Issue 004 Summer 2022 Features

Pa’ la Putería

Tokischa and the Transgressive Art of Dominican Dembow

By Jenzia Burgos

Tokischa, 2022. Image courtesy Nightmare Moon, via Creative Commons.


In Tokischa’s world, neon rave lights flash, green aliens smoke blunts, and fishnet tights rip on the dancefloor. It is a world of women twerking, grinding, and licking up on each other; a world where tigueres1 wear their snapbacks and Cuban link chains. A world of multicolored cornrows stretching to the floor, bantu knots aiming for the sky, and edges forming perfect swoops. Friends kiss friends here; sweat glistens; acrylic nails could never be too long.


It is a world where people roll on Molly and pass bottles of Brugal from hand to hand; a world where someone is always over a toilet; a world where everyone, gloriously, is for the streets.

Most are from the streets, too. This includes Tokischa, a sex-positive, queer rapper from the Dominican Republic (DR) who has quickly emerged as one of the top artists in Dominican dembow—a genre best summed up as reggaetón’s bawdier, spitfire cousin, with roots in the Jamaican rhythm of the same name. Born in 1996, Tokischa grew up in and around Los Frailes, a humble barrio just outside the capital city of Santo Domingo. Barrios like it often serve as the backdrop to Tokischa’s raucous music videos, which also feature her misfit cast of characters. Together they represent a Dominican counterculture that disrupts the everyday humdrum of tourists and picturesque visions of paradise promoted in the media.

This disruption is central to Tokischa’s work. With the frequent creative direction of her manager, Raymi Paulus, Tokischa has built an aesthetic rooted in real-world joy and eroticism—the kind which, as Audre Lorde writes, contains all the power to be “self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.”2  Take Tokischa’s video for “Linda (Pretty),” a collaboration with Spanish singer Rosalía. Released in September 2021, “Linda” luxuriates in moments of queer sensual kinship in ways not often accepted in the DR, let alone within the machista genre of dembow.



In the clip, Tokischa calls up Rosalía from the salon, as dizzying heat rises out from hooded dryers around her. Tokischa tells her there’s a kitipó4 hangout happening in an alley later that night—the kind of party made for and by the people pushed to the margins of society. The teteo4  is full of femmes enjoying themselves, but as it turns out, Tokischa already had some fun before the function. Rapping in her girlish, nasal flow, she reveals that she got there late because she was too busy having sex first. We see suggestive flashes of the orgy that took place, with Tokischa posted up on a couch as women spill over it for her attention. “Las amigas que se besan son la mejor compañía (Friends who kiss are the best company),” she teases.

One friend, however, is a rare interloper in the mix. Rosalía is a classically trained Spanish artist who is neither Latine nor from el barrio, so her participation can feel hollow—especially among the comfort of locals dancing, drag queens drinking, and queer affections on full display. Rosalía takes on the role of a sexual tourist, feigning kisses with partygoers and essentializing Tokischa: “She tastes better than los tres golpes5 , and I eat her up every day,” Rosalía sings, wearing grills and acrylics to make the most of her co-optation. But even Tokischa, who herself identifies as Black, falls into the same trap at times. “Tengo una negra en casa que siempre tiene gana (I have a Black woman at home who always wants to fuck),” she raps, at once signaling her love for Black women while nevertheless leaning on a harmful, hypersexual stereotype.

For all their bacchanalian bliss, Tokischa’s scenes still exist against the backdrop of the contemporary DR—a country where anti-Blackness thrives, gay marriage is constitutionally banned, abortion is illegal, and hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community continue to rise.6 While she can stand to look within, Tokischa often takes aim at systemic forces instead. In “Linda” and other music videos, like December 2020’s “Yo No Me Voy Acostar (I’m Not Going to Bed),” she continually taunts law enforcement with a good time.

At the end of her night out with Rosalía, Tokischa gleefully rides off into the night, while her entourage continues to dance atop the cargo bed of a police truck. Meanwhile, in “Yo No Me Voy Acostar,” Tokischa and her lovers—embodied by track collaborators La Perversa and Yailin la Mas Viral—make out in the streets while rolling high on Molly after curfew7, making it clear they don’t care if it lands them in jail. When it eventually does, they simply seize the moment: together, the ladies seduce the woman who arrested them and invite her to join in on the fun. For Tokischa, the police state is her bitch, a plaything to tease with the same subordination it dishes out.


Artwork by Alex Valentina, featuring still from "Yo No Me Voy Acostar," Tokischa x La Perversa x Yailin la mas viral, ©Paulus Music

After all, the only thing Tokischa surrenders to is pleasure. On the rare occasions we see her with men, she still makes her desires a priority. This is even the case for “El Rey de la Popola (The King of This Pussy),” a track released in December 2020. In the song’s trippy music video, Tokischa is depicted getting married to Paulus Music labelmate Rochy RD, as he talks a big game at the altar. But it’s all for fun: Tokischa’s wedding vows include a demand for oral sex; an extraterrestrial officiates the service; and abuelos grind up on each other before pasolas8  pull up in lieu of a getaway car. Forget holy matrimony—everyone is just there to get fucked up.

A skit like this doesn’t exactly fly in the DR, where any mockery of marriage is considered a threat to the institution of Christianity itself. Tokischa has faced her fair share of criticism for “El Rey” and videos like it—from unexplained video removals on YouTube and bans on social media to public condemnations and warnings coming directly from Dominican officials. Following the release of “Linda,” the commission that oversees radio and TV communications in the DR introduced a call for legislation to regulate songs that “praise” lesbianism and promote drug use, with one deputy calling Tokischa out directly.9  The threat follows an unfortunate, decades-long pattern of censorship that sees Black styles like dembow, reggaetón, bachata, and other genres across Latin America targeted under the guise of white respectability and Catholic moralidad.

Still, none of these controversies quite compare to the backlash Tokischa faced after her August 2021 photoshoot in Jarabacoa, a town in the La Vega province of the DR, where she posed in front of an altar to the Virgin de la Altagracia. In some of the photos uploaded to social media, Tokischa is seen kneeling while wearing a white bustier, nude panties, and sheer ripped tights that reach just over her knees. In another, she wears a white headpiece with horns and stands without underwear, covering herself with her hands. “Los Cueros también Oran (Sluts also pray),” she wrote alongside the images.


Screen capture from Twitter, via @tokischa_

Public hostility flooded in, fast and fierce. The mayor of La Vega pursued legal action against the rapper, citing “violations of the use of public space.”10  Tokischa was summoned to court, requested to pay a fine, and ordered to issue a public apology for her actions. She obliged in an uncharacteristically serious video, where she attempted to clarify the incident: “I didn’t do this with the intention of offending anyone,” Tokischa said in Spanish, wearing a white lace blouse and her signature nose piercings.11  “But more so to show that anyone can pray, no matter where they’re from or what they represent.” Looking bored, she added, “I am very sorry that you were offended,” her sentence punctuated with a subtle smack of her lips. 

For Tokischa, being so unbothered is the best form of resistance—but it can also backfire. Her casual indifference to criticism has, at times, made it difficult for her to be held accountable for more valid concerns, particularly those involving her collaborations with white artists like Rosalía.

These criticisms came to a head following the release of her music video for “Perra” with J Balvin in September 2021, which infamously featured Black actors wearing prosthetics to look like dogs. In one scene, Balvin, a white Colombian, walks two Black women on leashes; in another, Tokischa raps about feeling like a “dog in heat” while sitting inside of a doghouse. What started as a show of sexual agency morphs into a depiction of historically racist tropes—an unsurprising outcome on Balvin’s behalf, yet somewhat perplexing coming from Tokischa and her director Paulus, who also identifies as Black.12

For Tokischa to consent to these scenes suggests a level of willing ignorance, one only afforded to her as a light-skinned woman who does not face the same xenophobic or colorist prejudice as, say, dark-skinned Haitian or Dominican women on the island. The rapper leverages this positionality: she is both the woman subjected and subjecting, keeping herself off Balvin’s leash while elsewhere making references to her “negra” back home “who always wants to fuck,” as in “Linda.” Yet, in those same scenes with Rosalía, Tokischa is once again fetishized by a white artist.

Tokischa’s world—filled with its pleasures, its joys, and rebellion—is not immune from the trappings of the Latin music industry, which is predicated upon the systematic erasure of Black artists and their contributions. Yet artists like Tokischa are uniquely positioned to pick the role they play. As her celebrity grows, she can either choose to align herself more frequently with the work and sensibilities of white artists or leverage her growing influence to bring her barrio out from the backdrop and into the spotlight. If “friends who kiss are the best company,” we’ll soon find out the company Tokischa really keeps. 


Footnotes:

1. Men who have street smarts.

2. Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power (Brooklyn: Out & Out Books: 1978).

3. Kitipó, also known as discolai or voceteo, refers to open cars outfitted with massive speakers, a practice similar to sound system culture in Jamaica.

4. A teteo is an informal party or gathering, usually involving alcoholic beverages, hookah, and other substances.

5. A traditional Dominican breakfast dish that typically includes mangú (mashed plantains) served with “the three hits” of fried cheese, fried salami, and fried eggs.

6.  Ana-Mauríne Lara, Streetwalking: LGBTQ Lives and Protest in the Dominican Republic (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2020).

7. Between March 2020 and October 2021, the Dominican Republic enforced a nightly curfew to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

8. Pasola is a Dominican slang term for motorbike.

9. El Punto De Vista Político Ante Las Canciones Con Contenido Obsceno,” Tribunal De La Tarde, September 29, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHb6TOHma00.

10. “La condena que le espera a la cantante urbana Tokischa de ser hallada culpable,” Diario Libre, August 6, 2021, https://www.diariolibre.com/revista/musica/la-condena-que-le-espera-a-la-cantante-urbana-tokischa-de-ser-hallada-culpable-HK28000546.

11. Roberto Cavada, “Tokischa ofrece excusas públicas por fotos que se tomó en el Santuario a la Virgen de la Altagracia en Jarabacoa por la que muchos se sintieron ofendidos,” August 24, 2021, https://twitter.com/rcavada/status/1430272517336350722.

12. Julyssa Lopez, “J Balvin, Tokischa, and Director Raymi Paulus Address ‘Perra’ Video Controversy,” Rolling Stone, November 2, 2021, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-latin/j-balvin-tokischa-perra-video-1247217.