Why Rosalía's El mal querer Is Being Accused of Cultural Appropriation

Rosalía's El mal querer is an international hit, but in her home country of Spain it's stirred up controversy.
Rosalía's El mal querer is an international hit, but in her home country of Spain it's stirred up controversy. Courtesy Sony Music Spain
A few months ago, Rosalía’s was a name I was only vaguely familiar with. I first heard her sing on “Antes de Morirme” with C. Tangana, a Spanish rapper, and then on the stripped-down track, “Brillo,” with J Balvin. With her impeccably smooth vocals, she outshines her counterparts on both songs. Of her first music videos, “De plata” stuck with me, in which, with undeniable star power, Rosalía belts flamenco while dancing through the nighttime streets of Madrid.

With the release of her album El mal querer, Rosalía´s presence on the global musical scene has been confirmed. She won two Latin Grammys this year, wowing audiences from around the world with her performance of “Malamente.” She also received the all-important rave review from Pitchfork, as well as other outlets in both English and Spanish. As Pitchfork’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote, the album “is one of the most exciting and passionately composed albums to appear not only in the global bass tradition but in the pop and experimental spheres this year.”

My reaction was the same when I first listened to El mal querer in its entirety. While the two singles, “Malamente” and “Pienso en tu mirá” are quite pop-driven, with catchy beats and easy-to-sing lyrics, the rest of the album is a journey into a mélange of sounds you’ve never heard mixed together before. On “Reniego,” the opening orchestral strings mixed with flamenco-inspired vocals is mesmerizing. On “Bagdad,” I did a double-take when I recognized a sample from Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” in which she combined flamenco vocals and palmas (claps) with R&B to create something entirely new. The sounds I could recognize are distinctly Spanish, but as a whole, the album sounds like something completely new.

After listening and watching the four videos that accompany the album – which almost echo Beyonce’s Lemonade in their “heart-wrenching storytelling of modern, woman-flexing R&B,” as Shepherd put it – I went to see what else people were saying about it. Most reviews were overwhelmingly positive, but I was surprised to some headlines from Spanish outlets accusing Rosalía of cultural appropriation.

As it turns out, the singer is not from Andalucía, the home of flamenco. She is Catalan, from the country’s northeastern region where Barcelona is the capital. The political and cultural tensions between the regions are no secret; tensions peaked in 2017 when a referendum for an independent Catalonia ended with crackdowns from the Spanish government and the dismissal of Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. When I lived there a few years ago, the phrase I heard a few times that stuck with me was that some Catalans pride themselves on being more “European” than their neighbors to the south. To my understanding, this was code for “whiter” than the people whose heritage more clearly reflect Romani, or gitano (gypsy) influences. It seemed curious that Rosalía would be echoing the music and language of the people so often discriminated against in Catalonia.

But the case turns out to be more complex. Rosalía has a degree in traditional flamenco music from the Escuela Superior de Música de Cataluña (or the Catalan Superior School of Music), and El mal querer is her final student project. She is no stranger to the ins and outs of the genre. And of course, I’d like to imagine her as one of the majority of Catalans I met, those who didn’t hold prejudice against their neighbors to the South.

Why the backlash, then? One pro-gitano activist, Noelia Cortés, takes issue with what she sees as Rosalía being the only palatable (read: white) version of flamenco with international appeal, and with Rosalía’s use of an Andalusian-inspired aesthetic and symbolism (like the bullfighting school featured in the video for “Malamente”). This casts a harsh pall over Rosalía’s massive, almost unblemished success, but the history of racism Cortés cites against Romani people, with whom flamenco is intimately intertwined, is nothing debatable. To ignore it would only further prove her point.

In an article entitled, “Why is Rosalía not flamenca?” from the Andalusian paper ABCdeSevilla, critic Alberto García Reyes presents an alternative, technically driven case that Rosalía shouldn’t be considered a flamenco artist based purely on her music . For example, he explains, while Rosalía’s vocals often follow the melodic qualities of flamenco, they don’t maintain its strict pacing and rhythms. And since she can’t be considered a true flamenco artist, the music she creates does not do damage to the genre. What she does can be called cultural appropriation, yes, García Reyes argues, but he employs the term as a descriptor rather than as a pejorative. Rosalía has taken elements of her flamenco training and transformed them within a new context, that of pop music.

Does García Reyes’ perspective end the argument? It doesn’t really answer the racial question, though as García Reyes accurately states, many other musicians have co-opted flamenco sounds and never received the same backlash. There may well be some truth to the questionable nature of Rosalía’s aesthetic and use of Andalusian slang. It echoes the same convoluted debate that has been going on about so many American artists, particularly in hip-hop, for years.

Still, it would be a mistake to discredit Rosalía as a media product cobbled together by a record label. She is a lifelong musician who has achieved a melding of pop, trap, and flamenco-inspired sounds in a way that no other artist has done. She is not a flamenco singer stealing the spotlight from more capable artists; she exists in a separate space. As Garcia argues, to fail to distinguish between traditional flamenco artists and Rosalía herself is to do a disservice to both.

We can only hope that, going forward, some productive results come from these discussions, often as difficult as they are necessary. We can also hope for more music from Rosalía in the meantime. 
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