Daymé Arocena is a singing drum. Her mouth blooms a litany of ethereal chants, a sacred devotion as impeccable as her white assembles against her molasses skin—traditional garb in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria. She moves in the world the way she moves on any stage: swaying hips and wagging fingers, building a quiet momentum that emerges a thunderclap woman, who carries both Celia Cruz and Aretha Franklin in her heart.
Music – her truest god – has been Arocena’s calling since the tender age of four, performing on blocks across her native island. By age 14, she was a principal singer of Los Primos, a prestigious band in Cuba. Upon being brought to light by a BBC broadcaster under the Havana Cultura initiative, and inking a deal with Brownswood Recordings, the 25-year-old released her debut album, Nueva Era, circa June 2015. Arocena – a fervent disciple of Beethoven and Nina Simone, of La Lupe and Marta Valdés – released her Cubafonia album earlier this year, proving Cuba’s a rich musical trove.
Ahead of her performance at the Highline Ballroom in New York this Saturday (June 17), the singer talks all things music. Connecting her love of jazz and hip-hop back to the Southern region of the United States, where rappers and musicians alike have significant tethers in the “Afro-Christian Church,” Arocena proclaims the Empire City a cultural mecca in which her power is renewed.
VIBE Viva: As a black Cuban woman musician, what is your greatest struggle?
Daymé Arocena: I think the hardest part is “to talk with your own voice.” But, if you can do that, and people around are listening and following you, then you feel like a winner. Every single person in the world has their own war, especially if you have something different to say. It doesn’t really matter for me about being black and woman, but that doesn’t mean it’s not more difficult for black women, especially if you have something new to say.
Has music always been a source of prayer for you? What gods are most significant to you in your faith?
Music is my God and my faith. Music was my link to religion. I fell in love with Santeria’s music before the Santeria’s religion. The saint I have is Yemaya—like the sea, she whispers in my ears the songs that I write.
Like jazz, hip-hop is a product of the Afro-American community in the United States. The two genres borrow from other genres. How has hip-hop influenced you being from Cuba?
Being honest, I love hip-hop, especially from the South. And that is just a coincidence because almost all the American rappers I love are actually from Los Angeles. My theory is that in thinking of Cuban music, the musicians in that part of U.S. [the South] are more connected with gospel and “Afro-Christian Church” music. Maybe that is why I feel connected to it so much.
Whose work have you studied, who are you greatest musical influences?
I have studied the music of many classic composers, jazz composers, Cuban and Brazilian composers, many. But my favorites are Beethoven, Nina Simone, La Lupe, Marta Valdés, Tom Jobim y Bola de Nieves.
What is your dream collaboration, who would you work with?
I could say Herbie Hancock or Sting, and also Kendrick Lamar, The Internet and Anderson Paak. But I think the number one is SADE because as I know she doesn’t do many collaborations.
What do you want the world to know about Cuban music?
I want them to discover the globally influential history of Cuban music from the ‘60s until now. Sometimes I think there are people pushing and paying for the old idea about what is a “Cuban sound.” Sometimes I feel they don’t want to show the reality of the contemporary Cuban music keeping us stuck in time and closing winning doors for this new and young generation. Maybe because our music is a proof of the development we have made, even if that sounds like utopian. We are stronger than 1,000 embargoes, wars and revolutions.
What are your thoughts on the relations between Cuba and the United States today? What do you hope to see come out of it?
I want peace. That is the beginning. After that, then we can start talking.
You’ve toured all over the world. What is your relationship with New York and what can the people expect from your upcoming performance at the Highline Ballroom?
New York is a city that makes me feel so small. You can get lost in the streets. It’s a good exercise for my soul because in those moments that I can’t find the way, I get more confident and I get to believe in myself again. Then it doesn’t scare me any more… New York renews my own power, understanding what is good. I am going to the Highline Ballroom with my heart in my hand, my music and my voice, and my songs in my soul. I am going in naked, clean and pure. And I’m going to show Cuba in every single song.