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How Daymé Arocena left Cuba and found a freeing new sound in Afro-Caribbean pop

"I remember any time I traveled to Mexico and other countries in the continent, I felt like, 'I'm Latina, but I'm not exactly like the people here,' Arocena tells NPR. "When I came to Puerto Rico, it was like, 'okay, now I understand.' "
Alex Alaya
Brownswood Recordings
"I remember any time I traveled to Mexico and other countries in the continent, I felt like, 'I'm Latina, but I'm not exactly like the people here,' Arocena tells NPR. "When I came to Puerto Rico, it was like, 'okay, now I understand.' "

For the past few years, Daymé Arocena's life has been transformed by two major revelations.

The first struck swiftly, in a moment of fear and desperation: the artist realized she needed to get away from the island she's long called home, the one that turned her into a jazz star when she was still a teenager. The second came to her in a kind of subdued focus, as conversations with people outside of Cuba compounded with the messages she'd internalized about her body growing up: that Latin pop music erases and rejects Blackness, she says — Black women, in particular — and she's ready to change that.

Her new album, Alkemi, is the synthesis of those two epiphanies within the 32-year-old. Recorded and produced in Puerto Rico with Eduardo Cabra of Calle 13, the album retains the Afro-Cuban folklore and jazz traditions that became integral to Arocena's sound in the early 2010s. But Alkemi is also an expansion into R&B, bossa nova, funk and neo-soul, providing a richly layered backdrop for Arocena's powerhouse vocals to take center stage while moving her further into Latin pop than she's ever been before.

That amalgamation of genres and cultures echoes the sounds she grew up with. Arocena was born in Havana during Cuba's Special Period of the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered an economic crisis. She says the apartment she shared with 14 relatives often lacked electricity. "But in my house, they would sing and dance every day," she says over Zoom from her home in Puerto Rico. "My family, they were my radio, they were my TV shows, they were everything."

Timba, boleros and Black American music from Soul Train often played at home. At 10 years old, Arocena enrolled in a local music conservatory where she pursued a degree in choir conduction and followed a rigorous curriculum focused on classical music and Russian composers. Music from the outside world — reggaeton, salsa, pop — was considered "evil" music in the eyes of the school, she says.

"Many of us found the middle ground was jazz music," she explains. Though the school didn't offer an actual jazz program, they did have a big band. When auditions came around, Arocena secured a coveted spot as a vocalist. Her career took off quickly — when she graduated from the conservatory, she decided to keep singing professionally rather than continue into the traditional orchestra conduction program. She joined the band Maqueque, leaned musically into her Santería background and began performing at concerts and festivals in Europe, the United States and Latin America.

My biggest dream is to make Latinos feel proud to be African descendants — more than their skin color, to be proud of their mixed race DNA.

But playing in Havana, she says, proved to be more difficult. The Cuban government passed Decree 349 in 2018, a widely criticized law requiring artists to obtain special permissions from the government in order to perform. Arocena says that around that time, she received an invitation to attend a convention with former Minister of Culture Abel Prieto. During the event, she says, she asked him in front of an audience why artists need authorization in order to play freely, and why obtaining the authorization is so difficult in the first place. Arocena says Prieto responded that her question stemmed from capitalism. NPR reached out to Cuba's Ministry of Culture and Abel Prieto for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

"Now I understand that it's a control system, and all they want is to control what you do and what you say and what you sing," Arocena says now. "But honestly, at that time, I was just innocent. I had no idea."

After the convention, Arocena says she decided to leave Cuba for the sake of her future as an artist. She relocated to Canada with her husband, where they became Cuban exiles and worked on audiovisual projects through the pandemic. In 2021 Prieto, by then president of Cuba's Casa de las Américas cultural center, openly criticized Arocena's song "Todo Por Ti," with artist Pavel Urkiza, calling it an attempt at political propaganda amidst the protests occurring in Cuba that summer.

Finding herself in Puerto Rico

As she rode out the pandemic in Canada, Arocena felt a strong urge to break out of the genre boxes she felt were starting to limit her. She reached out to Cabra to see if he'd be interested in producing her new material. He was the only option in her mind, she says, because he'd lived in Cuba and deeply understood her musical background. But he was also known for melding global influences with Caribbean sounds through his work in Calle 13, as a solo artist and as a producer for artists like Jorge Drexler, Rita Indiana and Monsieur Periné.

"Latin [music] is cool in the last ten years, but it's always been cool," says Cabra. "I think it's interesting what happens — the trend that comes from the Caribbean, so I've been very focused on music from here. You have to live here to feel that."

Cabra invited Arocena to Puerto Rico, opening up his home so they could get to know one another and collaborate in the studio. When she arrived, she says, something shifted — and not just artistically. "I identified myself as Caribbean, because I didn't know what the Caribbean was before," she says, noting how isolated Cuba felt from its surroundings. "I remember any time I traveled to Mexico and other countries in the continent, I felt like, 'I'm Latina, but I'm not exactly like the people here.' When I came to Puerto Rico, it was like, 'okay, now I understand.' "

That feeling of understanding, solidarity and belonging left a huge impression on Arocena; she ended up permanently moving from Canada to Puerto Rico. Beyond that, she also started to more fully process Africa's deep roots in Caribbean cultures.

"Africa is way important in our development of who we are. The way we dance, the way we move, the way we make music is mainly African," she says. "My biggest dream is to make Latinos feel proud to be African descendants — more than their skin color, to be proud of their mixed race DNA."

But she noticed that whereas Black artists from Anglo countries could become icons of the Caribbean — like Bob Marley or Rihanna — the Latin music industry and Latin American society at large operates differently. She remembered her desire to speak and sing in English from an early age, and traced it back to mostly identifying with Anglo singers at that time. Other than Celia Cruz, the Latin, bicultural pop stars she loved like Selena and Christina Aguilera sounded but did not look like her. Subconsciously, Arocena says, she felt unwelcome in mainstream music, so she pivoted into jazz and folkloric scenes that tend to be more inclusive.

"I thought, 'Maybe one day I can be like Aretha Franklin, maybe one day I can be like Nina Simone,' " she says. "My world was turning, putting aside those pop stars and that pop influence, focusing on the world I thought was reachable for me. Until I came to the island of Puerto Rico."

Pursuing distinctly Afro-Caribbean sounds on Alkemi

Alkemi, titled after the Yoruba word for alchemy, is a transformative project. "Por Ti," the first song Cabra and Arocena worked on together before deciding to create a whole record, is based on a rumba. But it moves in a number of directions, with layers of funky drums and plucky guitars brightening the energy of the ensemble. Arocena says it's Cabra's signature "rellena huecos" method: filling in the gaps with unexpected references. She likens it to adding sea salt to a sugary dessert; it brings out all the right notes.

"I tried to add like a '60s or '70s dance bolero in the verses," says Cabra. "But also there's trap and there's rumba and Afrobeats in the choruses. The synopsis of the sound of the album lives in this song, 'Por Ti.' "

The only two features on the record are from the Puerto Rican reggaetonero Rafa Pabön and tropical rockero Vicente García, who experiments with the bachata and merengue of his native Dominican Republic in his compositions. Cabra says these collaborations flowed organically — he works closely with both artists and the connections clicked — but it also cements Alkemi as a distinctly Afro-Caribbean pursuit.

"A Fuego Lento," the song with García, starts as a soft groove about the slow burn of a passionate romance and breaks out into a reggae jam more than halfway through. "I wrote it when I was like 19 years old," says Arocena. "It was so sexy for me. I was scared of showing myself as a sexy woman."

Now, she's taking ownership of that sensuality and honoring her body and spirituality through both the music and the accompanying visuals. She says Alkemi is a deep mission of holistic self-love, one that she hopes will spark something in listeners, particularly women, who often feel pressure to lose weight, straighten their hair or lighten their complexions to meet traditional beauty standards.

"I represent basically everything that they are fighting," she says. "What I want is people to like themselves the way they are — to feel in peace, because that's the state of mind I found with this album."

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Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.