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Tokischa, Latin music’s newest rebel, isn’t holding back

  • Isabelia Herrera, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-04-14 11:30:40 BdST

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Tokischa in New York, March 28, 2022. The gleefully raunchy Dominican rapper, who’s collaborated with J Balvin and Rosalía, has been hailed as an iconoclast — her own goal is simple: speaking her truth. (Josefina Santos/The New York Times)

On a mid-March evening here in the capital, a crowd of hundreds of festivalgoers wearing fairy wings, rhinestones and rainbow face paint began to chant. “Po-po-la!” they shouted, deploying the local slang for vagina. The scene resembled the summoning of a cult leader, and Dominican firebrand Tokischa, a rapper known for her prurient lyrics and high-profile collaborations, emerged onstage.

For the next hour, the 26-year-old performer rapped about her bisexuality, carnal pleasures and doing drugs, all over speaker-frying dembow and trap beats. It was raining at the Isle of Light festival that night, the kind of Caribbean deluge that arrives in a flash. “I want to get wet with you guys!” she shrieked, walking out from under the stage awning and into the crowd. She unbuttoned her periwinkle blouse, revealing a hot-pink conical satin bra underneath, and the audience squealed.

The ground, once covered in grass, was now an obstacle course of mud puddles. No one seemed to care. Fans belted every word, their voices audibly hoarse. One woman climbed a metal fence, twerking above the crowd. When her set ended, Tokischa, beaming, pulled her panties off from under her miniskirt and tossed them to a woman in the audience.

Consider this a minor example of the provocation that defines Tokischa Altagracia Peralta. Her audacious lyrics, which revel in the linguistic rebellion of Dominican slang and embrace the euphoria of sex, are mostly unprintable. In “Tukuntazo,” she brags about sleeping with other women alongside her man. In her anthem “Yo No Me Voy Acostar,” she proclaims, “I’ve got a bunch of molly in my head/I have a girlfriend who kisses me.”

Tokischa collects scandals like vacation souvenirs. Last year, she was forced to pay a municipal fine and issue a public apology after she posted risqué photos in front of a mural of the Virgin of Altagracia, the patron saint of the Dominican Republic. In the fall, she showed up to an awards show in a full-size vagina costume, dressed as a character she called “Santa Popola.” In a now deleted op-ed, a columnist for the Dominican newspaper La Información claimed her explicit lyrics “disrespect people who fight to conserve family values.”

But there is also an entire generation of young Dominicans who see themselves in Tokischa’s gleeful refusal of respectability. To them, she is a sex-positive queer rebel, the kind of cultural figure whose performances gesture toward liberation from oppressive, retrograde politics.

On a tucked-away street off the Malecón, the seafront esplanade that lines the coast of Santo Domingo, Tokischa reflected on her irreverent reputation. It was a few days before the festival, and the rapper had just arrived at the offices of Paulus Music, the label and creative team behind her videos. She wore olive green joggers and a matching T-shirt with a familiar, eternally memed image: the GIF of Homer Simpson retreating into a bush.

“They say a lot of things about me,” she said. “ ‘Oh, she’s not an artist, she’s crazy, she’s a drug addict,’ ” she continued. “It doesn’t offend me, because I’m sure of who I am. I know who Tokischa is. I know what Tokischa’s doing.”

Tokischa Altagracia Peralta was born in Los Frailes, a working-class neighbourhood in Santo Domingo Este, but had an itinerant youth. Her parents separated, and she lived with her mother until she was 3 years old. When her mother relocated to the United States, Tokischa moved around often, living with aunts, godparents or other relatives. Her father was incarcerated when she was young.

Tokischa is the first to admit that she was rowdy in school. “I would fight. They’d find me making out — someone always found me making out!” she said with a laugh. She talked back to her teachers and was expelled from schools — and was often punished physically, she added.

“Aside from that, I was always creative,” she recalled. “I’d draw, I’d write. I’d lock myself in my room and act in front of the mirror.” She grew up surrounded by Dominican genres like merengue, dembow and bachata, but when she was around 14, she discovered a whole new musical universe online: Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna.

“I lived dreaming up my life, imagining what I’d become,” she said. “I didn’t know in what field, but I did know I was going to be a big artist.”

When she turned 18, a friend introduced her to Craigslist, and she said she became a sugar baby, receiving gifts from older, wealthy American sex tourists. One bought her Fenty Pumas, her first pair of sneakers. “This one guy had photos of himself on a camel,” she said impishly. “I was like, ‘He’s got money!’ ”

Even though she’s playful as she talks about it, Tokischa didn’t like the work, especially when clients crossed the lines of consent. She transitioned to OnlyFans, the subscription-based platform where people can charge for access to photos and videos, and eventually started modelling and incorporating herself into the creative community in Santo Domingo. She learned how to write and record music after meeting producers in the scene through her manager, Raymi Paulus. She swiftly cultivated her vocal style, now her central weapon: an unmistakable, high-pitched, coy moan that oozes sex and allows her devilish, sensual raps to land with precision.

Her first official single was “Pícala,” a trap song featuring Tivi Gunz that dropped in 2018. Then came a torrent of equally racy dembow singles: “Desacato Escolar,” with Yomel El Meloso; “El Rey de la Popola,” with Rochy RD; and last year’s “Yo No Me Voy Acostar,” among many others.

The major labels soon came running: Last summer, she released “Perra” with Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin. Then came “Linda,” and more recently “La Combi Versace,” both with Spanish experimentalist Rosalía. In March, she completed her first US tour, selling out Terminal 5 in New York in 30 minutes. She has a single with EDM producer Marshmello arriving at the end of the month, and plans to record a full album over the next two years.

“She’s different than people imagine. She’s very professional, very disciplined,” said LeoRD, the superstar dembow producer who’s collaborated with Tokischa on several tracks. In a phone call, he said that her climb has been unprecedented in the world of dembow. “In so little time, with just a few songs, I’ve seen her evolution go from zero to 100.”

Tokischa’s rapid rise has been divisive. For some, she is a sexual deviant endangering children, or a victim of neglect and difficult circumstances. To others, she’s a self-objectifying woman who’s just satisfying male fantasies. And to still others, she is a fearless feminist whose insurgent spirit is breaking ground. Last summer, she performed in Santo Domingo at the Dominican Pride parade, and featured trans women as extras and dancers in the video for “Linda,” which drew praise from across the LGBTQ community. The beauty blog Byrdie wrote that she’s “actively moving the needle away from the male gaze and towards female liberation,” and doing so in a Latin music industry that often favours white artists.

It hasn’t all been rosy, though. Last fall, feminist activists and Colombia’s vice president condemned the portrayal of Black women in Tokischa and J Balvin’s video for “Perra,” in which Black women wear prosthetics that depict them as dogs, and Balvin, a white Colombian, walks one actress, who is on all fours with a chain around her neck.

After the video was removed from YouTube, Balvin issued an apology. Tokischa later told Rolling Stone that she was “truly sorry people felt offended,” but that the visual was conceptual, intended to illustrate the song’s metaphors. “We were in the Dominican Republic; over there, we’re all Black,” she said of the backlash in a December podcast interview. “It wasn’t like we went to Africa or the United States to find those women.” Unsurprisingly, the comment drew criticism from some fans on Twitter for dismissing valid concerns about the animalistic depiction of Black women.

The reaction illustrated how fans increasingly demand progressivism from pop stars, especially disrupters like Tokischa. “Since the first day I started making music, I said, ‘I’m going to speak my truth,’” she said. In a radio interview last year, she made the point a different way: “I only talk about me, my life,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m responsible for fixing society.”

Tokischa is still an agitator, and a necessary one. “Not being afraid to express my sexuality, my way of thinking — it’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who are scared to say who they are, because they’re kicked out of their houses, they’re fired from their jobs, they lose friends. But you’re not bad — you’re doing what your heart is telling you.”

“I have a lot of other messages to offer,” she continued. “But now is the moment for this message, and I’m loving it.”

 

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