Xenia Rubinos is an artist that does not dominate the mainstream. Her words often do not reach most Americans, and most do not hear her essential messages of the pain and joys of existing in an Afro-Latina body in America. Born to immigrant parents from Puerto Rico and Cuba, Xenia explores her place in creating music in non-white and westernized ways, through the innovation of jazz-funk and soul rhythms.
Since she speaks to being a brown girl in America and attempts to harness “black girl magic,” her music has often been diminished as solely “political,” not giving credit to her immense musical artistry and whimsical and smooth neo-soul vocals. While Xenia’s music has often been disregarded by popular American culture, her album, Black Terry Cat was ranked in the top 10 by NPR in 2016.
In the song “I Won’t Say,” on Black Terry Cat she speaks to the experience of being silenced and constrained by the toxic expectations forced upon women of color.
Throughout the song, she repeats the phrase, “I won’t say anything at all/No, I won’t say anything at all/ Anything at all.” She speaks to her conditioning to not question and openly defy the socially accepted institutions around her. Xenia stated in 2016 with the release of the song that she has been in a “fight with words for the last ten years” and stopped singing because of it. But with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, she was empowered to speak her mind and bring voice to important truths that she and millions of other Americans have experienced.
Xenia quotes civil rights activist Abbey Lincoln’s essay, Who Will Revere The Black Woman? Singing, “Whose hair is compulsively fried? Whose skin is bleached? Whose nose is too big? Whose mouth is too loud? Whose butt is too broad? Whose feet are too flat? Whose face is too black?” her words exemplify the how expectations of feminine beauty, whiteness, and thinness intersect and are interconnected in American beauty standards. This aligns with the perspectives of 2nd wave Black Feminism, and to the essay Why Intersectionality Cannot Wait. Since systems of discrimination are overlapping and interdependent, this can render black women of color invisible and vulnerable to oppression greater than the sum of racism and sexism combined (Crenshaw 2015).
However, in I Won’t Say, Xenia Rubinos also comments on the normative culture of social media and how posting pictures on these platforms reproduce the conditioning of women to uphold beauty standards. So, while she feels as if she cannot say anything and is oppressed by this pressure to stay silent, society is constantly in discourse about topics of white beauty within social media, bombarding her with how she should act and look through reproduced aesthetic expectations. Like stated in The History of Sexuality, our actions are constantly being regulated through public discourse and this discourse holds immense power (Foucault 17). She reclaims this power when singing her experiences to life. As stated by Wann in The Fat Studies Reader, power also lies in naming (Wann 7). Xenia is resisting and undo her alienation by naming her blackness, loudness, unique features, and desire to be heard.
By stating, “Look at me/Look at me/Look at you/Look at yourself looking at your selfie/Where’s your selfie?/Let go your selfie/I tried to see my ego but was blinded by my selfie,” she demonstrates the salient message that posting the “perfect” photo only upholds the stigmatization of those who are coded as socially undesirable and unworthy of a like.
In the words, “Where is the place you are?/Put it down/put it down,” Xenia urges young brown and black girls like her to let go of the pressure to conform and accept the normative standards of beauty and worth on social media. Like proclaimed in “Killing Us Softly IV: Advertising Images of Women,” women of color are forced to resemble the white ideal, straighten their hair, and lighten their skin (Kilbourne). They are set up to fail, never able to measure up to the unrealistic image of physical perfection—which is why Xenia urges people to “put it down” and see and appreciate themselves as they are.
By repeatedly stating that she is “only sleeping,” she exemplifies how women are compelled to uphold norms through the hundreds of unconscious actions that we are programmed to do every day. For instance, “playing hide and go seek with a prince charming” is an action she does while sleeping, unquestioning the constructed heterosexual expectations that pervade every aspect of society. However, sexual orientation is not examined further within the album, and it is important to stay cognizant of how queer identities intersect with black identities. In “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions” for instance, Audre Lorde urges for homophobia to be seen as inseparable from racism and sexism (Lorde 1). Her newest 2021 album, Una Rosa, provides more insight on how sexuality intertwines with Xenia’s life story, inspired by Puerto Rican, diva drag queens.
When stating, “I don’t know her/she don’t know me/I don’t know me/I’m only sleeping,” Xenia speaks to girls’ ignorance over themselves and their own bodies. In light of Our Bodies Ourselves, the song demonstrates the immense occurrence of self-dissatisfaction within women because of cultural images of the female body and the little control they possess over others’ perceptions of them. But, this song is a testament to Xenia Rubinos’ journey of learning herself, letting go of expectations, and reclaiming the facets of her identity that she has been forced to conceal for so long.