For our latest Breaking, we’re highlighting singer-songwriter Xenia Rubinos. The multi-instrumentalist, who hit the national scene with 2013’s "Magic Trix," continues her personal and creative development on the funky, frenetic "Black Terry Cat."
Hometown: Hartford, Connecticut
Based In: New York City
Sound: A chaotic mix of R&B, rock, hip-hop and jazz that underscores Rubinos’ robust mezzo-soprano. Her lyrics are sometimes wry, sometimes incorporating Spanish-language passages.
Why You Should Care: Depending on your background and worldview, Xenia Rubinos’ music sounds either like modern-day Latin pop, avant-garde R&B or a tapestry from an indie artist with too many influences to count. Either way, it sounds like nothing you’ve heard before—which, as she told us, is kind of the point.
"I aspire to be transcendental, to bring together a lot of different influences and people," she says after listing a broad array of guiding lights including Slum Village, Mariah Carey, KRS-One and Sly and the Family Stone. Rubinos doesn’t use these influences as crutches but as standards of excellence and occasional reference points.
Chalk it up to her upbringing and musical training. Rubinos grew up in a bilingual household in Hartford, Connecticut, with a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father. Surrounded by ’90s R&B radio and Western European classical music (the latter courtesy of her father), she eventually fell in love with jazz and attended Berklee College of Music. She had hopes of becoming a jazz singer—which is evident in her vibrato-laden singing style—but instead studied jazz composition and wrote mostly instrumentals. "I couldn’t find my own voice while singing jazz standards, so I stopped singing for a while." But she returned to singing through her earliest bands, initially using her voice as an instrument before eventually incorporating lyrics. Her jazz background still informs her multi-layered songs as well as the laid-back feel of tracks like "Lonely Lover" (the whimsical music video for which you can see above).
That track comes off her second album, "Black Terry Cat," which dropped last week. Like 2013’s excellent "Magic Trix," this album showcases Rubinos’ technical strengths with funky rhythms and stunning vocal runs. "Black Terry Cat" departs from her debut by employing more hip-hop-influenced beats (courtesy of virtuoso drummer and album co-producer Marco Buccelli) and fewer Spanish-language passages in pursuit of a more cohesive sound. Despite not featuring as much Spanish, "Black Terry Cat" still explores Rubinos’ ethnic and racial identity throughout some of its most politically charged songs.
"Black Stars," which we featured last month, takes dual inspiration from the police killings of unarmed Black people and her own father’s health struggles. "You’re a million Black stars in that fearless black night," she sings on the hook. "There were a lot of police brutality and gun-violence incidents being brought to light as I was making this album, like the Mike Brown case." she explains. "One thing I wanted to do differently [on this album] was say what’s on my mind and not worry about what anybody might think, or even if I’m the authority on any subject."
"Mexican Chef" wryly eviscerates America’s hypocritical treatment of Latinos, noting their necessary and ubiquitous manual labor in restaurants and beyond. "French bistro, Domincan chef/Italian restaurant, Boricua chef/Chinese takeout, Mexican chef/nouveau America, Bachata in the back," she raps in the song’s first section before singing, "Brown walks your baby, brown walks your dog/brown raised America in place of its mom/brown cleans your house, brown takes the trash/Brown even wipes your granddaddy’s ass."
"I’m making a social commentary on something I saw—folks setting up for the nightshift at restaurants in New York," she says. "The kitchen door’s open and I’m hearing rancheras and bachata playing full blast, while in front, the restaurant’s playing Bon Iver or something. I am making a commentary about our invisible workforce in this country that we don’t always see or acknowledge."
Juxtaposed, "Mexican Chef" and "Black Stars" speak volumes about the ongoing evolution of Rubios’ identity. While she identifies as Afro-Latina, she tells Colorlines that she does not identify as Black. "My family history is complicated, and I still don’t fully know the extent of it," she says after describing her Black maternal great grandmother, her Puerto Rican family’s Taino heritage and her paternal grandfather’s emigration from Spain. "I started reading on the Afro-Latina diaspora two years ago, and I’m still ignorant to a lot of that, but I started seeing myself in that term. I explore the ‘Afro’ part of my cultural identity, and how I do or don’t fit into that, on ‘Black Terry Cat.’" She says that’s a big part of why hip-hop permeates this album.
Photographer Joseph Rodriguez‘ "Girl in Blue Dress," featuring a Black girl from Spanish Harlem showing her missing teeth, spoke to Rubinos’ self-exploration enough that she made it the cover for "Black Terry Cat." "She embodies this magic soul I can’t put a finger on, but I think some of that is in my cultural identity."
But even with songs such as "Mexican Chef," Rubinos ultimately wants you to move. "I’m making a heavy groove and jamming song. If you don’t want to deal with or understand what I’m saying, I hope you can enjoy that groove."
And trust us: No matter how much Rubinos’ message resonates with you, you’ll enjoy that groove, straight through the album’s finish.
Xenia Rubinos’ "Black Terry Cat" is available now via Anti- Records.