A report by Marjua Estevez for Rolling Stone.
To anyone who watched the first season of VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Miami this year, Amara La Negra – bold, mahogany-skinned and Afro’d – is a newly minted icon. To Spanish-language TV viewers, she’s been a star for years: as a child, she made regular appearances on Univision’s Sábado Gigante. And now, with hits like the reggae-tinged “What a Bam Bam” soaring into the millions of views on YouTube, La Negra is relishing her biggest spotlight yet. “I’ve always known my purpose in life,” says the 27-year-old singer. Raised in Miami by Dominican parents, she has a knack for dramatic pronouncements. “I knew at an early age that I wasn’t afraid of a crowd,” she continues. “I was born to be an entertainer.”
She’s holding court on Park Avenue as she says this, sipping cognac inside the swanky Mondrian hotel. It’s a rare moment of peace for someone who’s getting used to the blessings and curses of 21st-century fame. From time to time, she says, she’ll beckon her waiter for the bill only to learn her meal is on the house. On the other side of the coin is the anti-black rhetoric that floods her social media timelines on a daily basis: “This Amara La Negra hoe looks like she has on black face & trying too hard. Yuck,” one user tweeted in January. “I don’t know what it is about Amara La Negra, but for some reason she looks like a white person in blackface to me,” observed another.
Since her rise in the English-speaking world in the past year, La Negra says she’s met with a flurry of similar comments, rooted in misconceptions about what the African diaspora looks like beyond North America and the age-old fallacy of Latin America as a monolith. Some of these semi-anonymous critics suggest that she uses melanin shots or tans herself to achieve the shade of her skin; others speculate about whether she’s Latina at all. “Too black to be Latina, too Latina to be black,” notes the singer.
As one of very few Latina celebrities of recognizable African ancestry, La Negra – like Celia Cruz, the late queen of salsa, before her – is challenging a mainstream that has excluded people like her for too long. “There is still a lot of ignorance surrounding the Afro-Latino community, and it has given me all the reason to want to keep fighting for it,” says La Negra, who was born Diana de los Santos. “Somewhere along the way, I started to feel this energy in my body – this need to empower other women, this need to liberate people. This need to talk. Why isn’t anybody saying anything?”
In her recording career, La Negra delights in retrofitting male-centric urban Latin music with her own feminine energy, spanning dembow, favela funk, reggaeton, hip-hop and R&B. Whereas day-one fans love her for songs like the twerk-ready “Ayy” and “Asi,” her newer listeners shuffle syncopated hips to “What a Bam Bam” and sing the blues to her hit “Insecure.” Since breaking through on Love & Hip Hop, she’s begun working on new music with production duo Rock City, whose past collaborators include Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj.
Her ascent has been particularly complicated in the Dominican Republic, which has its own history of institutional racism. Earlier this year, La Negra jokingly questioned on social media why she became famous in the U.S. before the country of her family’s origin. “I said that for years people didn’t support me, but now that I’m on the cover of People magazine and whatnot, all of sudden, I’m the Dominican Republic’s biggest pride,” she recounts, flailing her arms for effect. “And now they’re eating me up alive for saying it. There are headlines that read, ‘Amara is against the Dominican Republic, against la patria.’ Like, WTF? I’m always proud, I’m always waving the flag, and I’m forever grateful to those who did support me.”
The evening draws to a close, and La Negra has to get ready for her flight back to Miami. Within weeks, she will have rocked the stage of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, bringing the house down at the Soulfrito urban Latin music festival alongside such contemporaries as Bad Bunny, Jaden Smith, La Insuperable and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. With season two of Love & Hip Hop: Miami coming down the pipeline, a new EP on the way, a new partnership with workout app Apptive, a black doll collection due out this Christmas and a bedazzled loafers line in the works, she’s just getting started putting her mark on 2018’s cultural map. “I am my own competition,” she says, “y La Negra, de verdad, tienes tumbao.”