Interview: Maluca Mala

Life is an island rave.

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Maluca Mala—literally “Crazy Bad” in Spanish—has shimmied together a kingdom from an aggregate heap of New York culture and Dominican resilience. A humanist at heart, the first-generation New Yorker disregards stereotypes and collaborates with friends whenever possible to evolve her already multi-genre, multi-inspired style. For Maluca Mala, life is an island rave—and Glamcult can’t help but accept the invitation.

We defy anyone to listen to Maluca Mala’s El Tigeraso, Lola (Ging Danga) or her most recent single, Trigger, without feeling their inhibitions seep away. Running the gamut from electronic dance to merengue violento, Mala’s music effortlessly fuses New York subcultures with her Dominican roots. Her eclectic sound has been labelled experimental tropical punk, ghetto tech and hip-house—none of which quite captures the essence of her music or her personality: “We live in an age of multi-genres,” she shrugs. Genres aside, Mala’s in good company, often mentioned in the same breath as fellow multifaceted female artists M.I.A and Santigold.

Maluca Mala, née Natalie Ann Yepez, grew up listening to an all-encompassing mixtape, a compilation including salsa, merengue, bachata, cumbia and mambo from her island heritage woven with the ’90s hip hop, drum’n’bass, club music, punk, house and techno she discovered as a curious New York youth. The dichotomy continues: while the influence of legendary Dominican musicians such as Las Chicas Del Can can be clearly heard (and seen in the styling of her first music video), future collaborators include Future Brown, Brodinski, Diplo, Skrillex and Swedish pop princess Robyn, Mala’s beloved mentor.

A Dominican backbone—equal parts resilience and enduring optimism—is the basis of Mala’s work, life, style and attitude. “As a kid, I didn’t like the feeling of being excluded,” she begins. “There’s different groups and you may not always fit in.” Mala recognized this isolation in the endeavours of other Dominican creatives like writer Junot Díaz, whose novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao draws from his experience of adapting to a New Jersey lifestyle after moving from the Dominican Republic. “Trying to balance between the two cultures was sometimes kind of tricky,” Mala admits. “I really identify with that in Díaz’s story.” Like many others whose family heritage and place of residence are at odds, Mala found that both became engrained in her over time—to the extent that questions regarding her distinguishing “Dominican-ness” seemed “weird”. It’s not that clear cut, she says.

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As a Dominican New Yorker, drawing from and giving back to her home city informs everything Mala does; even “adult” personal ads have found their way into her storytelling. Living above the East Village newspaper the Village Voice after moving from the Bronx and Washington Heights exposed Mala to the paper’s explicit listings: “I thought, Who are these girls? They must have a story. This is not really who they are.” Keen to explore those identities, for the video for Lola (Ging Danga), Mala invited high-profile lesbian model Jenny Shimizu and dual-gendered performer Mykki Blanco, in addition to escorts, a transgender woman and two gay men, to star. “You wouldn’t know who the escort is; you wouldn’t know who the transgender is,” she points out. Mala’s sense of inclusiveness recognizes everyone as an individual instead of a stereotype—because “that’s how the world should be,” she declares. Personal style becomes a tool to reveal the genuine persona.

Ever since her father offered to buy her a pair of Doc Martens—before they became popular with rappers—fashion has been a part of Mala’s vernacular. With her current taste in designers ranging from thought-provoking brands like Eckhaus Latta, Hood By Air, Marques’Almeida and Luar Zepol to staples such as Balmain and Givenchy, Mala’s sartorial range reflects her music’s eclecticism. Though doing a collection herself is never out of the question—“Sure, if H&M wants to do a line, why not?”—Mala’s found other ways throughout the years to shake up the fashion community.

With a microphone in hand, GoPro strapped to her head and a wit that charmed everyone she came across, Mala interviewed a range of well-known designers for VFiles’ online video series, Xtreme Fashion Week. A unique, NYC-bred online fashion community, VFiles needed contributors, and editorial directors David Toro and Solomon Chase looked to charismatic friends like Mala. This would not be her only memorable appearance in the fashion world, however. Her most recent single, Trigger, landed Mala a gig at the Chromat S/S15 Formula 15 After Party, alongside the legendary GHE20 G0TH1K.

Venus X, the mastermind behind Ghe20 G0th1k—a cultish underground dance spectacular, now also a fashion movement, that attracts everyone from punks to fashionistas—is a fellow Dominican and friend of Mala’s. “As New York kids we’re always trying to support one another,” she says. “Whether it’s going to shows or doing music or performing or the folks who did my remixes, these are all the kids that we started together.”

For Trigger, Maluca worked with friends and producers Rizzla, Brodinski and Mess Kid, a group she feels “gets it” and “understands what it’s like to live in two cultures.” Out of the group, Mess Kid, the Detroit-raised, Latvian-born DJ and producer sought out by designers Alexander Wang, Balenciaga and DKNY for their events, created the most unexpected sound for Mala. “It was very different from the other remixes, which were more of a Spanish tempo,” she explains. “His was down tempo, really trippy and minimal.” Mala’s approach to Trigger marks a new evolution in her music, fuelled by the right collaborations.

“It’s all happening just like I said it would” Mala recently posted on Twitter. Whether by writing down goals or creating vision boards, she feels if you “declare those things—and of course you have to go hard at it too—it will eventually start to happen.” And for Mala, it’s all coming together—and full circle. In addition to promoting Trigger, her next project will take her back to the Dominican Republic. “When I said everything is happening, this is one of the things that inspired that tweet,” she explains. She will join Art in Motion for their Batey 106 project, conducting a music workshop for the youth of a specific Dominican community. “What can we do to give them the tools to really live a fully expressed life?” she wonders. Sending over a multitalented musician and self-described humanist is definitely a good start.

By Emily Vernon

Photography: Katharina Poblotzki

 

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