Watch: “Hollywood Babylon” by XUXA SANTAMARIA
Oakland-based XUXA SANTAMARIA is premiering the music video for “Hollywood Babylon” on Mask Magazine today. Watch the video while reading our interview with artist, performer and singer-song writer Sofía Córdova below.
If you’ve never heard of XUXA SANTAMARIA, listening to “Hollywood Babylon” might make you question your own memory: it sounds both completely new and eerily familiar. This is not accidental.
XUXA SANTAMARIA is a music and art project that strives to inspire collective resistance through pop and dance music. The music is in part designed to recall the mash of nostalgic and complicatedly post-colonial references people who grew up in the 90s are familiar with. “Hollywood Babylon” is solidly pop rock, resembling songs by bands like Metric and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But XUXA SANTAMARIA as a whole is a lot more conceptual than your average pop music project, something more akin to The Knife.
Sofía Córdova, the artist, performer, scholar, and singer-song writer whose existential crisis birthed the project, describe XUXA SANTAMARIA as an alter ego “who was born in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus to the Caribbean.” Together with her partner and collaborator, musician Matt Gonzalez Kirkland, she resists the pressure of the music industry to churn out albums and tours for profit. They produce dance music because they see pleasurable experiences like pop music and dance parties as situations in which painful questions of identity, history, and belonging reside. Naturally, music with such far-reaching goals takes time to produce.
Earlier this week, I called up Sofía Córdova to ask her about her creative process and feelings about the current political climate.
What’s the story behind the name and the project XUXA SANTAMARIA?
This all started at the end of 2008. [Matt Gonzalez Kirkland and I] had just moved to California where I was starting grad school. I was a very formal practitioner [of photography] at the time and I was enamored with the traditional art world. But then I had this crisis when I realized I had slipped under the rug all of these questions that I had bubbling within me about my identity.
I grew up in Puerto Rico. I went to a school inside a naval base, and I had a very tenuous relationship with the States. But when I moved here to go to college, I never really thought about what that reality meant for me and how it might factor into my work. I was still pretty young so the language of these things was still new.
In that panicked moment in grad school, I realized that I didn’t want to be just a photographer. I decided to take sharp left turn. I took a break from theory and read two books which serendipitously pointed me down the path that I’m now on. One, Real Punks Don’t Wear Black by Frank Kogan. I really jammed with on one of his essays which equated disco and punk. You’re always taught that disco and punk are enemies, but in fact they are both struggling to create safe spaces for their contingencies. The second book was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. In that book I saw for the first time my Caribbean subjectivity mirrored back to me. In this really strange way, because he plays so hard with the stereotypical identities that we flip into to survive in America. But he also has this character that’s fascinated by science fiction and nerdy things. Things that your own mother country might deem uncool. For the first time, I realized that my entire life after leaving home had come to be about living in this in-between space. Once I left I was not a hundred percent of that place anymore, but I will never be American either. It empowered me. It taught me that the slippery in-between place is my power place.
These texts made me think about all of the music genres that had resulted from this great migration during the 20th century from from all over the Caribbean into the United States. This painful migration birthed this third thing – genres like salsa, latin freestyle, boogaloo and early hip hop – that wouldn’t have happened neither here nor there otherwise. It needed this influx of people that were in transit themselves.
I started throwing myself at things: music, performance, I taught myself video production. I had no institutional language for these things, and that allowed me to have a flow of crazy ideas and find a way to make them real. It came out of a real urgency. When I first came to the States, everything had that same urgency. Like: how do I fit into this place? How quickly can I learn how things work? It was a matter of survival. The panicked energy I poured into music came from that same little voice inside my head saying: this experience will drown you if you don’t do something with it. It will have been for nothing, it will have helped nobody else, and you will drown if you don’t let it out. I didn’t follow the “right path” to this thing. I’m really indebted to have had to learn things that I didn’t know how to do. I consider that my biggest strength as a cultural producer.
Matt and I had been together for a long time, but we had never collaborated. He’s a wonderful musician. I was always afraid of collaborating because I didn’t think we could both be partners and collaborators. But things were so crazy in my practice and in my head at the time that I said, you know what, let’s try this thing. I want to make a concept album through a character, an alter ego – because I didn’t want it to become about me. I wanted it to be a receptacle for people that had also felt these things, as well as for larger histories of the Caribbean.
That’s how XUXA SANTAMARIA was born. XUXA SANTAMARIA was the alter ego: she was an omnipresent creature, who was born in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus to the Caribbean. The first thing together became the opening track of the first album, “Fiebre Tropical.” It is about these colonizers bludgeoning people on the beach. But it was put to a very vibey, dancey track. After that I started making music videos.
A crazy thing that happened. The music video [for “Fiebre Tropical”] was being shown in a museum in Austin. The guy who ran the record label Young Cubs saw it. He was delightfully uninterested in the art aspect but thought the song was really good, and he offered to press it in vinyl. People ended up really liking it. The bloggy music establishment especially loved it. It was sort of hilarious. Because it was in Spanish, they saw it as a sexy summer track, even though the lyrics talk about some really violent stuff.
In a way, that reading isn’t entirely wrong, and I came to really love that as part of my strategy. Pleasure is a really important part of resistance and my own language. I felt like I was luring people in through this pleasurable experience and then making them complicit in this complicated narrative, particularly as it relates to America and the Caribbean – or any of the myriad countries it has invaded and fucked with.
After that, we started playing in clubs more. We did SXSW and other things that were more traditionally of the music world.
We took some time before making our second album, BILLIONAIR RAINBOW, which Hollywood Babylon is on. We wrote that album in essentially ten days. The album deals with questions around debt, creative labor, money and being in this endless loop of wanting it but not wanting to compromise your own life. It’s our labor and capital record. We can’t walk away from being very heady concept people. That said, our first priority is to make good music. We wanted to make a very solid dance record.
I bet it creates a lot of confusion, that your music project is an alter ego that flows in and out of your other projects.
The art world is part of capitalism. It has come to define how people produce things to this extent where if you are not categorizable then you’re not a product, worth watching. I defy that, I resist that because I’m not a product and I don’t make these things so that I can make a living. That is not my intention here. When I’m playing a party I’m not there for people to look at. I’m there to facilitate the dancing, the getting free. Performance is still about the performer, I reserve that more for when I’m performing under the umbrella of me, Sofía Córdova, the artist. When we’re XXSM, we’re just a vehicle for ideas and for fun. It is my life’s work but that is different than laboring for cash.
Common themes in your work seem to be: girlhood but of the weaponized, uncompromisingly anti-capitalist sort; the internet, and the way that the masculine/capitalist gaze operates when the two interact. What do you wish people who watch and listen to Hollywood Babylon take away from it?
I want it to feel like I’m raging against the walls of this thing and asking the performers to join me. But also saying: this is an anthem. I want you to feel like I see you.
This is that complicated place of being a performer versus being a vehicle for music: I want to include my body in the work; I want to be a stand-in. But with this last video it was really important that I wasn’t the focus – it’s about an accumulation of bodies. It was important that each of these bodies decided to interpret the song however they did. That was such a delightful part of the collaboration, because it ended up being so much weirder than I could’ve ever imagined.
So many people are going around with their “the future is female” shirts. I want to say: No, the future is slippery. The future is whatever you want to make of it. The future is queer. In asking these performers to work with me and singing the things that I sing, I’m hoping that I’m just a vehicle for a message that’s fluid, that encourages fluidity.
What are your musical influences and how do they play into your work?
I’m trying to legitimize the language of pop. Often in the music and art world, we shit on it, because it’s too accessible. But I think therein lies a promise. Growing up, I would listen to pop music on radio late at night, taping things off the radio. It was my connection to the outside world. On the other hand, I grew up listening to both pop from Puerto Rico and America. Going back to this question of pain and pleasure, it’s some of the earliest colonization I experienced. I can’t quantify and qualify it, but unraveling the bad parts of it, dissecting it and trying to emulate it was really powerful for me. Again, as a part of my larger body of work dedicated to resistance.
We always set out to make dance music. But we are total music nerds. We’re really ragey, we’re mad about stuff. One thing we always say to people (and everyone’s like, What are you talking about?) is that we we’re kind of punk. In terms of making music, I don’t know what I’m doing. Matt does, and he’s an incredible producer. But I don’t. There’s this urgency that’s very punk. It’s relatively self-produced. La Red is about being trapped in a system that you can’t break out of. But it also emanates: “I will bite you. I may be trapped but that doesn’t mean you have me.”
Matt and I both grew up listening to punk, I more in Spanish, Matt in English. Although, he’s half Cuban and this very New York creature – he pulls from a universe of influences. We love The Stooges but also Britney’s Blackout album. I grew up listening to Reggaeton but also like Ace of Base, Celia Cruz and also people like Kate Bush or Lene Lovich. We listen to Prince a lot, he is a huge influence. I’ve been getting into jazz as a way of thinking around issues of improvisation and indeterminacy in music, because we want to figure out how to create an experience that responds to the audience longer term.
A very formative influence for both of us was the rock song structure. Like, we really like The Kinks. We adhere to the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge structure. But honestly, influences change from day to day. We’re nerdy about this stuff, which is both a boon and a loss. We’re just making things while taking stabs in the dark.
What are you working on next?
We’re almost done writing our next album. We want to produce it sometime this year. It’s going to be called Chancletas de Oro which means gold flip flops. Because I just love a concept, I can’t not work within a tight box, it’s supposed to be very reductive. I’m looking at women and femmes historically or in fiction. Each song is about one of them. That’s what we’re working as XXSM.
I’m currently in residency at Mills College. It’s an all-women’s college. It has a very historically important electronic music conservatory. In our capacity as a more experimental music project, I want to tap into the tradition of electronic music. We’re working on a more far-out score for a performance based on the narratives of my current video work which focuses on life on earth in the future, particularly as it relates to the lives of othered bodies. We’re working with other musicians, the instrumentation will be super live, it’ll be very different than our clubby stuff. Still, these things coexist seamlessly in my imagination of my practice, in how it all gets made.
What are you thinking and feeling right now, in response to the ongoing political shit show?
On a “normal” day, and during a “normal” political cycle, I’m over here still so critical of shit. I’m thinking about: How do we narrate these times? That’s so often the job of the marginalized. It’s not about going or not going unnoticed because that’s not why we do it. But we were not surprised. This is the America that’s always been here.
I’m grateful to be where I am. I feel lucky to know and proud to be part of the queer POC community in the Bay – those are my people. Without them I would be struggling to breathe right now. I take tremendous solace in knowing that they are here and doing their work. That their work is political but also poetic.
I do feel the slightest glimmer of hope. At the very least it’s in this wonderfully messy place where a small percentage of white folks are thinking, oh shit you were right all along and we should’ve listened. At the same time, I’m tremendously worried about front line communities in areas of the country that aren’t as ‘progressive’ as the Bay and I’m also really concerned about the possible outcomes for Puerto Rico who remains under US colonial rule and which is facing an unprecedented economic crisis. If I thought things were being mishandled there under Obama, I tremble at imagining what this current administration will do (or not do). Then again, the sheer level of incompetence is such that they probably don’t know about Puerto Rico’s status.
My friends and I went to a really amazing underground party under an overpass a week ago (organized by Ambr33zy BA! who is in the “Hollywood Babylon” video). We hung out and danced in an unsanctioned space, that was our radical action. It felt so right. On the surface it’s a party but as it relates to the things I’m interested in – the release the body feels on the dance floor – it was so powerful. Additionally it was an action that didn’t require or ask permission of existing infrastructure or systems. We do this because we want to and because it’s what we need.
Of course we are so indebted to important movements like the Panthers. That shouldn’t be forgotten, especially now. There’s a real resurgence of that community-minded radical activism that’s about not just showing up but also taking care of one another in very real ways.
The protesting has been inspiring. Right now we’re in such a tricky place with the double edged sword of the internet. This thing that promised us freedom of information is now fucking us over. It’s tricky to dance that dance but the country is watching. For all the people that were crying about destruction of property or whatever bullshit, I have to believe that somebody out there saw that and realized the people are capable of changing things.
I have huge problems with the Women’s March and the way it was organized, but one thing that was important about it was that regular-ass Americans for the first time in recent history were put in a position where they felt the need to march and they did it together. Hopefully awakened in themselves this realization that you, the people, can do big things. That the people have the right to demand things.
Anyone you’d like to shout out before we hang up?
XUXA SANTAMARIA would like to thank Club Chai for including “Hollywood Babylon” in its recent compilation and the following performers for their participation in this video:
Xia Simone Arnoux
Ana Carolina Córdova
Jacqueline Carmen Guerrero “CQQCHIFRUIT”