‘Female energy has an erotic superiority’: Spanish pop superstar Rosalía on bomb threats, backlash and breaking tradition
She has won armfuls of trophies at the Latin Grammy awards and recorded with the likes of Billie Eilish and Bad Bunny. Ahead of a date at the O2, she talks about her drive, genre-blending and subverting female archetypes
Afew weeks ago, Rosalía was onstage at the Latin Grammys performing her global hit Despechá, flanked by hunky, scantily clad dancers like 2022’s answer to Blond Ambition-era Madonna. The 30-year-old Catalan singer and producer, born Rosalía Vila Tobella, had spent four years working her way to the centre of the Latin pop world. Now she headed into the audience and started grinding on her boyfriend, the Puerto Rican singer Rauw Alejandro. Within seconds, clips of the moment were all over TikTok. Without even trying, Rosalía had generated another viral moment, in a year already full of them.
Ten days later, she got a harrowing reminder of the downside to fame. “Yesterday, in Lisbon,” she tells me, “we had a bomb threat in the arena. There were a lot of police. I’m not gonna lie to you, I was scared, I was anxious – and I still had to go on stage.”
She’s speaking from a hotel room in Milan, ahead of the 40th show of a 52-date tour in support of her acclaimed third album, Motomami.
Since breaking out with 2018’s El Mal Querer – a spellbinding album of experimental flamenco music that became a colossal hit in Spain, and a sensation everywhere else – Rosalía has become a household name in much of the Spanish-speaking world, pushing a vision of uncompromising fusion pop that recalls iconoclasts such as Janet Jackson and Lady Gaga. This year’s Motomami, and her collaborations with global stars such as Bad Bunny, Travis Scott and Billie Eilish, have made her fixture of tabloids, TikTok feeds and arenas across the globe. The UK has been slow to catch on, but with a show at the O2 later this month, and appearances in dozens of year-end best-of lists, that may be about to change.
Then came the bomb threat. “It’s a strong position, being on stage,” she says, “but at the same time, there’s a lot of vulnerability, because you have to be honest and open your chest, your heart and sing. I was like: ‘Wow, OK, even though this is happening, which is terrifying, I’m gonna figure this out and I’m sure everything’s gonna be fine.’
“Because my team told me that everything was controlled, it seems contradictory but it was the show that I felt the most connected and the most free. I just decided that I was gonna surrender and hope that we were going to be safe. Nothing prepares you for something like that. You just try to go through it the best you can.”
I’m not sure Rosalía fully intended to talk about Lisbon, but moments earlier, she had mentioned that she “always needed extreme experiences to learn”, and that was the first example that came to mind. Not all the experiences have been so, well, extreme: when Rosalía was 14 and dreaming of a career in music, for example, she decided to enter Tú Sí Que Vales – essentially Spain’s answer to Britain’s Got Talent. In footage from the show, a young Rosalía, made-up to the nines in the slightly-too-much way that children often feel looks “grown up”, plays acoustic guitar and sings snatches of Alicia Keys’ No One. She didn’t make it to the next round – her voice, while striking, wasn’t yet the clarion, ribbony thing it would become – but it did instil in her the fact that, if she was going to pursue pop music seriously, it would be a lot of work.
“Nobody in my family was connected to the music industry, so I didn’t know how to … we call it romper el melón, (break the melon), but I don’t know how to say that in English,” she says, meaning break through. Although she speaks English wittily and fluently, she is still relatively new to the language, and an aide sits in to translate anything she gets stuck on.
“Through going on that programme, I learned that becoming a musician was going to be something that required humility and patience,” she says. “If I hadn’t gone on that show, I probably would have never realised how much I had to work.”
She had decided she wanted to pursue music five years earlier, aged nine. Raised in a town on the outskirts of Barcelona, she remembers a childhood filled with singing and dancing “without a reason”; on the weekends, her parents would run errands in their car, and Rosalía would sing along to Queen, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. The way Rosalía paints it, her mother – then an executive at a metalwork factory, now her manager – was a rebel like her daughter. She introduced Rosalía to Patti Smith (“Every time I hear her talk, I think, ‘This woman is so smart and free’.” I just admire her from the bottom of my heart”) and, along with Rosalía’s father, would ride Harley-Davidsons. “She has a lot of determination, she’s very strong, and she’s very independent,” Rosalía says.
As a teenager, Rosalía was bewitched by flamenco – specifically, the work of the 70s new flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla – and decided she wanted to learn everything she could about it. After studying at the Taller de Músics in Barcelona, she moved to the Catalonia College of Music, becoming the one student it admits to its flamenco course annually. It was there that she began to fuse flamenco, urbano (modern Latin music) and western pop. Flamenco is a rarefied, fiercely protected tradition – but Rosalía always wanted to twist it into new shapes.
“I have so much respect for tradition – that’s why I decided to spend 10 years of my life focused on studying flamenco. But at the same time, the more I grew up, the more I knew myself – and I think that approaching things from [a point of] orthodoxy is not as fun,” she says. “Freedom is a priority for me. I didn’t see music in a compartmentalised way – we live in a globalised world where so many cultures mix and share common spaces.”
What she prizes most in music, she says, is alteridade – a sense of otherness. “A lot of times, because of our lack of knowledge or our prejudices, we don’t value enough music that isn’t from westerners,” she says. “I think it’s so important to keep yourself open – there’s as many ways to make music as individuals in the world. John Cage’s 4’33 can be music; birds on the tree can be music; Cameron de la Isla … all of that is music.”
You can hear that thirst for genre-bending on El Mal Querer and Motomami. The former was an expansion of a university project based on The Romance of Flamenca, a 13th-century work in the Occitan language (sometimes known as Provençal). It found Rosalía fusing the DNA of flamenco with ghostly, experimental pop textures reminiscent of Björk – and weaving in elements of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River for good measure.
Motomami, on the other hand, leans hard into rhythmic modern Latin pop styles such as dembow, reggaeton and bachata, while still finding time to reference flamenco, fuse a 1968 bolero with a sample of cult southern rapper Soulja Boy, and rap over a few seconds of Miami bass. It might be the strangest record of the year, and it’s one of the most successful. It’s already double-platinum in Spain, and took album of the year at the Latin Grammys, another trophy to add to the 10 others she’s won there in the past five years.
Rosalía’s rise hasn’t been without controversy. El Mal Querer was criticised by members of the gitano (Spanish Romani) community, who said it was inappropriate for a white woman to utilise gitano vocabulary and aesthetics, and the gitano art of flamenco in general, for profit, while gitanos still face violence and discrimination. (“I understood that the problem in the end was privilege,” she told the Fader in 2019, “The visibility some [gitano] artists haven’t recieved – I empathise with that.”)
Rosalía’s shift away from flamenco, meanwhile, also produced a backlash, with fans questioned whether a white Spaniard should be able to win awards at events like the Latin Grammys for styles such as reggaeton and bachata, which originated in non-white Spanish colonies. The way Rosalía tells it, the embrace of Latin pop on Motomami is a homage to the music she and her friends would listen to as kids, while the wealth of non-Latin styles like industrial, jazz, hip-hop and bass speaks to her bricolage approach to pop.
“I would use a fake ID from older friends to get into clubs when I was 13, 14,” she recalls. Around age 16, she sustained a vocal injury and retreated from nightlife for a while; when she recovered, she began mostly attending jam sessions with other musicians. It was only two or three years ago that she started going back out and now, although she doesn’t discriminate musically – “I love techno, I love industrial, I love digital hardcore” – one constant remains from her clubbing days: “My favourite is the same as what I would dance to as a teenager – it’s reggaeton. I love dancing to it, I love when they play the classics, I love when they play the new ones. But at the same time, any music that makes you dance, I’m happy to dance to it.”
There’s no denying that Motomami is a superlative party record. But making it was a hard slog: Rosalía would spend 12- to 16-hour days in the studio working and blew through deadlines tinkering with the final product. (She’s no workaholic – she loves going out when she’s “not that dead” after a show.) That love of reggaeton – the Latin American adoption of Jamaican dancehall – can be felt in Motomami’s more raucous side. At the same time, there’s a subversive softness to much of the album – not least on Hentai, a glowing ballad that was designed to sound like a Disney song but was named after a genre of Japanese animated pornography, and whose lyrics are more Cardi B than Cinderella. “I wanna ride you like I ride my bike,” she sings in sweet, fluttery head voice.
“This is a very personal opinion,” she says, “but I think female energy has an erotic superiority. And why not explore that? Why not make a song about a list of desires, and share that list? Lil’ Kim has done it before, Björk has done it, Madonna has done it. So it’s a little bit surprising that, nowadays, it’s still a topic of conversation to make an erotic song.”
Since she released Hentai, she says, people have asked her incessantly about the lyrics, revealing the strictness with which society still sees women. “I’ve realised that there’s something that happens to many women – so many times, people reduce a woman and her talent by limiting her to a prefabricated category,” she says. “Pure cliche – the crazy one, the girlboss, the witch, the messy one, the histrionic, the diva. I hope I can dissipate all those useless categories, and take a little bit from each of them, play with all of them in my projects.”
She hasn’t made politics a key part of her image. As a result, supporters of Catalan independence have complained that she should be doing more for the movement, while gitano activists would like her to raise awareness of the struggles of Romani people. When she has waded into discourse, it’s usually been brief: in 2019, she tweeted “Fuck Vox”, in response to electoral gains by the Spanish far-right party; at a concert in Mexico in 2019 she wore a green handkerchief on her right arm, a symbol of the country’s fight for legal abortion. She has, however, been vocal in her support of LGBTQ+ rights, tweeting in 2019: “How can gay marriage be legal today in only 25 countries in the world?” and was seen protesting in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
When I try to find out more about her views, her aide cuts in: “Let’s not ask any political questions, please.” Frustratingly, the singer backs this up. “I feel like I don’t have enough knowledge about politics to have an opinion that would add anything,” she says. “I’m concerned about my surroundings, and I’m concerned about people. With music, I hope that I can give you opinions that have more value – because I really dedicate all my life to it.”
Rosalía plays plays the O2 Arena, London, on 15 December