Interview: Raquel Cepeda On Identity, Race & Hip-Hop
"Extend the olive branch to people from past generations, because you don’t know everything."
Raquel Cepeda is a fighter. The renowned writer, journalist and filmmaker is clad in light blue patterned tights and a gray crop top, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail— she is furiously jabbing a black Everlast bag. On this chilly Friday afternoon, we’re at Mendez Boxing where Cepeda spends a good amount of time training for her bouts.
Inside, the large space on the lower level is laden with black punching bags, swaying from the ceiling. Behind the cloud of sand-filled sacks, sits a red boxing ring. As Cepeda makes her way around the gym, she gets pounds and greetings from many boxing aficionados here. You can very much tell she is a regular and perhaps well-liked. Not to mention, she's quite comfortable kicking it with the boys. After we take a stroll around the facility, we settle in a wooden bench by a row of yellow lockers.
Born to Dominican parents in Harlem, and raised in Washington Heights during the early '80s when hip-hop was in a state of becoming, Cepeda is no stranger to battling adversity. From surviving a crime-ridden neighborhood to standing resilient in an abusive household, she details in her 2013 memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina her simultaneous journey of finding her roots through ancestral DNA.
Cepeda has lent her editorial wizardry to And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip Hop Journalism Of The Last 25 Years, and has served as Editor-in-Chief at the now-defunct One World Magazine by Russell Simmons. She's also penned for biggie publications like The Village Voice and The New York Times, among many others.
Her film credits include a documentary titled Bling: A Planet Rock, which tells the story of how hip-hop’s flashy lifestyle played a role in the 10-year civil war that took place in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The film features artist Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Wall and reggaeton star Tego Calderon, among others. And if you're into that sort of thing, you can also hear sound bites of Cepeda’s socially charged commentary on her ABOUT RACE podcast.
“I feel like life is a continuation,” she says. “You grow every single day. I learn something new everyday. I learn from my three-year-old and I learn from 19-year-old. I learn from everybody around me. Every time I travel. Everyday on the subway, in my neighborhood—I learn something new that challenges my beliefs on everything and I think that’s exciting.”
In the spirit of Women’s History Month, VIBE VIVA talked with the fearless Latina, during which we discussed everything from the inception of her journalism career, to growing up in Washington Heights, to how she self identifies. Gloves on or off, Cepeda is always down for the cause.
The #Dominican government and ruling class must stop taking that #colonial flavor-aid straight to the head. They must dare to #decolonize themselves and stop with all the self-loathing #xenophobia. ¡Ya basta! I stand with #Haiti and the many #decolonized #Dominicans and #DominicanAmericans in our diaspora. With love, #raquelcepeda
VIBE VIVA: When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
Raquel Cepeda: Well, I always wanted to be a writer. I remember when I called my grandmother—my mother’s mother; to tell her ‘Mama I sold a book—my memoir and she started laughing. And I was like ‘why are you laughing?’ And she said because when I was very angry in Santo Domingo, at five-years-old I would say ‘One day, I’m going to write a story about our family and I’m going to set the record straight.’
My grandmother said ‘Well let me tell you something honey, I didn’t give a s**t then and I don’t give a s**t now.’ It's funny because it’s a book about our family, so I guess she told me that ever since I could speak—I was talking about being a writer. And that is something I guess I inherited from my birth mother, because my birth mother— her daughter—always wanted to be a writer. If she didn’t meet my dad, she probably would have been a writer. That’s what she was studying to become.
How did the hip-hop and Uptown scenes in the '80s influence the woman that you are today?
Well, I was born in Harlem. I went to Santo Domingo like a lot of children of Dominican immigrants—they go back and forth. And I was shuttled back and forth between my maternal grandparents and with my birth mother and father. When I came back to stay with my father and stepmother who is from Finland in 1981, hip-hop, Uptown, Washington Heights was crazy.
One of the things that we were known for is the expression that you can arguably say comes out of hip-hop, or hip-hop comes out of this particular branch of the culture, which is graffiti. The Bronx really took it there, there were really great writers in the Bronx. The earliest photos that Henry Chalfant shot were Uptown all the way in Washington Heights and Inwood.
So, I was growing up around that. Also for me, rap music and the culture was a way for me to be able to talk people. To people that were Dominican, Haitian, Black-American, de-franchised white, whatever it was, hip-hop was a way that we can all come together and talk. Because it was a thing that we were creating that the authority figures and the old people hated. So the more they hated it, the more we used as a foil. Which was a way of communicating, which is very different than today’s hip-hop. It was something that definitely went into shaping who I am today.
I remember one time I was talking to Jay Smooth—cause he was born the same year as me, in the '70s, and we mix academic lingo with street lingo or whatever and I’ll hear like ‘you don’t have to talk like you’re in hip hop.’ But I thought 'I’m not adapting a culture, it’s my culture that everybody else is adapting.' I was just being myself and he got that. We were this little culture of kids that felt like tunnel rats, who basically ended up inspiring everything from language to fashion to a kind of so called high culture.
What were some of your best memories as a young girl in that culture?
What really took me over the edge, what gassed me up, was when Red Head King Pin came to one of our parties. You couldn’t tell me anything. That was definitely one of my highlights.
And then also, I was a very disengaged student, so I would cut school a lot. I would go to Washington Square Park and I remember just chilling looking back and looking around and seeing Russell Simmons and all these people that I would end up being cool with or working for. They would walk pass me and I'd think ‘one day I’m going to work for that guy, one day I’m going to do this and that.’ Just to see how all these things ended up connecting, that to me affirms that there is no such thing as a coincidence.
Thank you #brooklynmuseum for such a magical evening! Great event and amazing crowd of friends, old and new. There are a few copies of #BirdofParadise left in the bookstore. 📖 is fundamental. (??taps to @ashakagivens for the smoking hot velvet jumpsuit + @lorrainetwest for the spiritual armor) #raquelcepeda
A photo posted by Raquel Cepeda (@raquelcepeda) on
How was it like for you working at One World as a young woman? Was it male dominated?
It was definitely male dominated being at One World, but I had a publisher named John Pasamore that was very supportive with everything that I was doing. He allowed me to take chances. And because of that, even though he was a guy, I was able to do a lot of things that were interesting in the magazine. And because I was always a tomboy, I didn’t really care about dealing with men. I just deal with them the way I would deal with anybody. I’m from New York City. I grew up in the 'hood. I’m always used to dealing with male dominated spaces, so for me that wasn’t an issue.
The issue for me was making the magazine something that was really global, that was adult and that it showed hip-hop for what it was and what it had the potential to become. What it has become, for better or for worse, it has become the most important youth export to ever come out of the United States of America. So I really enjoyed my time there, and to this day I still think that we were way ahead of the curve back then. Sometimes when I think about what we covered back then, and I think to myself ‘It would make sense today.’
I love how you put Omahyra Mota on the cover…
Yeah, because I didn’t know any Dominican-Americans—I’m Dominican-American—at the time who were in the culture real thick. It didn’t matter that much because for me, as a Dominican-American, the part of me that’s American is from this well that we all come from, which is Africa. And indigenous America links us to our black American brothers and sisters, and our Haitian brothers and sisters.
How do you define the term AfroLatina?
I don’t define the term AfroLatina, because I don’t like defining terms of identity, because they mean something different to everybody.
Would you consider yourself one?
I’m a Dominiyorkian of mixed decent. If you read my book you will find that I’m mixed and that I am just one example of the many of how the New World came to be. I’m the genetic evidence that the New World happened. So can't just turn my back on one side of my culture and just call myself one thing. I feel like I’d be selling out the parts of who I am for better or for worse. Because there are things that we have in our blood that we don’t want to have; that we don’t want to admit. That we don’t want to reconcile with. For example, growing up I always thought as the European man as the aggressor, but when you have European blood running down your veins too, you have to come to terms with that.
Why do you think it’s important for our mental health to find our DNA? Especially when it comes to young Latinas who are at most risk for suicide than their counterparts, which you explore in your new documentary Some Girls.
Not everybody can afford to go on an ancestral DNA quest and trace all of their ancestry, right? Some people are not in touch with their family members, and some people don’t have that desire. I thought it was interesting and I had a desire to that testing because I was just wondering ‘Ok, what are we?’ And using myself as an example, I just said ‘Let me just go in with my fist unclenched and my heart open.'
When I went on the quest, I was able to meet people I hadn’t known were related to me, and find information about them. What I found out, which is detailed in my book Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, was that my background was West African, Pre-Colombian, Indigenous American, Berber and English or Welsh. I’m not sure which side because they have the similar genetic makeup. And it re-affirmed to me that we are the physical evidence of how this new world, the Americas came to be.
It shows me that even though I’m being told that my people are illegal and that I don’t have any kind of agency in North America—to be Latino is to be American. The very essence of being Latino is to be American. That kind of grounds me and it also makes me feel like I am a part of this continuum of the narrative of human kind, of how the world has evolved. So for me it’s important, and that goes also to mental health. They don’t teach you that in school. When you go to school they teach that the people who made America and any kind of success here were white and American. So then, when I find out my ancestry and see that it took everybody to make this, it makes you feel more grounded and more part of your society. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the community.
When you don’t feel disenfranchised, you’re apart of something. It makes you kind of act differently and talk differently and do things differently. It kind of makes you feel like you have agency, and it makes you feel confident to do other things, which is why in my documentary, Some Girls, I embarked in a genetic ancestral DNA journey with a few girls from a suicide prevention program to show them that they come from people that survive.
My father’s ancestral mitochondrial DNA is pre-Columbian. My direct maternal DNA is West African. These people had to find a way, despite the indigenous slave trade, despite Columbus bum-rushing the New World, despite the transatlantic slave trade, despite the re-writing of history, they had to find a way to survive in my body. So it makes me even look at myself, like my body is a temple. And it makes me look at everything in a more holistic, spiritual way.
What do you hope to accomplish with your new book, East of Broadway?
Like in all my projects I try to be very balanced, because I’m artist and I represent things the way I see them. For me it’s a memoir about my community in flux, and it’s me trying to kind of work out the fact that I’m in the middle. I’m from a generation where we 're traveled, we’re educated and a lot of times we have found ourselves having things in common with people that live for example on the west side of Broadway—the gentrifiers.
And then I grew up in the hood, right, that hood in the "battle days." I hate that term, by the way. Even though I grew up in Inwood during the time it had the highest crime rates, I found community and love there. I found people that took care of me there. It instilled in me the passion and the creative impulses to do everything that I have done ever since. So I’m trying to find a way to represent both sides in my book. Because I am in the middle, I left and I came back. I came back with a little bit more cash and a different way of thinking.
How do you feel about gentrification?
I also have a huge problem with gentrification, because I feel like the people that stuck it out and fought to build a community and better streets and put themselves in peril, they deserve to be able benefit from the beautification of the 'hood. So what I want to do is explore the question: why is it when people that are perceived to be white move into a area it becomes gentrified? But when people that are perceived to be brown and black move in, it's the 'hood, the slums? How does race play into that? And does it play into that today? Those are the questions that I’m interested in exploring in the book that I’m working on right now.
What do you think about the 2016 election?
Well, I haven’t made up my mind yet. Obviously it’s going to be between Hillary and Bernie. But I have a hard time reconciling the Clinton years with this war on drugs that was perpetuated against kids I grew up with.
I actually was living to see my friends and my family become casualties of the war on drugs and I saw what it did to my community and then I look at it today as one example of the war on drugs. I see how they are calling for us to have a kinder strategy with dealing with the war on drugs, because the face of it has turned white. But why wasn’t it like that when my black, Haitian and Latino American counterparts were suffering through that? Why did they have to be ravaged, while one community get to be coddled? I have an issue with that, but I also think it’s very important to have experience when you’re in office, and I feel like Hillary has a lot of experience when in office. Though, I like Bernie’s energy. It just can’t be Trump.
How did you first start getting into boxing?
I grew up in a very violent home, so I always had to defend myself. I had to learn how to put my hands up. I grew up also in a different time, were it was kind of violent. I grew up fighting in the street. I always wanted to be a boxer, but I wasn’t allowed to. I’ve always liked the sport. I remember my favorite boxer of all time was Lucia Rijker. I always wanted to be like her. As I've gotten older, it’s spectacular how I got into it. Sacha and I after dating for six years, on our first year of our marriage, we were just eating, screwing around and living. And the end of that year, I was in Santo Domingo and one of my mentors/closest friends Dr. Frank Moya Pons, asked ‘Do you work out? So I thought 'That’s it, I have to change, this is a sign from the universe I have to change.'
A photo posted by Raquel Cepeda (@raquelcepeda) on
I just said I’m starting on Monday, I’m going to this Mendez boxing with my husband or not. And when I came in, none of the trainers believed that I could box in the ring. I took to it very quickly, and one thing lead to another and I started competing. I love it. It helps me write, and work out my issues. It helps me workout my stress and it helps me stay in shape, and it helps me keep up with my son who is turning 4 in a couple of weeks. It also helps me feel good. It helps me release. There is nothing like being in the ring, hitting somebody with all my might and then watching that s**t. I’m not going to front, I like going in and f**king s**t up. I enjoy it. [Laughs]
What advice would you give young women?
For young women in general I would say take the time out to really do the work to be selfish. And do the work in investing in yourself and identifying yourself and challenging people’s perceptions and challenge those check boxes that society forces you into and create your own. Create your own identity, redefine what is out there and don’t allow anybody to cram you in anything.
I feel like I wish I would have done more investing when I was younger in exploring my own self. I’ve done a lot of work on it. I wish I would have done more when I was younger, because knowledge of self is power, and there is nothing like that feeling than having knowledge and being powerful when you walk in these murky waters of 2016. So I would say take the time to really invest.
I would actually say this to my own daughter who is 19. You know, people tell her she isn’t one thing enough, or Latina enough, or black American enough or that enough. But thank God she is like me. She doesn’t really give a s**t about what anybody says at the end of the day because she knows who she is. When you know who you are, you don’t feel the pressure of having to stay that way. Since identity is like water, it shifts. We change every three years. Be like water. Keep on changing, keep on flowing, keep on growing. My other advice would be to really bridge the gap with and extend the olive branch to people from past generations, because you don’t know everything.