Riobamba on Activism & APOCALIPSIS
Brooklyn-based Riobamba, real name Sara Skolnick, isn’t your typical Latinx musician. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Ecuadorian and Lithuanian parents, Riobamba found an affinity for Latin music at an early age, attending family parties soundtracked by classic Latin cuts.
Her love for Latin music led her to Bogotá, Colombia, where she studied music under a Fulbright Scholarship before returning to America. Having moved to New York, Riobamba began cultivating her presence in the underground Latin/Beat scene, and eventually gained attention and support from the likes of Discwoman and Red Bull Radio.
Riobamba is also the founder of APOCALIPSIS, a label that she uses as a vehicle to realize her various social justice initiatives. These initiatives range from bolstering Latinx representation in music to volunteering with incarcerated youths at a juvenile detention center in Brooklyn. Ahead of the label’s second release, Kelman Duran’s 13th Month LP, Riobamba sat down to discuss the driving forces behind APOCALIPSIS, as well as to share thoughts on her activism and love for Latin music.
Your background, half-Ecuadorian and half-Lithuanian, is rather unusual. How does that mix of cultures influence your art?
I used to call it third-culture, like I was born in the U.S. but have these other aspects of my identity mixed in. Nowadays I don’t limit it to a hard number; they’re all just a part of me. I think musically I was influenced by the big Ecuadorian community present in Springfield, Massachusetts, where I grew up.
I was going to family parties and they became this ‘sacred space’ where I began learning about Latin music. Going to those parties I remember feeling moved by music for the first time; there were certain songs I’d hear, and still hear, that play at these parties that are so temporally linked to times, places, memories… There’s a lot of nostalgia attached.
As I got older, Massachusetts, like a lot of the East Coast at the time, had an amazing hardcore punk scene. I was really into that; it had a whole other concept of community in music, doing things DIY with limited resources. I’d say I’m equally informed by that ethos as much as the family/cultural ethos of Latin music. The more I started DJing, the more I made connections between turntablism and punk DIY ideals –– you know, working on cracked software, uploading shit to MySpace, doing whatever gigs possible to get your name out there.
What was it like growing up in Massachusetts?
Massachusetts is weird –– and by weird I mean very segregated. I grew up in a suburb of Springfield that is super-white –– there were only one or two Latinx and Black families I knew when I was growing up. The people of color live primarily in Springfield proper, including my extended family, who settled and still live there after coming from Ecuador –– I just happened to grow up in the suburbs. So my childhood was a mix of these two different worlds I was constantly traversing, and that’s translated to my general life really well; I always am comfortable in different places and situations.
There’s a saying in Latinx communities, ‘ni de aquí/ni de allá,’ neither from here/nor from there. But we’ve recently been switching it up a little bit, trying to be more positive, saying, ‘Soy de aquí/y de allá’ or I am from here, and from here, and here, and here…
As I got older and Latin music, specifically Reggaetón, started getting mainstream radio-play, it struck me as kind of strange. I was hearing music in Spanish, the same stuff I’d listened to with my family in Springfield, on the other side of town in the suburbs where I grew up.
The two communities are literally separated by a river, so the boundaries are pretty literal (laughs). But hearing this made me realize, ‘Oh, here’s some actual visibility for Latin music, for Spanish-speaking artists,’ and that was really inspirational. Seeing this wave of artists from Puerto Rico just killing it and re-inventing things in the urban music/hip-hop space just mattered so much to me –– people could experience that part of our community now.
You received a Fulbright scholarship to study music in Bogotá, Colombia. Why was it important for you to study outside the United States?
I went to college in Boston and after graduating spent a year in Barcelona. That’s where I got introduced to minimal techno, house music and artists who were doing stuff in Spanish but interfacing and integrating with electronic music. That was hugely inspirational, and when I came back to Boston I started DJing –– playing stuff I’d heard in Barcelona as well as the stuff I’d grown up with, from traditional Latin music to Reggaetón.
Doing that in Boston felt like significant work to me –– I felt as though this music deserved to be centered, be booked on a Friday night and not shoehorned into a Wednesday, and I found that I had some really good allies in Boston. I really appreciate those connections. I have an eight-year friendship with a club-owner there that I still work with, coming back to Boston and throwing parties.
So I was doing those parties, and at university spent a lot of time studying Colombia and America’s involvement in narco-trafficking, so I had a real interest in learning about that region. Studying in Bogotá was an opportunity to research how domestic conflict impacted Colombian music –– you’d have displaced indigenous peoples bringing their culture, and music, from the countryside to the cities. Bogotá was the nexus for that, and I wanted to study how this mixing and mutating of musical traditions impacted and changed Colombian music.
What made you move to New York City?
Boston’s primarily a rock city, but there’s a decent underground electronic scene. However, I found very few Latin-centric dance parties when I moved there, which is what motivated me to start booking acts who were playing in NYC, bringing them down to us. Near the end of my scholarship in Bogotá, I got a job offer from Remezcla to be music editor in New York. I was ready to grow and New York was a great place to do that.
How did you get to know the Discwoman crew?
I did my scholarship from 2013 to 2014 and moved to New York in 2014. Discwoman did their first festival at Bossa Nova Civic Club around that time, and I remember reading about that and thinking it was really dope.
I wanted to support them, so I covered panels they held and promoted their work via Remezcla, but about nine months into my job I left and began freelancing. It was at this time that I approached them and proposed doing a showcase together in Mexico City, so we did a showcase there the following January. I kept in touch with them and did some more things…
And now you’re on the roster.
Now I’m on the roster!
What does the collective mean to you?
I think the model of Discwoman is amazing because everyone has defined roles –– agents, artists, social media, etc. –– but it never feels static or hierarchical. Every relationship there is genuine, based on supporting one another and the mutual understanding of what we all go through touring and performing and negotiating as a woman or femme. I really can’t see myself doing business any other way.
I appreciate them because there’s an acceptance for me as an artist, who I actually am, as opposed to putting me in some box. And they want to empower other artists to do that, to be able to work on their own terms. They just totally understand where I’m coming from, and when they don’t, they take the time to understand.
You have a show, Bien Buena, with Uproot Andy on Red Bull Radio. Does that serve as an ulterior outlet from the tracks you usually play in your DJ sets?
When I play live it’s usually more stream-of-consciousness, reading the room. With radio, I try to be really intentional knowing I have two hours and hopefully an audience listening to Red Bull. So I try figure out who I can bring along on that journey and how, whether it’s premiering tracks on-air or having people on for interviews.
And also, when things happen such as the immigration situation with ICE this past summer, I take time to give a breakdown regarding what exactly is happening and how people can help, amplifying the organizations on the ground doing good work in opposition.
Do you think Latin music receives proper representation in electronic music?
I think it’s slowly changing, but Latin artists still have to contend with being an ‘other’ a lot of the time. You’re put in a category where the music sounds different, the language is different, the geography and demographics where it comes from are different. A lot of the time we’re all producing on the same software with the same instruments, and it frustrates me that Latin artists don’t necessarily get that same backing.
I think a lot of that comes from a lack of understanding about Latinx people –– we’re not just consuming Spanish-language music, we inhabit many different worlds at once and deserve spaces to reflect that diversity.
Can you expand on your understanding of ‘the other?’
I think it’s relative –– there’s a lot to unpack!
As a woman, it’s being paid less than men, having the preface of ‘female’ DJ vs. just ‘DJ’, and being billed on all-women lineups, which I find condescending. As a Latinx musician, that ‘othering’ begins with our performance names; my name, Riobamba, has clear Latin connotations. I’m cognizant that in the past I’ve had to alter proposals for club nights or prove myself with random metrics, all things other contemporaries aren’t subject to.
You’re an ardent political activist with a degree in political science –– can you speak as to how your politics inform your music?
As DJs, we are to whatever extent public figures. For example, with the #DJsforPalestine situation, when you accept a booking in a country as controversial as Israel you need to be able to defend why you’re taking that booking. But on the flipside, I saw so many people posting about #DJsforPalestine and wondered if people are actually doing their due-diligence in researching why they’re for Palestine or if they’re just doing it because so-and-so did. I’m all for people having strong, vocal opinions and speaking their truth, but we need to take the time to understand what it is we’re saying. It needs to be an informed truth and it needs to be nuanced.
The Konstantin thing at ADE [Amsterdam Dance Event] is a perfect example of that. That dude deserves it –– he’s talked mad shit, and if you talk enough shit without being willing to be held accountable that’s one thing. But if there’s something that happens within the community that someone finds problematic and calls out, and if that person acknowledges and understands their mistake, then that’s an opportunity for change and dialogue.
There’s such an immediacy of ‘cancel culture’ right now, and I do believe there needs to be more compassion and empathy in those situations. However, at the end of the day who does the labor of educating these individuals fall on? I don’t think it should be women, or trans or non-binary folks, it should come down to those people in need of educating themselves and others.
Part of the emotional charge behind all this stuff is there’s a lot of reactivity and defensiveness. A lot of the time, when people hear themselves being called out they assume they’re being told they’re a bad person. I feel like if we lead with, ‘This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, this is just something that you need to work on’ or whatever, it would just lead to a more nuanced and constructive discussion.
People are stressed and traumatized; they’re in survival mode right now. When you’re in survival mode, you don’t have the space to calm down and approach something with the intention of having a dialogue; the focus is more on calling that thing out and shutting it down. Compassion goes a long way –– that being said, I understand why that’s just not possible in certain circumstances.
How did your work at the juvenile detention center come about?
I was there for two years, and was contracted by the Center for Community Alternatives as a music teacher. I did music and beat-making at a juvenile detention center out in Brownsville, East New York, and also helped some students who wanted advice about getting into the industry itself.
It’s a super stressful environment for them to be in, so depending on what had happened that day –– who had gone to court, things like that –– the mood in the classroom would be dramatically different. Sometimes they just needed to relax and listen to music with their friends, and sometimes they needed this creative and emotional outlet via learning to make music. And that was really important to me; listening to music is just as much an educational and supportive tool as producing it.
What made you decide to start APOCALIPSIS?
A lot of the support network in underground electronic music comes from sharing information, people in our community looking out for each other. I feel that many Latinx artists deserve support, recognition, funding and compensation –– visibility is great, but does visibility pay the bills?
But yeah, I felt like we need more discussions about equity and actual redistribution of resources to make these differences. So it was largely created out of frustration that I didn’t see any of that happening –– working at Remezcla gave me the perspective to see who was actually making money by signing deals and getting advances. Sure, they were Latin artists, but they were all straight, white men. Even in the underground, a lot of the resources usually go to the same crews or collectives or DJs when there’s so much more diversity that’s not getting the platform it deserves. So yeah, I got all fired up and determined that I was going to do something; I wasn’t sure how, but I was going to do it.
You worked as an A&R for the legendary Fania Records. How does that experience inform your own label?
I worked there for two years and am so grateful for that experience because it gave me a comprehensive structural understanding of running a label with that catalogue and prestige. Not just day-to-day label work, but licensing, experiential productions, A&R… Putting together the story of Fania.
And that was my main takeaway from working there, at the end of the day it’s the story you connect with. You can be putting out monthly releases, but if there isn’t something to back them up they just are released and then forgotten.
Fania was always really rooted in pride and representation, and a lot of the fights they were fighting are the same fights we’re fighting now. I think it’s good to know and respect your ancestors –– those who came before you –– because the stuff we’re doing now, not only are we not the first ones to do it, but we also have the support of the previous generations… There’s lessons to learn there.
How do you find these artists?
I try to work with artists who are obviously technically capable, but more importantly have a clear intention or story. Each release has a very specific mission behind it; the first release, Anta by Mala Fama, works with experimental ambient music from the perspective of being an indigenous man from Ecuador sampling sounds from his community.
But importantly, he’s working with and crediting those indigenous artists. That aspect of authentic cultural production is so important –– there’s a new generation of Ecuadorian artists incorporating indigenous sounds into their work without actually working with those individuals who created it. At the very least, give credit!
Can you talk a little about the label’s latest release, Kelman Duran’s 13th Month LP?
It’s an incredible 13-track album recorded in the last year, informed by his experiences working with and documenting the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Kelman’s Dominican and from Washington Heights, New York, and does a party called Rail Up in Los Angeles. Kelman really understands the importance of talking about the story behind the music, not just taking –– he’s very much engaged with the history of things.
Do you have anything slated after Kelman’s LP release?
There’s a vocalist called Nino Augustine who’s a Panamanian based in Atlanta, and I’ll be releasing a track of his that is the first original vocal track the label will release. He’s translating all the stuff happening sonically in Panama right now with Reggae en Español through the lens of Atlanta; it’s a super-influential sound, one that’s featured heavily in J Balvin’s latest tracks.
What’s behind that name, APOCALIPSIS?
Yeah, that goes back to my initial thoughts behind starting the label –– sometimes I just want to burn shit down in this industry! Things have to change because it’s not set up to be inclusive of a lot of voices, and to create you have to destroy. APOCALIPSIS is embracing that change, embracing the cycle and whatever needs to happen to help it come about.
Kelman Duran’s 13th Month LP releases this Friday, October 19th on APOCALIPSIS.
Click here to read our feature on Riobamba, and check out a playlist of Riobamba’s favorite cuts below:
Photo Credit: Kevin Aranibar
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