Mabiland Makes R&B en Español for Black Queer Latines in Search of Freedom

Photo: Luis Eduardo Noriega A/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
Mabiland just finished performing in Mexico City, and fans are crowding the edge of the stage and the exit hallway hoping to get an intimate moment with the Colombian artist. I can count the number of Black Mexicans with my fingers, and I wonder if this is the first time some of them have seen themselves represented in the Foro Indie Rocks venue. After all, Mexico recognized Afro-Mexicans for the first time in the 2020 census. Moments after, Mabiland, born Mabely Largacha, says hello while maintaining social distance, and about 30 minutes later, she meets me backstage. Carrying a water bottle to rehydrate after singing hits from her 2021 album "Niñxs Rotxs" and 2018 debut "1995," her voice tells me she’s eager to chat.
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When "Niñxs Rotxs" dropped last June, it felt like an intergenerational love letter from adult Mabiland to baby Mabiland, and a framework of how LGBTQIA+ Latin Americans can potentially address and reclaim their narratives. In the last year, that feeling has only intensified. In April 2022, Mabiland dropped “Diablo,” featuring Tonga Conga, and released an accompanying music video featuring an all dark-skinned Black cast that rebel against gender roles through their styles of dress and dance. These aesthetics and subtle political claims are intentional. Since Mabiland launched her career, she has been carving out a musical space in the Latine music industry that draws from neo soul, R&B, and the poetics of rap. The Quibdó, Colombia-born artist, who is currently based in Medellín, is now one of the few visible Black lesbian women in Latin America’s music industry.
After her summer 2021 concert in Mexico City, we sat backstage to discuss the 26-year-old’s music, life influences, and values. As we commence the interview, I ask Mabiland about the daring title of her last project: "Niñxs Rotxs," or "Broken Kids." The title, much like the addition of the x that makes these Spanish words gender neutral, has received some flack. She expected this. Mabiland wanted the album to provoke conversations about LGBTQ and gender-expansive youth in Colombia and their experiences of unbelonging. That, however, makes some people uncomfortable. “When you read articles about the album, you know who doesn't want to talk about [gender and LGBTQIA+ rights]. It can be difficult for one to pronounce [the album], but that's it,” Mabiland tells me, meaning that the antagonism she receives regarding the album is often rooted in the denial to actively challenge and betray structures of power that disproportionally impact non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, and non-male-identifying people. 
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It felt like an intergenerational love letter from adult Mabiland to baby Mabiland, and a framework of how LGBTQIA+ Latin Americans can potentially address and reclaim their narratives.

Alán Pelaez Lopez
But this doesn’t stop Mabiland. Sprinkled throughout the 14-track project are songs that speak to her queerness, her Blackness, and her womanhood. In the most political song on "Niñxs Rotxs," “WOW,” Mabiland proclaims, “Respeto por la vida no se tiene / Me siento viviendo en Tenet / Te juro, no estoy mintiendo / Confinamiento a lo Oldboy / Mundo sangriento / La poli flow horny / ¿Cuáles serán los impuestos de hoy? / ¿O Habrá un ahogo como hicieron Con Floyd? ¡Floyd!” In these poetic decrees, she states that Colombia has prioritized a cycle of precarity over community and human life. Almost as if speaking back to the surveillance the artist herself has experienced, Mabiland denounces police brutality in Colombia and links it to the global system of anti-Black violence by asking, “What will the debt of today be?” and “Will there be a choke-hold as they did with Floyd?” With this precise interrogation about the condition of Black people’s lives, Mabiland’s music builds a social, political, geographic, and epistemological bridge between Black Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America.
Mabiland knows that Blackness is not solely a racial marker; Blackness — in Colombia — is a condition informed by a larger history of slavery and white supremacy. While Mabiland centers these complex realities, the artist refuses the narrative trope of Blackness and violence as always feeding into one another. The visuals in the video to “WOW,” released June 2021, center Black intimacy and relationality even while the lyrics name the racial and class violence occurring in Mabiland’s home city of Quibdó, which belongs to the Chocó Department of the country. Chocó, also home to the hip-hop group ChocQuibTown, has recently faced militant militia groups and illegal mining that is destroying ecological landscapes and Indigenous people’s access to food. In 2020, Chocó was classified as a “starvation capital.” In combining lyrics of political and social violence with visuals of Black communities in Colombia engaging in mundane events, such as hair braiding, krumping, riding bikes, and sitting on porches, Mabiland highlights the fact that even through hardship, Black Colombians continue to move through the world in quotidian ways. Without naming it, she shows viewers that Colombia doesn’t protect Black people; Black Colombians protect each other.
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Photo: Luis Eduardo Noriega A/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
In Latin America, race is often glided over as if all Latin Americans lived through the same racial conditions, but those whose skin tones approximate whiteness benefit from white privilege and colorism; Mabiland knows this. As we sit, I watch the green, yellow, and red traffic lights from the streets peek through the concert hall doors and illuminate her face as she speaks: “Many say, ‘oh we’re human,’ that’s bullshit. I know that I’m looked at because of my skin. If I were a white mestiza, I would have already been in other places [in my career]. But I am not, and I assume who I am fruitfully.” 
Mabiland is making her own artistic pathway and refusing to perform based on gendered, racial, and sexuality-based expectations. “I do not want to call myself a leader as long as I can move and ...  self-lead [in order] to help others say something,” she says, reminding me of other Black Latin America women, including transgender Brazilian musician Liniker, Peruvian musician and teacher Susana Baca, and Dominican-American musician and actor Amara La Negra. Like Mabiland, these three women have used their artistry as spaces where they can demand changes from the music industry and their own societies. The domino effect of their self-actualization is a working blueprint for other Black women, and in the case of Mabiland and Liniker, queer Black Latines to believe in their power, leadership, and imagination.
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But this responsibility is also a challenge. Mabiland addresses the ways in which the music industry dissects artists who do not come from majority communities. “One is not going to be fighting for everything because [one’s] energy is not enough. What am I going to focus on,” she asks herself. “Who am I? I am an Afro-Colombian person, one. I am a lesbian woman, two. I am a woman, three. I am a woman in the middle of music, four.” As Mabiland speaks, her words feel akin to feminist critic bell hooks, who argues that Black artists are often confronted with a gaze rooted in a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that weaponizes Black artists’ identities against them. This is exactly why the linguistic pronunciation of "Niñxs Rotxs" is often critiqued before the radical changes the album gestures toward.

"Who am I? I am an Afro-Colombian person, one. I am a lesbian woman, two. I am a woman, three. I am a woman in the middle of music, four."

Mabiland
Perhaps "Niñxs Rotxs" is a peg in the music industry enabling other Black queer artists to enter the door and give themselves permission to dream larger than they have been allowed in a world that thrives off the disciplining and surveillance of race, gender, and sexuality. In “Ashé,” Mabiland raps: “Las cruces que cargo/ Quiero cargarlas en Mercedes / Darle una casa a mami /Que la cambie como quiere / Organizar mi gente / Pa ‘que atrás no se me queden / Y que en el barrio entiendan / Que soñar lograr se puede.” Throughout the song, Mabiland identifies her desire to no longer carry crosses on her back as Jesus Christ did, but to carry crosses in a Mercedes. This image exemplifies Mabiland’s longing for a future where nations make it easy to be alive in the world. As an artist, Mabiland knows that her music can help “organize her people” and remind them that it is possible to “dream [and] succeed.” 
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In “Ashé,” Mabiland also shouts-out her grandmother for teaching her how to dream and demand for more. When I ask her to tell me what it is her grandmother taught her, Mabiland smiles, slowly arranges her body so that it’s leaning closer toward me, and whispers one word: “resilience.”
Often, resilience is conceptualized as a positive attribute, but Mabiland pushes back on that. “If my grandmother lived through all that [misogyny], why would I have to please,” she asks. In her question, there’s actually a declaration: Mabiland chooses to no longer please anyone’s racial and gender expectations. In Mabiland’s framework, resilience can only exist when someone is denied their humanity and, because of this, resilience is something that must be both understood and departed from. Denouncing resilience exposes the reality that the violence experienced by queer Black women in Colombia, for example, should not exist, crafting a feminist politic of care instead.
For Mabiland, if resilience means that one survived an attempt at elimination, resilience should not be a characteristic or experience that people have in the future. She doesn’t want people to have to be resilient; she wants them to be free.

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