Up Next: La Mera Candelaria’s Lead Signed Her Emails With A Man’s Name Just To Get A Chance To Perform At Clubs. Now She Dominates LA’s Cumbia Scene

credit: Harmony Gerber / Photo-Grafitti

Up Next is a FIERCE series highlighting rising Latina and Latin American women artists you might not know about but definitely should.

When it comes to cumbia, Latina artists, from Selena to Li Saumet of Bomba Estéreo, have typically blended the genre’s traditional drum rhythm and percussive heartbeat with contemporary electronic sounds to bring the folkloric music to new, young audiences. But Stephani Candelaria has taken a different direction. The singer-songwriter fuses cumbia with other traditional rhythms, particularly the relaxed vibes of son cubano, creating a refreshing new musical mix she lades with sassy feminist lyrics.

The style, called “cumbia-son” or “kitchen cumbia,” is becoming popular throughout Southern California’s underground Latin music scene, where the rising act, who fronts the Los Angeles-based band La Mera Candelaria, has landed a summer residency, is booking shows and performing at crowded cumbia parties.

While the seductive rhythms of the tropics induce people to the dancefloor, Candelaria, 28, hopes her lyrics, which tackle queer relationships and gender roles, inspire cultural change in her community.

“I sing about real things, about real women and real experiences of sexism, all backed up by irresistibly dance-y grooves,” she tells FIERCE. “I see people dancing and singing along to my songs that are, at their core, hella feminist. It’s a small step, sure, but planting those seeds is so important when you talk about disrupting gender norms and systems of inequality.”

We chatted with Candelaria, who this week dropped the EP “No Te Enojes,” about “cumbia-son,” sexism in the music industry, using art to challenge the status quo and her latest and upcoming projects.

1. When I first heard you, I was at a cumbia party during a trip in LA and was instantly intrigued by the Caribbean vibe. How would you describe your style of cumbia?

There’s been a few different terms thrown around now, from “kitchen cumbia” to “cumbia-son” or, more basically, “cumbia/salsa.” At our core, the rhythms are a blend of cumbia and Caribbean salsa/son. The cumbia piece is much more organic than most cumbia groups, with all live instrumentation rather than programmed beats or electronic percussion. The son aspect comes out through our use of a Puerto Rican cuatro, and sometimes a Cuban tres, rather than a guitar, as the lead instrument. It’s an instrument not typically used within the cumbia genre, but since we started playing a year ago, it’s a natural fit that tends to really intrigue our listeners. Beyond the instrumentation, our live set dips pretty fluidly in and out of cumbia and son rhythms, from song to song, and even within single songs. A good example from our live set would be our cover of the popular song, “La Negra Tomasa,” which titrates between the well-known Caifanes cumbia version, and the song’s original genre of son Cubano, more specifically Bilongo.

2. What sort of music did you grow up listening to and how did your upbringing influence your style today?

My early years looked like this: it was the early ‘90s, and I was being raised by a very young, single mom who was super into Latino pop, so it was all about Mana, Shakira, Ricky Martin, NEK and Selena. As she got older, and her taste for music expanded, that’s when folks like Mercedes Sosa, Soledad Bravo, Buena Vista Social Club and Celia Cruz started popping up in our CD player. Around 2003, back when I was 13, she started singing for a local salsa band, and I would go to all of her rehearsals, studio sessions and gigs. Being a kid in the salsa scene was definitely an experience I wouldn’t trade, and it planted that little seed in me, the dream of being a performer. How many kids get to see their mama be a badass salsera onstage every weekend? Anyway, it was really thanks to my mom’s eclectic taste of Latino music that influenced what I’m doing now, because we listened to everything from pop, to rock en español, to cumbia to son Cubano. Having all of these unique genres in my daily life for so long made me feel pretty comfortable crossing lines, mixing genres, breaking some rules and inventing new ones. My choice to blend cumbia with that Caribbean aesthetic really came from a deep love and respect of both genres, and a hunch that they might just work well together.

3. Did you always want to sing cumbia or is that something that happened over time?

I actually never imagined myself singing cumbia. My first experience as a live performer was as a solo act, playing guitar and singing rancheras and boleros as a busker in San Francisco. I was 18 at the time, and I was so in love with the ranchera/bolero style that I didn’t even think of doing anything else. But a friend of mine happened to catch me playing at 24th/Mission BART station in San Francisco and insisted that I audition for a new cumbia project he knew about. It kind of all spiraled from there, and I fell in love with the genre. As a solo ranchera/bolero singer, I never knew what it was like to engage an audience beyond just listening and watching, but with cumbia, the experience of seeing an audience dancing, singing along, smiling and laughing left me hooked.

4. While artists like Selena and Li Saumet made strides for women in cumbia, the genre remains male-dominated. What’s that like for you?

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This is why we love the Bay… nothing but LOVE all weekend! Gracias a todos who came out to support La Mera and to all the dope spaces who hosted us @legionnaire510 @galeriadelaraza @artilleryag Also a huge shoutout to @chingona_chicana and @lagentesf for booking us, and to special guest musicians @discosresaca @john_villalobos_ and Rafael Herrera for sitting in with us! We love you, Bay Area boos! We'll be back July 28th at the Rickshaw stop with @bangdata 💋💋💋 * * #laMERAcandelaria #LaMera #cande #BaeArea #YayArea #Oakland #510 #TheLegionnaireSaloon #SanFrancisco #415 #Cumbiatón #GaleríaDeLaRaza #ArtilleryAG #TourLife #TakingBackTheBay #WeTookItBack #PaQueSepan #NoMames #NoTeMetasConLaMera

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It’s definitely a huge factor in my experience as a woman in the Latin music industry, and the struggle is very real. I thank my stars for women like Chavela Vargas, Celia Cruz and Selena, and for the work they did in their time, because I would definitely have a harder time doing what I do if it weren’t for them. But it’s such important work, and it’s really an honor to be continuing in their path. I remember that when I start to feel discouraged. I know I’m not the first woman to not be taken seriously in this industry, and that’s part of what drives me, I think. I’m a fierce feminist, and the more men tell me “no,” or mansplain my own music to me, the more tenacious I become — and the more sassy songs I write.

5. What are some of the sexist experiences you’ve had, if any, in this industry and how did you deal with them?

The thing with machismo is that it’s not always this big, in-your-face kind of thing — it’s the subtlety that makes it so powerful. Sure, there’s the blatant crap that, unfortunately, all women have experienced, but there’s also those moments, those “icky” feelings, those remarks that you can’t shake. During my time as a female frontwoman, and especially now as a band leader and manager, I’ve definitely seen my share of sexism. The look of shock when I introduce myself to venue owners and promoters, the “Wait, YOU’RE the manager?!” comments and the weird vibe at rehearsal when new musicians (no longer in the group, of course) realize I’m the band leader, as examples. When I first got started, I had to invent a fake male manager to sign my emails with, because promoters and venues wouldn’t respond to messages signed by me. I’ve had other bands (all male) dismiss collaborations and events. I’ve had a musician show up to rehearsal unprepared because he thought I just wanted his number to go out with him. Then there’s those real scary moments, those guy-grabbing-at-me, creep-following-me-to-my-car kind of moments that, unfortunately, almost all women entertainers, and women in general, experience. Thankfully, those are rare, but those little moments of subtle sexism are constant. How do I deal with it? I keep a cool head and act like the boss lady that I am. I remember that I’ve got strong ancestors, both familial and musical, watching over me. I got Selena and my tata-abuela covering my back — what would they say if I gave up just because some man acted dumb? And then I write songs about it and I sing those songs at packed, lit AF shows — and I get paid to do it. The best revenge is success!

6. Your lyrics often have a fun and gender role-defying vibe to it, particularly with you pursuing men. Why break away from these norms?

The Latin music genre as a whole has been stuck in some very strict gender norms for a long time. When it comes to cumbia and salsa specifically, women are portrayed either as objects of desire or as love-struck romantics. Where’s the room for the rest of us, for the rest of our experiences? I love to tell stories that disrupt the status quo with my lyrics, especially from within the genre that has kept women in a box for so long. My songs are meant to question norms and to start conversations about topics that make the patriarchy uncomfortable, things like gender-fluidity, queerness and unflinching confidence in women. It’s a very intentional process, from the content of the song to the style of music I choose to present the topics. One example would be the song “Presentame a Tu Hermana,” which is on our new EP. The song is about a woman who is sexually fluid, who leaves the guy she’s dating for his sister. I mean, it makes people chuckle at first, because the concept seems so wild, but there’s definitely some grit in there. It forces people to confront their discomfort with these topics. Lesbianism within the Latino community has long been frowned upon by the more “traditional,” to put it lightly. The term “lesbiana” was used as a pejorative to keep women in check during the Chicano Rights Movement of the ‘70s, women who were talking about feminism and beginning to question machismo and gendered power dynamics. So I wanted the song to make this topic accessible through sassy, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and I chose to present it as a salsa, which in my own experience has been one of the most strictly sexist of the Latin sub-genres. The process of breaking down gender roles and norms in our communities starts with our art. It’s a long journey, but it’s an essential one, and this is my small way of chipping away at the foundations.

7. Do you think music can be a tool to disrupt gender roles and inequality in culture?

Of course! As I just expressed, art plays a huge role in the process of change, any change. Look at the protest music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Just one example would be music’s role in the UFW boycott, as a tool of education and as a way to spread news. But beyond the surface impact of lyrics, which I certainly use to my advantage with La Mera Candelaria, music is so impactful because it is something that we experience with more than one of our senses. We hear music, but we also see the performance, we dance to it with our bodies. A very unique psychological phenomenon occurs when a person is listening to music, especially during a live performance. Our bodies experience an almost involuntary response, because when we watch someone dance, our brain starts to act as though it was also dancing, releasing “happy hormones” even if we aren’t moving at all. These moments are the perfect time to drop knowledge. People are more receptive to new ideas when they are smiling, dancing and singing along. I sing about real things, about real women and real experiences of sexism, all backed up by irresistibly dance-y grooves. I see people dancing and singing along to my songs that are, at their core, hella feminist. It’s a small step, sure, but planting those seeds is so important when you talk about disrupting gender norms and systems of inequality.

8. How do you hope people, especially Latina women, feel while listening to your music?

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The purpose of life is joy. We were born to live joyfully and to make the world around us a more beautiful place. I choose to do my part in that bigger mission by making music that makes people feel joyful. More specifically, I hope that people feel love when they hear my music, because I come at this with nothing but love, and I try to emanate that in every recording and performance. With joy and love as the basis of my work, I also hope that people, especially Latinas, feel empowered by my songs. I hope that, by telling the kind of stories that I tell in my music, I can help make space for other women to share, to feel valued and heard. I hope that they can connect with my songs, relate to them, even laugh. I hope this for men, too, because they are part of our community and we are here to call them out but out of love. My songs call out machismo, the male ego, all that stuff, and I know it sometimes makes fellas feel a bit uncomfortable, but y’all are welcome to share my space. Laugh off the discomfort and join the party; it’s better on this side.

9. You just dropped your new EP, “No Te Enojes,” this month. What can you tell us about that?

It’s a short one, only two songs, but it’s definitely loaded with sabór. For our fans who have already heard the first EP, be ready for a big difference. It’s much closer to our live performance style, meaning there’s a lot more salsa mixed in with the cumbia, a lot more sass and a bigger sound than when we first started. The title track, “No Te Enojes,” is a rollercoaster of genres, jumping from a bolero-style introduction, to a cumbia/salsa body and a dancehall-esque rap section toward the end, featuring Tony Sauza of Tone Irie. The second track, “Presentame a Tu Hermana,” is straight-up salsa, but with a cool little twist and featuring Ivan Flores of Discos Resaca on accordion.

10. What else do you have coming up that you’d like our readers to know about?

For any readers in the Los Angeles area, we’ve been doing a summer residency at Eastside Luv in Boyle Heights every second Wednesday since June and through September. There are lots of fun guests appearing at each show, so it’s definitely something to check out. We’ve also got a show in San Jose for the Sonido Clash festival on September 2. So for all the California raza, we hope to see you at a show, because we’ll be all over the place!

Read: Up Next: Why Argentine Up-And-Coming Singer-Songwriter Dat García Wants Latinas To Reclaim Being Maleducada

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