The Reinvention of Daymé Arocena

Music


B
y the mid-2010s,
Daymé Arocena had become a household name in her native Havana. She’d been called “the world’s next jazz phenomenon,” and her work with the Cuban-Canadian jazz band Maqueque helped win a 2015 Juno Award. When she’d walk down the street, people would stop her, recognizing her as the singer with the powerful, heart-atomizing voice. At restaurants, fans would come up to her and greet her enthusiastically. “I’d built a reputation there,” she remembers. “But I started to feel like I’d hit a ceiling in Cuba.”

Arocena had always been an outspoken voice in Cuba’s arts scene, but around 2019, she says, her world changed after she had a few public clashes with the government’s cultural ministers. Fearing repercussions and wanting more out of her career, she and her husband made the difficult decision of leaving the island and moving to Canada. Then the pandemic hit. “It put me in a complete state of isolation that I felt very intensely,” she says. “It was a feeling that’s hard to explain, because it’s one thing to emigrate, and it’s one thing to feel exile, and it’s a complete other thing to emigrate, feel exiled, and live through a pandemic.”

Alone in a completely new city, Arocena turned to music. “During the early days of the pandemic, I didn’t want to listen to music that made me think too much,” she explains. “I wanted to hear music that would make me dance.” She listened to more frothy, upbeat songs, something that was a bit of change for a serious artist who grew up studying jazz standards and Cuban folk traditions. “I wanted music that would take me out of this gray inner world I’d been living in.”

One night, Arocena caught Beyoncé’s Black Is King, a film that revolutionized her thinking about her own music. She watched as Beyoncé blended in touches of African spirituality, incorporating nods to the Yoruba goddess Oshun in several scenes. Throughout her life, Arocena has been devoted to Santería, the Afro-Caribbean spiritual practice with deep Yoruba roots. While she often appears onstage in all-white to represent her own faith, she’d always kept her traditions and her music separate. 

“You’ve never seen anything like that in your life,” Arocena remembers. “I heard her verbalize and put these names in her music, mentioning these Orishas I’ve loved my whole life and that I’ve stood for my whole life. When I see that in this context, it changed my perspective about music completely. I didn’t know I had license, I didn’t know that there was a way to mix folk culture and pop. To me, those were things you didn’t mix.”

Arocena had all these ideas in mind when she started recording her new album, Alkemi, a gorgeous reinvention of her sound that blends tradition and modernity. She moved to Puerto Rico and teamed up with former Calle 13 member Eduardo Cabra, the producer with the most Latin Grammy nominations in history. Together, they found their way into new songs that shine a light on Arocena’s stunning vocal range. They took inspiration from contemporary jazz and from artists like Sade, but Arocena also pushed herself into even more pop-driven territory, showing her versatility on multiple songs.“With Daymé, there’s no limits if you ask her for anything on the production side,” Cabra tells Rolling Stone. “Any idea that you come up with is a possibility for her. I think we achieved the album we wanted, and it has all the powers of Daymé.”

“American Boy,” for example, is an upbeat single from the LP, infused with tons of soul and even hints of funk. Arocena belts out freely on the track, showing the full scope of her impressive vocal range. Later, she softens things up for “Suave y Pegao,” a buttery, jazz-infused R&B cut with the Puerto Rican multi-instrumentalist Rafa Pabon, known for writing hits like Rauw Alejandro’s “Todo De Ti.” “We met in a funny way,” Arocena says. “We were in Eduardo’s studio, and he saw me and said ‘You’re the girl from Maqueque!’ And it surprised me so much that a reggaeton artist listened to my music, but he immediately went, ‘We listen to everything. We’re way more open-minded than anyone thinks.’” 

In addition to a sonic reinvention, Alkemi is also a proud celebration of Blackness, of spirituality, and of the self. Arocena has been outspoken about how few Black women are included in the Latin music industry; when “American Boy” came out in November 2023, she was transparent about the realities of her experiences. “In an indirect way, the music industry had shown me that I wasn’t welcome in that world,” she said at the time. “There isn’t a Black woman like me who enjoys the kind of success usually reserved for Rosalía or Karol G. The image of music genres like salsa or bachata has been painfully distorted throughout the years. You are supposed to clone and fuse yourself in order to conceal your Black or indigenous side. They told me I didn’t fit in that world, but I’m going to prove them wrong.”

Arocena tells Rolling Stone that she had to work through the often racist and colorist beauty standards that exist in the Latin industry in particular. “In Latin America, we’ve been completely invisibilized, and for women it’s even worse,” she says now. “For women, there’s this physical pressure and an obsession and a wildly distorted view of beauty.” She explains that the album helped give her new confidence and helped her realize her own power. “It made me look in the mirror in a different way,” she says. “When I expose myself in love, to others, to the world, to music, to reactions, who is going to limit me? I’m limiting myself if I listen to what other people say. But through challenging those ideas, today I feel so ready to fight against things that seem well-established and that might feel immovable.”

Already, Arocena has seen what her music can mean to others. Years ago, she wrote a song called “Angel,” off her 2017 album Cubafon​í​a. One day, a woman sent her a DM on Instagram: “She said she always used to play that song for her little boy. He passed away, and she said in her message, ‘Now, every time I lesson to ‘Angel,’ I’m going to think of my little boy and connect with him through the emotion of the song.’” It’s proof of something she’s always understood: “I firmly believe that music can move people who don’t even speak your language. It has the power to inspire them.”

Alkemi is another evolution for her, one that she hopes will help her continue moving people and even breaking barriers. “I always say that this is my mission in life. I was given a tool, and that’s music. God must have said, ‘Choose, I’m going to give you one tool to defend yourself, because you’re going to have to fight against everything,’” she says. “This is me, using every tool at my fingertips.”

Production Credits

Production by PAOLA ALEXANDRA VICARIA. Hair by CAVERLINA CULTURE. Styling by MARIA GARCIA LEYVA

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