Catesby Holmes Interviews Cantaora Estrella Morente and Rapper Mala Rodriguez (Translated from the Spanish)

Interview with Estrella Morente

You're a flamenco singer and you come from a flamenco world, but I would imagine your musical tastes are wide--what other genres do you listen to? "I grew up in a household that was open to absolutely any sensation that was capable of giving us goose bumps, and in my family there are lots of musicians, some like pop, some salsa, classical music, others like good jazz and soul, and others like French music or Mexican música ranchera. There are also the romantics and fans of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. So it's almost impossiblt not to be influenced and give in to your desire to play all kinds of music. Because of all this, I belong to all music--I am derived of music.

Who have you worked with? Who would you like to work with? I've been lucky, ever since I had use of reason, to have had access to all the wonderful people from the world of film, music, theater, art, and I've heard them talk, seen them produce an album or a play. And all that is because of the atmosphere of culture and openness that my father gave me, which involved bringing the whole house into each project that he did, like working with Pedro Almodovar, Leonard Cohen, Path Metheny, Chavela Vargas, Uta Lemper, Alejandro Sanz, Camarón de la Isla, Paco de Lucía...but I don't want to commit myself to anyone--I'd like for my work to be such that people want to collaborate with me without it being forced, just for the joy of it.

Who are the women that you most admire? My mother and my grandmothers. All the women fighters, workers--all the women who give themselves over totally to what they want to do, which tends to be older people and children--are reflected in them. To name a few poets, philosophers, singers, activists, politicians would be to leave out so many others, and I don't want to do that. It's not fair to anyone.

A recent study showed that in Spain today women disproportionately occupy traditionally "feminine" posts (like cleaning) where as their representation in prestigious fields (like corporate executives) is minimal. Do you think that you chose a career where gender equality was easier to achieve, or that you would have succeeded in any field? I'm aware of machismo, and I stand in solidarity with anyone who suffers in it, but it's also true that the men of my house (all artists) are sensitive people who respect the needs of the human being, and they made the women around them strong so they wouldn't depend on anyone; and they knew how to respect the feminine initiative-something we take very seriously. I don't intend to let anyone or anything, especially not machismo, subjugate us.

The album "Mujeres' is an homage to classic female singers of the 20th century--is it a feminist disc? Do you consider yourself a feminist? No, I'm not an extremist--I don't like being one. For me respect is a natural thing. In the same way that I don't agree with machismo, I don't agree with feminism.

Your father produced "Mujeres" and you've said before that he gave you "the liberty to be an artist." Do you think that without a father who was a cantaor--if your ambition had been something unusual in your household--you could have prospered in the flamenco world? No. Or, at least, I wouldn't be the same--maybe I'd need another life to try something different. I don't see myself any other way. My song is my strongest form of expression, the most serious way to communicate myself with others, and with my dad.

As a famous and celebrated cantaora, what's your relationship with the marginality of the gypsy community you come from? I live absolutely in contact with the sensation of those in need. It doesn't matter to me whether that person is Gypsy, indigenous, Spanish, African, or animal. I have the profound need to lend a hand and I'm always aware that the world needs more help. Racism against gypsies or people or color is becoming a small problem--the world needs water, there's a surplus of food in one place and a shortage in another, Antarctica is melting. I'm afraid. But I also have hope. We'll see what happens. The best thing is to try to help each other out as we can.

Some might consider you an inherently political figure, for your actions as a woman in flamenco, or as an Andalusian, a Gypsy, etc. Do you agree? Once I said to my father that I didn't like politics, that it was boring and depressing and disillusioning and that I didn't want anything to do with it, that I didn't want my life wrapped up in it at all. And he looked at me and said in that sweet, fatherly voice, that I was absolutely political because I always wanted to manifest my ideas, and raise my voice to be heard, and that what I didn't want to be was a partisan.

Obviously you, like so many Spanish musicians, are a product of Andalusia. Why do you think the south is so important in the history of Spanish music? I think the "southerners" have in common the idea of coming from "below", from the roots. Anything's possible--I know people from the north who are as deep as people from the south, but the concept of coming from below means that you can always rise. The most interesting thing is to understand and go grabbing all kinds of things to enrich yourself as you do--and to know how to travel from north to south to east to west without harming anyone.

What's it like being a working mother?
My children are the light of my life, and I love getting up every day to give them breakfast and get them dressed. When that maternal rhythm is interrupted by work travel, I feel it, and the desire to return to their arms and their innocence is superior to everything else. But I believe that we are all inspired (all mothers) by thinking that one day they will be proud to know that they had a mother who loved and cared for them-and worked, too.

Interview with Mala Rodríguez

Who are your influences?
Forgetting for a second about genre, I'm influenced by personalities with charisma, originality, style...Tina Turner, Lole Montoya, Hector Lavoe, Serrat, Bob Marley, Miles Davis, La Lupe, Roger and Zapp, James Brown, Rocío Jurado, Lauryn Hill, Notorious B.I.G., Michael Jackson...there are so many. The underground hip-hop scene continues to seem really interesting to me, above all in Latin America, and in Houston, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. I listen to a lot of soul, R&B, jazz. When I started out, gangster rap was really big--I remember listening a lot to Fifth Ward Boys.

Who would you like to work with in the future? Whoever inspires me, helps me to grow, to get out what I've got inside.

You've released three albums in 9 years, and between Alevosía and Malamarismo, 5 years passed. That's a pretty leisurely pace of work. Why? Are you working on a new album now?
That's just been my path. Music helps me keep going, it's always with me, it's my best friend, my soul mate. I don't write according to what some script suggests. Like so many women, I've had to ask myself whether I wanted a family or to continue with my career. And the thing is, if you want to succeed, it's clear you have to focus on one thing--but hey, I've focused on living. Being a mother has been for me my biggest accomplishment, and it's filled me with creativity and peace. Right now I have a clear concept of what my next project will be, and I feel really good!

You've called yourself a "manipulator" who has to control all her creative output. Do you think that's a negative characteristic--or a necessity for a woman in the music industry? [Laughs] I've got clear ideas, and I defend them--it's a positive characteristic when the goal is to get to know yourself. When you're just going along without a plan, it's fun--but there's a time when you have to become aware of your own path. How many female artists are managed by others in all aspects of their careers? Without underestimating the work of a great team in which you can delegate and with whom you can learn, I still think that I'm happiest when it's I who directs my boat and makes my own decisions.

When did you realize that hip-hop was the "perfect tool for communication" for you? Why do you think it spoke to you so much?
It's such a generous tool for communication! All you have to do is raise your voice and your thoughts, and your ideas get to everyone. Also, I was really interested in break dance and graffiti, and the songs of the rappers back in the day--it all spoke to me. I lived in super cool atmosphere--we were all like a big family. The competition and creativity floated in the air...

With a lot of rappers in the U.S., historically there's been such an emphasis on being "gangster" that folks will rap about selling drugs when they're actually middle class kids from the suburbs. Be honest--are you as hard as make yourself out to be?
My mom is a hairdresser, and she worked hard to give me a life. Every since I was little, her example showed me that in this life you've got to hustle--don't prostitute yourself when there are floors to be cleaned. You can't depend on anyone but yourself.

How strong are your Andalusian roots? Do you see yourself as a product and/or representative of Andalusia? Andalusia is a land of mixture, of really rich roots--all kinds of civilations have passed through there since the year 700 A.D. And they've all left their mark. It's beautiful and inspiring. Its people are open and happy. I feel profoundly Andalusian. My hip-hop has Andalusian flavor all over it, and it's the nuances and shades of Andalusia that have characterized me. But above all, I'm from everywhere--I'm a citizen of the universe [laughs].
How do you see yourself in relation to the Roma community? To flamenco? Gypsies have fed flamenco for so many years, and vice-versa. They are part of the cultural richness of Andalusia. For me flamenco is expression, too-it's feeling; it's critique; it's redemption. I feel connected to it by the respect for pure articulation that is born in the soul or anyone who dances, sings, or plays from a perspective of pain."

The music video for "La Nina" was censored in the U.S and Spain. But isn't it just a visual expression of the urban issues hip-hop often discusses: violence and drugs? Were you surprised by the reaction? On the way to school I used to see people smoking crack, passed out on the corner. That impression is really strong for a little girl. I wanted the video to reflect the impact of drugs on kids in society today--which is, sadly, really common. I found the reaction to the video curious, but also typically hypocritical.

A recent study showed that in Spain today women disproportionately occupy traditionally "feminine" posts (like cleaning) where as their representation in prestigious fields (like corporate executives) is minimal. Do you think that you chose a career where gender equality was easier to achieve, or that you would have succeeded in any field? When you feel the need to get something out that you've got inside, there is no other option.

Who are your idols? Are there women who inspired you to believe you could be whatever you wanted to be? My idols are people who fight, all of them. My mom, to begin with. Women have lived for so long subjected in a patriarchal society, it's only recently that are our names even began appearing in the history books! My heroes are people who provide an example for all of us: I think before men and women we're human beings.

Do you consider yourself a product of the modern world? Do you think that you could be what you are in another era? Modern world?? I think we're still in pre-history here! In any other time, I would have thrown myself in a fire!

You once said that it wasn't hard for you to succeed in the machista world of hip-hop. Does that have to do with talent? Cojones? How is it that you've achieved what so many other women haven't? As a woman in the "machista world of hip-hop", I compete like anyone else in the war of style, by showing what I know how to do. Hip-hop has never been a machista world, per se; women have always been treated the way they deserved: as just another player. At least that's how I see it, and I'm sure lots of people agree with me. If you only see yourself as a woman, that's all people will see in you. I try to do my thing the best I can--I'm a perfectionist and I always trust myself. I am guided by my intuition, by my instinct.

You grew up in the first generation of kids post-Franco. In what ways have you experienced the difference between your life and your parents'--for example, between the amount of liberty you enjoyed and how much they did.
My mother and I are both young, and all I know is that my family experienced hunger back then, and that sticks with you. I didn't grow up with luxury, but I never missed a meal either. The word liberty is tricky--it's easily manipulated. So I don't know how to answer that question, really. Things have changed a lot, and clearly I prefer the situation a thousand times better now than before, when you lived in a militaristic state with censorship of all types, and where women didn't have a voice or a vote. But I don't think that we live in liberty today, or anything close to it.

In the first few years of your career, people asked you if you were a lesbian, or they said you were too pretty to sing like you do. That is to say: the model of femininity that you follow isn't the predominant one in Spain. How did you get to be who you are? Femininity for me doesn't mean wearing heels. Woman is the warrior who fights, she carries the force of life inside her--strength and courage, therefore, aren't masculine characteristics. Every day I feel better being myself. I don't think we should change to make everyone else happy. It's difficult to succeed in a man's world if you're not attractive to them, but...who says this is still a man's world!? We have to be at peace with who we are and accept all our angles--I'm referring not to sexual orientation but to our masculine and feminine sides. I've always felt different, though I consider myself a very normal person [laughs].

How has being a mother changed your perspective as an artist and a woman? At home there's always work to do, and there are no days off! In fact, mothers never get sick, because they can't allow themselves to. The human mind is so amazing...
Becoming a mother made me feel like I could be the mother of the whole world! [laughs] I'm stronger. I feel like I could eat a rat alive if I had to.

Do you see yourself as a political figure, because of your lyrics or your style? Or better said, have people politicized you? I think they try to, but I don't let them. I only believe in love--that's my politics.