A thrillingly diverse generation of Spanish artists are turning heads and making waves all around the world. Kate Hutchinson went to meet some of these new stars and find out how Spain’s political, cultural and creative landscape is shaping their unique sound.
Outside an unflashy taverna in Barcelona’s fashionable Poblenou neighborhood, one of Spain’s rising stars is artfully rolling spliff after spliff with her nerve-twistingly long false nails. She is almost incognito – wearing a printed headscarf covering her bleached hair and the hood of her Suicidal Tendencies sweater up – except for some gold-rimmed yellow sunglasses by the Spanish label Manémané.
“Solange wears them,” she says casually.
This is Bad Gyal, aka 22-year-old Alba Farelo, who, when she isn’t in disguise, is easily one of the most recognizable Spanish artists of the moment. A dancehall obsessive, she’s among those spearheading the country’s twerktastic take on dembow beats which is making waves well beyond the Spanish borders.
She was celebrated by the electronic underground after songs like Jacaranda, a synthetic, detached slice of AutoTune-fuelled dancehall, went viral. She’s just returned from Puerto Rico, Miami and LA, where she’s been in studios with some of reggaeton’s finest producers.
Back home, in a couple of hours Alba will be DJing at the nearby Razzmatazz club, but first she is reflecting on Spain’s urban music scene. “For a long time, we didn't have nothing new,” she says. Spain is, “a conservative country, and there is not as much openness. Now Spanish music has personality.”
That personality is putting Spanish music on the global pop map. For a long time indie-rock was the dominant alternative sound, but now there is a burgeoning underground of reggaeton, dancehall, trap and pop – broadly referred to as Spanish Urbano – that’s finding an enthusiastic audience overseas.
A dizzying number of young rappers, singers and beat-makers are circumventing the mainstream and pulling from street and club culture, Soundcloud influences, diasporic heritage and themes of female empowerment in a way that Spain has never seen before. The inescapable popularity of Latin American music has made the language barrier irrelevant, and now Spain is “blowing up on a global scale,” says Antón Álvarez Alfaro, whose stage name is C. Tangana and Spain’s answer to Drake.
The artist who’s made the biggest impact so far is flamenco-pop firebrand Rosalía. The Barcelona-born musician sashayed into mainstream view in 2018 with her album El Mal Querer and became Spain’s first global pop star.
When I interviewed her last year for the New York Times, she told me it was only a matter of time before everyone took notice of her country’s creative renaissance. “Spain is having a big moment,” she said. “It's really happening – the painters, the designers, musicians. There's a new generation.”
Rosalía could have made a reggaeton album for the Latin American market but instead El Mal Querer was critically acclaimed for its mix of Spanish iconography and traditional folk rhythms with world-class pop production. Co-producer El Guincho says they felt the combination would “be interesting enough to click for people outside of Spain,” and they were right.
Rosalía’s rapid rise was also unusual because the nation’s TV talent contests “used to be the only way,” Alba says, to break into the Spanish music industry as a pop artist. Rosalía and Bad Gyal sidestepped them altogether, using social media and attention-grabbing visuals to mobilize fans and get their music out there.
Elsewhere in the world, artists have been building careers this way for some time, but in Spain the shift only happened recently. “Three years ago no urban music was on the radio,” says Alfaro. “Our music scene was totally planned by the television industry with all these talent shows. It was difficult to develop a real career .”
Independent artists didn’t just have that cultural straitjacket to consider: Alfaro says it was almost impossible to survive as a creative during the country’s financial crisis of 2008-2014. “We had to fight to be creative in a world with no money,” he says. “I think we live with not only the artistic ambition but the hustler ambition too.”
During the crisis, youth unemployment spiralled to be among the highest in Europe. For a while, hope came in the form of the left-leaning Podemos party and its engaging young leader Pablo Iglesias, who burst onto the political scene in 2014.
But real change didn’t come and rapper Bea Pelea says the trap artists who started around that time, with groups like Pxxr Gvng, reflected a collective disillusionment. “Young people couldn’t study, they couldn’t work,” she says, and so “the kids didn’t believe in anything, they didn’t want to follow any rules.” Pxxr Gvng’s lyrics were not about social change like previous Spanish groups; they were “disenchanted – about not giving a shit”.
Alfaro agrees that “there is a lot of nihilism” among today’s young rappers. “This generation is trying to say, fuck it, I don't want nothing, I don't want to be in the society.”
But he is also keen to champion an aspirational mindset. “I always talk about my success, like every rapper in the world. Three or four years ago, everyone was looking at me like, what are you doing? We’re Catholics, and the good people are only the people who suffer. If you’re living your best life, something bad is going down.”
That’s all changed now, he says. Major labels and the mainstream media have quickly turned their attention to the underground in search of “authenticity.” Primavera Sound – the major Spanish festival – this year features an entire Spanish trap stage curated by Pxxr Gvng member Yung Beef.
One of the rappers appearing at Primavera is Lil Moss, who began making music when he was 19 with a trio called Damed Squad, recording his vocals using a microphone from the game SingStar. He was influenced by Pxxr Gvng and Cecilio G, as well as new-gen US rappers like Migos and Lil Yachty.
But unlike a lot of US trap, with its dark themes that often glamourize violence or drugs, Lil Moss says his music is all about, “positive vibes, having fun and escapism. I say in my lyrics, ‘I don’t even drink beer’!”
Lil Moss is a new kind of hip-hop artist in Spain, and an increasingly important one. As Podemos lost ground, the far-right Vox party, which has a strong anti-immigrant stance, is gaining popularity. In April’s elections, they are predicted to win several seats, the first time the far-right will have entered parliament in four decades.
Moss is of Moroccan descent and says, even though “it’s not the main objective” of his music, his presence on the scene gives visibility to minorities who aren’t always well represented in Spanish popular culture.
He hopes that getting to play festivals like Primavera and Sonar will inspire others. “I represent something different from the usual singers – because of my lifestyle, my heritage and my image.”
The Spanish Urbano movement also has another defining difference that sets it apart from its Latin American cousin: a substantial number of women. The disproportionately large number of female rappers in Spain challenges the perception that reggaeton and trap radiate machismo.
They include La Zowi, with her darker take on reggaeton and trap, and lyrics about power and sex; Ms Nina, who recently performed on taste-making streaming platform Boiler Room; Bea Pelea, who took up rapping because Ms Nina suggested that they made a track together; Somadamantina, with her downtempo blend of trap and dancehall; and Karma Cereza of the tropical trap duo Mueveloreina.
It used to be, Alba explains, that “you needed to be one kind of person to be successful. This person wasn't a girl who's wearing shorts, who’s doing the splits, who's dancing twerk.”
Ms Nina was born in Argentina and moved to Spain when she was 14. She says the attitudinal messages in her music come from “how my mum raised me.”
“My lyrics are like, I'm a girl, I can talk whatever I want, I can walk whatever I want. When I started making music, I had a lot of insults from women and guys like, ‘You are a slut, how you can sing that?’ At the beginning it was difficult, but it’s easier now. Now you can be more free.”
Ms Nina’s flatmate in Madrid is King Jedet, who’s at the forefront of the country’s queer urbano contingent. He thinks the Spanish scene is much more accepting than its Latin American counterpart. “I think we celebrate individuality,” he says.
Indeed, no one Spanish artist seems the same, from queer Chinese-Spanish rapper Putochinomaricón (which translates literally to “Fucking Chinese faggot” and is what people use to call him at school) to emo-trap dude Goa, favela-funk influenced trap kid MC Buseta or new trap/indie-pop crossover band Cupido.
Young people in Spain, Jedet says, “are so tired of people telling us what to do and who to be because of politics. The art is the way we face it and we feel free. We are our own bosses and we create our own stuff. In most cases, we don't have help from anyone. I'm not signed to anyone, I pay for my projects. You do it because you love it. But you don't know if it's going to work, and you don't know where you're going to be tomorrow.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s tempting to try and draw a finer line between political upheavals such as the ongoing Catalan/Spain divide and a rebellious, creative outpouring from a disenchanted youth. Much has been made of how Bad Gyal raps in both Catalan, Spanish and English, for example, reflecting a dual identity: “I feel Spanish and I feel Catalan,” she says. “You can be both things.”