for reggaeton or for dembow, there's been this coded way of speaking about it in a racist way. In Latin media, instead of talking about race specifically, it's about classist issues, like, “Oh, this is music for, from the barrio.” So I've always played that music because it's like, Why isn't this getting the same recognition and appreciation? I wanted to disrupt that. As things have changed around [reggaeton in] the mass market, I think it's important to make those connections and be celebrating the feedback wheel that's happening right now between the underground and the mainstream. They're not so separate anymore.
Do you think your music connects to the larger issues that are happening around us?
Music and music culture never happens in a vacuum. There's always a context around it and there's politics around it. Music and communities for me are really inseparable in the same way that music and politics are inseparable. I can't imagine working in Latinx music right now and not speaking about immigration issues. It's not a time for “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric. It's time for action. If there's anything I can do, I try to do it. On [Bien Buena] I [sometimes] do an intro for a couple minutes recapping everything that’s happening, sharing organizations that are doing activist work for immigrant defense on the frontlines, organizing benefits.
How did you end up working with kids at a juvenile detention center in Brooklyn? What was that work like?
I was contracted through the Center for Community Services, which does different kinds of arts programing and entrepreneurial training for youth that are incarcerated. The inspiration for doing that was not only to share music and music technology skills as a pathway to employment, self-employment, and entrepreneurship but also to have an outlet for the kids that are in there to have a meditative space, a place where they can express [themselves] and have an artistic outlet. I think I came into it naive, in terms of the complexity and the vastness of the prison industrial complex. I was there for about two years, and after [that experience] I'm more interested in organizing around prison abolition than the kind of intermediary things.
You often talk about creating and making and taking space, and what that means. How has it been to see something you know you've always been loyal to become more accepted and more desired? What do you do when you're navigating spaces that were previously closed off to you that want to include you now?
It's a lot right now. With more opportunities, there are more people getting those opportunities. So there are more women, there are more trans folk involved, more gender-nonconforming folk involved, and that's great. But there's still a siphoning of resources to specific people. And so I try to just control what I accept in terms of what things I feel comfortable with.
As Latin music continues to get bigger in the United States, what are your hopes and your fears?
I guess the fears come to mind first, just because of everything that's happening. It's not a pessimistic outlook, I guess it is a realistic way of looking at it. I would love to see more artists beyond Colombia and Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic really blow up. But because the U.S. is still a huge base of the industry, a lot of people from other countries can come here to tour or to do business — artist visa issues, work visa issues would have to change. I would love to see that happen. That's a hope and a change. I would love to see a broader spectrum, of course. Panama is putting out amazing music right now. I hope that [people who are successful] will use their platform to speak up for other people that are not as fortunate as them.
What other projects you have in the works? What are you excited about?
Since the work at the detention center ended in January I've been itching to do more community work and teaching. So I'm going to start in September. I'll be teaching a 12-week course that will be in conjunction with the Loisaida Center, which is a Puerto Rican-run space on the Lower East Side. It's a couple of different partnerships that the Abrons Arts Center and Sonic Arts for All are organizing between Brooklyn and Puerto Rico to bring audio equipment and workshops for music production and performance.