When Rosalía, a Spanish singer and songwriter, released her debut album, “Los Ángeles”, in 2017, she was largely unknown outside of Spain. In the years since, she has won two MTV Video Music Awards and five Latin Grammys, garnered nine million Instagram followers and made a cameo in Pedro Almodóvar’s film, “Pain and Glory”. Her 2018 genre-bending sophomore release, “El Mal Querer”, also earned a Grammy nomination for best new artist: The 26-year-old musician from Sant Esteve Sesrovires, a small town north of Barcelona, is the first Spanish-language recording artist to break into the category. (The award ceremony takes place tonight.)
But the album has ignited a heated debate about cultural appropriation.
Rosalía, whose full name is Rosalía Vila Tobella, was 13 when she first became spellbound by the music of Camarón de la Isla — a legendary Spanish Romani flamenco singer. She went on to spend a decade training with the flamenco virtuoso, José Miguel “El Chiqui” Vizcaya, before releasing “Los Ángeles”, which she described as “it’s flamenco and it’s not”. The vocal-driven concept album, which melds traditional styles with modern influences, propelled the genre forward.
While the origins of flamenco are unknown, the style is linked to the Spanish Romani, who have long been marginalized and discriminated against. The Catalan singer, who weaves the Spanish Romani language and Roma imagery together in some of her work, has been accused of profiting from Roma culture. Her Latin Grammy awards for Album of the Year and Best Urban Song, for the single “Con Altura” or “With Style” (an hommage to classic reggaeton), also invited cries of appropriation, given her white European heritage.
The controversies illustrate why it’s problematic to lump all Spanish-speaking musicians together. And while the critical opprobrium directed at Rosalía has been unfair, there’s still a debate worth having.
The Romani elements in the singer’s music are folded into others, such as R&B and hip-hop. Which is acceptable, because humans have long created oeuvres inspired by what has come before them, and the world around them. Works of art, music and poetry form part of a constellation that transcends national borders and are altered with practices and experiences, in what the Spanish writer Agustín Fernández Mallo called a “family of auras”: “When something is transmitted from body to body it changes radically”.
And so it’s fitting that Camarón de la Isla’s music introduced Rosalía to the genre. His 1979 release, “La Leyenda del Tiempo”, fused traditional flamenco with modern sounds such as electric bass guitar and backing drums — scandalizing purists, and thrilling the avant-garde. Similarly, “El Mal Querer”, lauded by critics, is a thoughtfully composed, academic and innovative album that has revolutionized the genre: traditional flamenco is fused with literature, classical music, African and urban rhythms, and pop.
Artistic expression cannot be limited by geopolitical borders nor copyright. Many of today’s artists are aesthetic nomads. Their work embodies, whether intentional or not, the intersection of art and globalization — the remix. No material, rhythm nor narrative can escape the remix because craft and imagination do not belong to one singular community, and nothing that is human is alien. Contemporary musicians are just about always part D.J. — a modern representation of the age-old truth that music is a succession of interpretations and remixes.
Rosalía’s music occupies the same wonderful, iconoclastic laboratory that nourishes maverick Spanish musicians and performers such as El Niño de Elche and Israel Galván. Mr. Elche’s most recent album, “Colombiana”, explores the influence of Latin America on flamenco music. Mr. Galván is a flamenco dancer who draws from unlikely sources including Franz Kafka, conceptual art, bullfighting and Butoh, an avant-garde Japanese dance form.
Cultural crossover is not limited to Spanish artists. In the past century, flamenco also took root in Japan, where performers including Shōji Kojima and Yoko Omori have earned worldwide acclaim. It’s also not limited to flamenco. In 2009, a Japanese couple, Hiroshi Yamao and Kyoko Yamao, won the World Tango Championship in Buenos Aires. This porous, promiscuous phenomena came full circle when in 2011 a Spanish cartoonist, Enrique Fernández, won second place in the Japan International Manga Award competition for his book, “La isla sin sonrisa”.
Last year we witnessed the meteoric rise of Rosalía — a young, curious artist unafraid to take risks and experiment. Singles such as “Con Altura”, and “Aute Cuture”, an intentional misspelling of “haute couture”, make a conceptual leap that conveys a desire for transcendence, and blur the lines between pop culture and high art. In “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mí,” or “Me 4 U, U 4 Me”, the lyrics allude to abbreviations frequently used on Twitter and WhatsApp. An artist’s expression goes beyond the musical and audiovisual, it springs from words and texts. In “A Palé”, a hypnotic fusion of flamenco and hip-hop, Rosalía wears a gold grill and channels Frida Kahlo while she sings about how her own copycats imitate her creations. She too has become subject to appropriation and remixing.
On Thursday, Rosalía released her first single of 2020, “Juro Que”, or “I Swear That”. She appears to have returned to her flamenco roots, at least for now. But she will no doubt continue to refine the art of the remix through the prism of her own unique aesthetic. May many other musicians follow — copying her, imitating her and appropriating her, while blazing their own trail along the way.
Jorge Carrión, a writer and journalist, is the author of the book Bookshops. This article was translated from the Spanish by Erin Goodman.