Rosalía always knew she would be famous. “I’m a spiritual person so I had a vision of this moment in my life,” she says the day before her cover of Spanish Vogue drops, and a week on from being namechecked by Madonna in an interview. In the space of just two years she has evolved from singing flamenco standards on her death-obsessed debut album Los Ángeles, to controversially modernising that genre’s folkloric traditions via the high-gloss sheen of R&B on her breakthrough collection El Mal Querer, swiftly becoming pop’s most exciting new superstar in the process. In a New York Times profile in 2018, the thirty-year-old was hailed as “the Rihanna of flamenco”.
Along the way, she has picked up fans ranging from James Blake to Alicia Keys (to whom she’s been giving Spanish lessons) and director Pedro Almodóvar, who cast her in his film Pain and Glory. That’s thanks in part to the album’s crossover hit A Palé, full of complex handclap rhythms and sleek electronic pulses, which landed her five Latin Grammy nominations and a performance at the MTV Europe music awards. Its head-spinning video, featuring Rosalía executing flawless choreography in the back of a lorry, and later being lifted skywards on the prongs of a forklift, currently stands at 158 million YouTube views. Its mix of industrial, modern and traditional (matadors lure motorbikes rather than bulls; cape-wearing penitents glide around on skateboards) is a perfect encapsulation of Rosalía’s merging of Spain’s past and present.
If this newfound fame has unsettled her, she is not showing it. “I feel like I’ve been preparing all my life for this moment,” she says on the phone from a Barcelona studio. Her grasp of English is much better than she gives herself credit for — “Oh my God, my English is the worst!” she screams in frustration at one point — considering all her songs are performed in Spanish. “I’m working harder now than at any other point in my life because I have a fear of losing what I have,” she adds. “Before, I had nothing; I didn’t have any contacts in the industry, nobody around me was a musician, so it was really hard. But I also had nothing to lose so I’ve always been fearless.”
That determination has been put to the test with accusations from certain sections of the Spanish media that Rosalía’s use of flamenco iconography — traditions fostered by the art form’s historical ties to Spain’s marginalised Gypsy community in Andalusia – amounts to cultural appropriation. Rosalía was born in the more affluent region of Catalonia and critics have cited her use of Gypsy vocabulary and phrasing as problematic. While Rosalía’s initial position was defensive, citing in interviews the fact that she studied flamenco from a young age as proof of her passion, she offers a slightly more balanced take today.
“It is very important that people understand how important flamenco is to the Gypsy community,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “There have been some amazing Gypsy artists. It’s important that we give visibility to that, but at the same time people have to be fair and recognise that Paco de Lucía was the biggest guitar player in this style of music in the world and he wasn’t Gypsy. Lola Flores was the biggest Spanish female flamenco icon and she wasn’t Gypsy. Music is beyond races, beyond territories.”
She says she is aware, too, of her privileged position and keen to create a platform “that’s helpful for all the people who don’t have the opportunities”. She grows angry, however, when reflecting on the implication that she is nothing more than a capitalist construct and that flamenco is merely an adornment to a campaign with a huge marketing budget; the Association of Feminist Gitanas for Diversity last year dismissed her as a “poseur”.
“When an artist becomes pop, it’s because the people choose it,” she says. “Yes, you can have that dream to be a big pop star, but it’s the audience that puts you in that position. I never had a paid marketing campaign, it was never like that. Never. The content was, and is, radical and it worked. When Malamente was released I had no label. I made El Mal Querer with my friend; we produced it together, and worked on it for more than a year and a half. If you’re a creative person and use creativity a lot in the way you treat your craft then you are probably going to succeed. When people say marketing and shit like that, they don’t understand; you can’t force people!” She lets out a half-laugh, half-gasp, suddenly aware of how frustrated she’s become.
Rosalía relaxes when explaining why she was drawn to flamenco in the first place. At the age of thirteen, she and sister Pili (now her stylist) would hang out near parks with older friends who’d blare its tales of emotional blood-letting from their car stereos. She was captivated instantly. “I would say, for me, flamenco is so pure, so raw,” she says. “I love pop culture but sometimes I miss the root, the rawness. With flamenco, I felt like I always needed it, I just didn’t know it. It’s purer than anything else for me. If you don’t put the truth into it, it won’t work. I don’t know what it will be but it won’t be flamenco.” If flamenco is the music of passion, of experience, of a life well lived, where does the wise-beyond-her-years sadness that permeates her songs emanate from? The answer, it turns out, is Carl Jung. “He talks about a collective unconsciousness, and I love this concept. I’m a spiritual person, and I really think that we don’t just die.”
Despite being inspired by Flamenca, an obscure 13th-century novel about a jealous husband who locks his wife in a tower, El Mal Querer (it roughly translates as “toxic love”) has tracks that reference both Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River and Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name. “Justin Timberlake was everywhere [growing up],” she says. “Destiny’s Child was something I’d hear all the time in Spain, too; same with the Spice Girls and Britney Spears. These were icons. They influenced me and I have no problem giving them credit [for that]. I love it the same way I love Mozart or Bach.” Who was her favourite Spice Girl? “I just loved the bus!” she says. “They used to have a Spice Girls bus and I dreamed of having a bus like that.” In fact, growing up in Sant Esteve Sesrovires, a small town on the outskirts of Barcelona, surrounded by factories, Rosalía would obsess over any large vehicle. “I used to constantly see trucks and study the drivers’ lifestyle,” she says.
Growing up, her musical icons were all female: besides Britney, Beyoncé and the Spice Girls, she loved Janis Joplin, Lola Flores and Lil Kim. The team she surrounds herself with now is mainly women, too. “My single Aute Cuture was mastered by a woman, and that was important for me. It’s important we give visibility to women in an industry that’s still very masculine.” Obsessing over Lil Kim inspired another of Rosalía’s recent visual statements: her mythical beauty gang in the Aute Cuture video are bedecked with the kind of intricate nail embellishments that turn talons into weapons. “I think [having] long nails is a radical feminist symbol,” she says. “Very extreme. It’s more than just being pretty, it’s about power.”
Published in The Guardian on July 29, 2019.Reprinted with permission.