La Doña On 'Algo Nuevo,' Feminist Reggaeton And Teaching Mariachi In Schools

Mar 15, 2020
Originally published on March 15, 2020 9:39 am

Cecilia Cassandra Peña-Govea is a product of her upbringing. She writes and records music under the name La Doña, and her signature mix of Latin rhythms and San Francisco hip-hop is a tribute to the community she grew up in. Her new EP is called Algo Nuevo, or "Something New."

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke to La Doña about her musical and cultural upbringing — which included performing in her family's mariachi band at age 7, teaching traditional Mexican and Latin American music at an after-school program in San Francisco and the importance of creating reggaeton from a feminist perspective. Listen in the player above and read on for highlights of the interview.

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Interview Highlights

On the diversity of San Francisco's Latinx community and its impact on her music

Growing up, my father played in a salsa band and it boasted members from Nicaragua, from Puerto Rico, from Mexico. That kind of represents to me what the Latinx community in San Francisco looks like. It's not just super Chicano-based and all about Mexico. There's such a diversity within the Latino community that you don't necessarily see in the rest of California. I think that overwhelming mezcla or such a richness of influences shaped me and definitely shaped my musical practice. And you can see that through the music I do as La Doña.

On teaching mariachi as part of a program in San Francisco public schools

For me, it's really special and important because while I did grow up playing mariachi and playing ranchera, it was never really presented or prioritized in school. In San Francisco, we had a lot of cancellations of entire music programs. Definitely, we didn't have mariachi, definitely we didn't have any types of Latin music. [The program] makes kids feel more included by providing culturally relevant arts education. It kind of decentralizes this super European, western, Eurocentric music practice, which is all we really have access to. We're playing etudes and sonatas and really not ever seeing any worth given to the folk traditions that a lot of us hold.

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I think it's so important to have a healthy, diverse city and youth community. To have an understanding of different cultures is super integral to that health. It makes me so happy. It brings me to tears to see my Cambodian or Thai or Black students singing at the top of their lungs these songs that are derived from super indigenous Mexican and Latin American traditions.

On "femmeton," the term she coined to describe her feminist reggaeton

It's reggaeton, but recentering around a feminist perspective and a feminist experience. I think that this is important because reggaeton, and a lot of popular music that we see across genres, are really centered along a male perspective. And this tends to deliver a lot of misogynistic and chauvinistic and unhealthy messages to quite a young and huge audience.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NADA ME PERTENECE")

LA DONA: (Rapping in Spanish).

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Cecilia Cassandra Peña-Govea is La Doña.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NADA ME PERTENECE")

LA DONA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: La Doña's mix of Latin rhythms and San Francisco hip-hop is a tribute to the community she grew up in. She shares this with the world in a new EP called "Algo Nuevo," or something new.

La Doña, welcome to the program.

LA DONA: Thank you for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's great to have you. You come from a musical family. And I understand that early on, you would tour with them playing the trumpet. Did those moments shape you as a musician?

LA DONA: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the whole experience was really just my introduction to music. And so being a working musician at the age of 7 is a pretty...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

LA DONA: ...Intense role, especially when you're doing it with your family. I learned to be a responsible working professional at such a young age.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. At 7, if you had to show up on time and perform, I mean, I imagine that...

LA DONA: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...That gave you a work ethic.

LA DONA: It certainly did.

(SOUNDBITE OF LA DONA SONG, "DEMBOW Y SEXO")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How has that sort of influenced your music, you know, the Latino community in which you grew up and the music that you listened to when you were growing up?

LA DONA: Yeah. I mean, it's been super impactful. And it's been a huge influence because, while I do play a lot of different types of Mexican music, I also have studied and performed across genres. Growing up, my father played in a salsa band. He had a salsa band called Los Compas (ph). And it boasted members from Nicaragua, from Puerto Rico, from Mexico, people from all different types of backgrounds.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You on the trumpet, apparently.

LA DONA: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

LA DONA: Yeah. And that overwhelming mezcla or just such a richness of influences shaped me and definitely shaped my musical practice. And you can see that, especially through the music I do as La Doña. I mean, it's based on reggaeton, which is using beats coming from Jamaica and the dancehall.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But you call it...

LA DONA: Femmeton.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Define femmeton for us.

LA DONA: It's reggaeton but kind of recentering around a feminist perspective and a feminist experience. And I think that this is important because reggaeton and a lot of popular music that we see, you know, across genres are really centered along a male perspective. And this tends to kind of deliver a lot of misogynistic and chauvinistic and unhealthy messages to quite a young and huge audience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, your songs flip the script on traditional gender roles. Let's take, for example, the song "Algo Nuevo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALGO NUEVO")

LA DONA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

LA DONA: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us about those lyrics.

LA DONA: This song is, like, definitely how I came out to my family and everyone. I was like, oh, come to my single release. We're doing a music video. And everyone showed up ready to party. And then it was definitely about me being, like, bi and about wanting to leave my boyfriend and, like, find a female partner. And everyone's like, woo, cool, that's so great. So I was happy about the reception of that. But yeah, I mean, it's definitely talking about being stuck in a conventional, monogamous, straight relationship and feeling like, nah, this ain't for me. This is not it anymore. Like, I need to find something else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's bold. You came out just like, come see my music video. And then you're like, this is your coming out party. That's amazing.

LA DONA: (Laughter) Yeah, pretty much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALGO NUEVO")

LA DONA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Obviously, as you mentioned, San Francisco, where you're from, is a real - a really big part of your music and it grounds it. Let's take a listen to "Cuando Se Van."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUANDO SE VAN")

LA DONA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is saying, "I dream of earthquakes. The city is for us. I dream of shaking and they leave." Who's this for?

LA DONA: (Laughter) These lyrics are based on conversations that I've had with a lot of other Frisco natives about, like, when is this tech bubble or when is this industry going to leave us? You know, like, we're holding on. We're trying to do our community work and raise our kids out here, but it's near impossible. And we always ask like, when is it going to end? What does it look like?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another song that gets into some of these issues is "Quien Me La Paga." And it's about housing. Literally, who's going to pay the rent?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIEN ME LA PAGA")

LA DONA: (Singing in Spanish).

You know, that is a huge issue for us here, cost of living and overall housing prices. You know, if you don't have a job out here within the tech industry, it's, like, almost impossible to not work three jobs and not be receiving assistance or help from somebody to pay all of these (speaking Spanish). So yeah. I mean, it's the question every month - how are we going to pay the rent?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were set to play South by Southwest, right?

LA DONA: Mmm hmm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's been canceled, of course, due to concerns over the coronavirus. I mean, I think it has been a really big blow to musicians at this moment to see, you know, all these cancellations, which are done for real and important reasons. But it obviously affects people's careers. What are your thoughts?

LA DONA: I vacillate between being like, see, that's why we need music and also being like, oh, my God - this is, like, the worst time to be an artist. And yeah, it's been really disappointing for me. I feel like, South By was going be a really good opportunity for me to just share and just get to work. My favorite part about being a musical artist is just playing and being onstage and offering my gifts to people.

I mean, it's affecting all industries, you know, across the board but especially entertainment, especially music. I feel really worried about all of my (speaking Spanish) and all of my homies that all their gigs are getting canceled and all the shows are getting shut down. And I think that the concerns are completely valid. It's just like, how are we going to shut down everything? And how are we going to bounce back from this? But just as, after any type of huge economic blow, you see a huge upsurgence of the arts. And so I anticipate that, and I look forward to being a part of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's La Doña. Her new EP is "Algo Nuevo," and it is out now. Thank you so much.

LA DONA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LE LO LAI")

LA DONA: (Singing in Spanish). * Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.