It's Friday night and I'm in a new club in Tottenham, although I'd be forgiven for thinking I'd stepped into a sentient Instagram feed. All around me are people dressed in thigh-high boots, Kappa poppers, diamond chokers and a variety of other items we've come to understand as internet-cool. The mostly LGBTQ and Spanish crowd are all here to see Bad Gyal, a viral internet sensation from Barcelona. Last year the 20-year-old racked up over 1 million Youtube views in six months with her sugary Reggaetón-lite track "Indapanden" and now boasts the title of La Reina de Trap Catalan, or, The Queen of Catalan trap. A scroll through her feed presents a lot of selfies, boldly captioned posts and pretty great outfits. For her debut UK performance she's in a fuzzy pink crop top, a high ponytail, her Calvins and a pair of assless chaps.
But, despite much of what has been written about her in the press so far, Bad Gyal – real name Alba Farelo – seems to spend a lot of her time in interviews insisting that the music she makes is not actually trap, but dancehall. A lot of the hype around her also seems to focus on the fact she is a woman, and the supposedly revolutionary nature of her music in terms of gender roles within these traditionally male-dominated genres. Perhaps because she is yet to gain much publicity outside of Spain, less has been made of her whiteness within a predominantly black and brown scene. But do either of these things really matter if the music is good and makes you want to dance?
Bad Gyal grew up in Vilassa del Mar, a village on the Balearic Sea coast just north of Barcelona, somewhere she describes as "quiet and without any music scene". Tonight, we are both perched on stools in a dimly-lit corner of the bar following her debut UK performance, which she thinks went well. She started making music and sharing it about a year ago, but says that it's "something that's been with me since I was a kid". She cites her musical inspirations both growing up and now as "the Jamaican scene: Vybz Kartel, Gaza Slim, Portmore Empire, and obviously all the ladies," excitedly listing off names. "I like old reggaetón and old dancehall". As for her own music, she describes it as inspired by these genres but "also mixed with my vibe and what I feel. I have my influences but I don't know what it is. I cannot use a word to describe my music."
Blending trap beats and autotune with the dembow rhythms of reggaetón and dancehall, Bad Gyal is the first to sing this music in her native tongue of Catalan. Spain is presently enjoying a boom in reggaetón listeners and they have taken to their homegrown princess enthusiastically. It's unclear whether cultural appropriation is a concept that has come to Bad Gyal's attention. She doesn't seem particularly comfortable discussing her role as a Spanish woman in a scene that has not traditionally been the preserve of white people, and despite speaking out about her sex-positive and feminist views in past interviews, she now declines to answer questions about what the message of her music is, or how she describes her feminism. Which is… fair enough. A little research hints this may be due to backlash she has received over labelling herself a feminist while wearing revealing clothing and twerking (which, in and of itself, demonstrates a lack of understanding those critics had about how feminism works – she could wear what she likes and believe in equality for all genders).
"I move my ass because I like to, not because you want to see it," she's said in an interview with Playground. "If a girl likes to dress up, be beautiful or feel sexy, that does not make her less feminist."
When all's said and done, though, she is a white woman making dancehall-influenced music under a Jamaican stage name. Much has been written already about the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. When you're coming from a position of relative privilege, and looking to express yourself in the language or norms of a culture you've discovered later in life (and want to use for making money), chances are you're toeing that line pretty closely. In Bad Gyal's case, that opens her up to criticism. The (justified) backlash and criticism surrounding that is probably still to come once she blows up outside of Spain. Tonight, she simply says: "I don't try to send a message, I just write what I feel and what I think. I think the songs speak for themselves. I don't really think about the lyrics, I just sing what comes and what I feel on the beat. If there's any message, it's just to live your life."
This particular brand of female empowerment is pretty evident from Bad Gyal's lyrics: on "Leiriss", a rare track rapped in her limited English, the hook sees her singing: "Ladies you must keep your head up/ You must be yourself" over a trap beat produced by her friend and frequent collaborator Fake Guido. In "Mercadano" – a lo-fi video filmed seemingly mostly on the side of a motorway – she lets us know what she's expecting from life in a mix of English and Spanish: "I just want the money / Where is the cash? / There you'll find me / Expect to charge you feel me?"
Maybe it is unrealistic to expect explicit social and political discourse from all our artists – especially ones barely out of their teens – but it's hard not to desire something beyond a bleach blonde hairstyle and some cool nails. Furthermore, it's hard to detach the music Bad Gyal makes and claims to be pioneering from its history and context. Reggaetón traces its origins to Puerto Rico, and its Latinx identity is often a common musical, lyrical and visual theme. Replacing this with a centring of her Catalan identity seems odd to say the least, without even getting into discussions about the history of Spanish colonisation in the area.
It isn't a push to suggest that Bad Gyal fits pretty comfortably with other some of the other female acts expanding the boundaries of reggaetón, in a genre loosely named "future reggaetón". Rising artists such as Tomasa del Real – a tattoo artist turned reggaetónera – and Ms Nina Los Santos both also make use of dembow rhythms, trap beats and videos featuring flashing upside-down Nike ticks, string vests and a lot of smoking (weed, obvs). The Latin American artists deliver unapologetically dirty and shameless raps about their sexuality, their love of perreo and dancehall, and have also been praised for their female-centric re-versioning of reggaetón's machismo. Tomasa del Real has worked with La Mafia del Amor, a Spanish collective that has also collaborated with Bad Gyal. Strangely, however, when I ask Bad Gyal whether she thinks she is well-placed in this new wave of female reggaetón artists, she claims she does not see any similarity between her and her peers. "Maybe we're in the same moment," she says, "But our styles are different. I do dancehall and have other influences; you just have to hear the music".
Maybe it's the language barrier, but it seems pretty naive to believe she is the only artist right doing what she does right now. As mentioned, dancehall and reggaetón have been inextricably linked from the very beginning. In terms of some combination of the two being a ground-breaking concept, artists such as El General and Nando Boom have been doing it since the early 90s. In fact one of the pioneers of the scene was OG reggaetónera Rude Girl AKA La Atrevida, who released "Estas Dulce", her version of the Bam Bam Riddim, before Bad Gyal was even born. Again, she's really young, and may look back on quotes she gave to journalists in her teens with the cringes we grant our adolescent outfits and political opinions.
For now, Bad Gyal's persona seems to be more about style than substance. That's fair enough at a time when most of the musicians who even get to the point of breaking into the industry have to make sure their visual aesthetic matches their music. Young artists now have to learn to be brands before they've necessarily even figured out what they really like. Bad Gyal looks great and her music undeniably bangs, but there doesn't seem to be much more to the Spanish sensation than her innate appeal to the Tumblr generation and her ability to engage her fellow countrymen who've been waiting for their own reggaetónera in the Latin American-dominated scene.
Since we meet, she has released a collaboration with internet-digger and serial remixer Dubbel Dutch, with another feature with Mexican club collective NAAFI on the way, she says (which NAAFI's Mexican Jihad has since denied is happening) – moves she hopes will push her sound in a more "international direction". I conclude our interview by asking her what kind of artist she wants to be. She looks up at her boyfriend, who she ushered over midway through our chat, and responds: "I don't think about that. I've had a long week and I just want to dance".
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