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Rita Indiana Returns To Music After Decade-Long Hiatus

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Rita Indiana, the Dominican artist and rapper, made a splash in the Latin music scene with her album "El Juidero." It was praised for its straight-talking lyrics criticizing the island for its racial history and messy politics. That was 10 years ago. Now she's back and again making a statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDINGA TIMES")

RITA INDIANA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rita Indiana's new album "Mandinga Times" is described as a songbook for the end of the world. And Rita Indiana joins us now from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Welcome.

RITA INDIANA: Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hello. Your first album has been referred to as groundbreaking, a cultural milestone, a statement on Afro-Caribbean culture. Fans and critics could not wait to see what you would do next. What drew you back?

RITA INDIANA: It's the times we're living. You know, there's so much that needs to be revised, criticized, you know, just told. I come from a country where there's a lot of adults that still can't read, you know, and in Latin America in general. And this song can be heard and experienced and felt, understood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about the title. What does "Mandinga Times" mean for you?

RITA INDIANA: Well, Mandinga is an ethnic group that came to the Americas during the slave trade. It's one of the biggest ethnic groups that were brought here. And it's a word that has many meanings in Latin Americans' - most of them are words that are - they're - it's used as - to demonize certain minorities, like Black people or homosexuals or also if someone was hypersexual. If they beat you up, it's also like giving you Mandinga. It's a tricky word, and I wanted to have a title that talked about the times that we're living. So "Mandinga Times" is basically the end times in a code - in a Caribbean code.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This album has been described as apocalyptic, but you sort of mask the gravity of your lyrics with some of the beats and sounds you choose. I'm thinking, for example, of "Miedo," which means fear in English. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIEDO")

RITA INDIANA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about the lyrics of this song.

RITA INDIANA: It's a song I wrote for my wife about when we were starting, you know, when you - the things you do when you're in love. But it's also about something that is very known in my community, the LGBT community. Some structures are against us, you know, and against who we really are. And so it's about that fear, also.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because, also, you know, in parts of the world, loving someone of the same sex, queer love - you can be killed for it.

RITA INDIANA: Still - exactly. So it's not a metaphor. You know, it's an actual fear of death, of violence, of not just rejection.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIEDO")

RITA INDIANA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me - when you were trying to do an anthem to the end of the world, you know, you're drawing on all these threads. But I'm wondering just emotionally how you're dealing with this moment.

RITA INDIANA: Well, it's been rough, you know? I have to say that I'm privileged to have food on my table, and my kids are going to school in their computers, but it has taken a toll on me emotionally - on everybody, I guess. It's interesting that we started with the "Mandinga Times" title, you know, and the apocalyptic stuff last year. It was a bit of a joke. Like, oh, we had the hurricane and, you know - and things are hard. But then in January, February, things got really, you know, dark. And it's interesting how an art product can, you know, be read differently by things around it changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF RITA INDIANA SONG, "EL ZAHIR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Latin music has sort of exploded in popularity over the last decade, especially music from the Caribbean. What are your thoughts on the direction of the Latin music scene now?

RITA INDIANA: I think if you go through the history of popular music in the 20th century, it's a cyclical thing for Caribbean music to be on the international charts. I think it's going to keep on happening, you know? It's part of something that we do in these islands and that people enjoy and love. And it's a product of many different peoples coming together and making different things in the context of something fatal like slavery, you know? So even when you're dancing to something talking about sex and money, there's a resistance down there because all of this came from people who were trying to keep their culture alive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which brings me, actually, to my next question. As you know, there's this racial reckoning happening here in the U.S. What do you think should be happening in Latin America? In so many island nations like yours, you know, Black culture is literally woven into the DNA, and yet there's still so much racism.

RITA INDIANA: Right now, I mean, a lot of things are happening, but we have to devise our own movement, our own critique of racial relationships. We can't just bring the Black Lives Matter movement like a Burger King, you know, to Dominican Republic or Haiti or Puerto Rico. We have to devise our own. And I think it's happening. It's happening, and people are - we're engaged in finding ways to react, finding ways to learn about our Afro-Caribbean traditions and embracing the culture and finding the strength in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAROSCURO")

RITA INDIANA: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this album is about the end of times. Are you hopeful? Is this a call to arms?

RITA INDIANA: Definitely. I think every musician wants their music to be a call of arms to some - of some sort, you know, even if it's just for dancing. But I definitely want to speak to people about what's going on and what's going on in their - that what's happening to them is important because it's part of what's happening to everybody, you know? And it definitely is a call to arms. I can embrace that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rita Indiana - her new album is "Mandinga Times."

Thank you very much.

RITA INDIANA: Thank you so much for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAROSCURO")

RITA INDIANA: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.