Understanding the context and background of urban artist La Doña is as simple as watching her new video Quién Me La Paga: a kitchen and a living room — full of symbolism, female voices, and deep Chicano roots — that present a new voice that does not underestimate her platform.
Her references to Selena’s tradition, with an ensemble of several musicians, tell the story of a singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist who carries in her veins the Chicano musical tradition, and who from a very young age was surrounded by the heterogeneity of music en Español.
Cecilia Peña-Govea, “La Doña,” has materialized her hard-working spirit in a solo project “with a lot of direction and strength.”
“I grew up playing music with my family,” she told me in an exclusive interview, remembering how since she was four years old she was involved in her family’s musical project, La Familia Peña-Govea, by the hand of her father, thanks to whom she studied music, composition, and the interpretation of various instruments, from the guitar to the trumpet.
“I started learning percussion and guitar when I was four or five, and then I started learning trumpet when I was seven, because it’s my father’s main instrument,” she said. “I attended different scholarship programs; I studied at the community music center, at the Bravo School of Art. Then I went to study in the San Francisco school of Arts, which is basically a high school where you go during the day and study your artistic discipline and the other half of the day you study regular subjects. But I went there, specifically, to study trumpet and it was a really intense program. I learned theory, piano, and the basics of other instruments, [which] allowed me to have the experience with different bands.”
In this way, the young artist began to experience the musical fusion between her family background of corridos and rancheras and the urban sounds of her community, managing to interweave the diverse sounds with the bilingualism of her culture.
“La Doña” Is Born
“La Doña is my own solo musical project,” she said. “I grew up playing music with my family so I’ve always been interested in conjuntos. It all started with my family, always playing different kinds of instruments and genres, like jazz. And it also comes from different melodic ideas that I wanted to realize with different types of instrumentation.”
But when it came to exploring a sound of her own, the hip hop and reggaeton scene gave her new tools to find a different place in the industry.
“I used to play acoustic instruments, sometimes more electric instruments, but I never worked with digital production. So I got together with a few different friends to try that out. I’m a composer as well, and an arranger, so with that basis of knowledge, it was really easy and direct for me to communicate my ideas with different producers, and writing down different lines and live instruments — to keep the Latin roots more tangible and utterly obvious, because it’s really important to me.”
Having been born in California to Chicano parents, La Doña’s sound has been permeated by movements such as hyphy, hip hop, and other musical expressions from the Bay Area, San Francisco, and largely, California.
Changing the Music Scene
When we talk about the role of women in deeply masculine genres such as hip hop and reggaeton, La Doña does not hesitate to say that change is inevitable:
“There are so many opportunities for change,” she said. “Especially in these genres that require very heavy coordination and organization, especially because the dissemination of antifeminist ideas that comes through a lot of popular genres like hip hop and reggaeton [is very harmful and pervasive]. ”
“I think that it requires kind of a politicization of the music, not only the lyrics but also the artist, for the artists to take strong positions in different issues that are affecting us and the function of the world. And I think that music gives us the chance to open the discussion, both from a expressive and sensitive point of view.”
Especially when it comes to women of color, who face a double battle in any industry: that of gender and that of race. For La Doña, the challenge is to move beyond a market that capitalizes on women as an image, and to form bonds between women within the same industry.
“I’ve been really lucky to work with a lot of women producers, artists, and writers and it’s a very different feeling. It’s way more open, way more friendly,” she said. “As a woman you always feel more like on the edge working on a male-dominated situation. I grew up with a lot of male musicians and I had to navigate all that. Like machismo, or sometimes just the ego. So I think that if there’s more female representation, I think that context won’t stand much longer.”
“I think there’s a need for more representation in this sphere of toxic masculinity. There is no choice but for it to change,” she added.
Empowering Through Reggaeton
The debate on identity, sexual objectification, and feminism in genres such as reggaeton is, for La Doña, a question of “re-appropriation.”
“I think its first important to help women understand that they can listen to that music and not echo the message that portrays them as a sexual object,” she told me about her experience in the genre. “I think there’s an opportunity in lyrics that talk about experiences, about art, about other tribulations.”
Because, being one of the most listened to genres in the world, reggaeton, more than a simple rhythm, is a platform of diffusion.
“I want people not only to identify with my lyrics, but also to be encouraged to open up to other kinds of music, or to be able to express their own messages whether it’s feminism or something else, like identity politics,” she said. “It’s about redefining or re-appropriating rhythmic or harmonic material to be relevant in an important and meaningful way. That’s my main intent.”
And it is not only about gender issues, but also about politics in general.
At a critical time for the immigrant community in the United States, for La Doña, having a platform, rather than a privilege, is a responsibility.
Her experience as an agent of change in her community, as an educator and as a spokesperson for social justice, has given her a much more objective perspective on the need to use her position in the music industry to bring about much greater change.
“I think it’s not enough to be talking or singing about certain messages and promoting these messages but also to remind your audience of your political standpoint and to remain visible and active because there’s no point in having a platform unless you’re going to take a stand on things,” she concluded.
“I know it has a lot to do with your profitability on the market and like how much people listen to you but I think it’s really, really important to always remember that as a public personality, for instance, your first responsibility is to try to expose people to ideas that they might not be comfortable with, that they might not be used to, and hope that you can affect people not only by singing to them and through your music but also by having overtly political messages.”