Winter concert captivates campus

Brought to Vassar by the WVKR station Valentina Gansito and Friends, singer Helado Negro (Roberto Lange)—pictured above—transformed the Shiva Theater into an intimate space for POC and allies alike. / Courtesy of Kaitlin Prado
Self-described Afro-Latina artist Xenia Rubinos followed Helado Negro with high-energy numbers that unapologetically reminded us, “It’s a party across America, bachata in the back.” / Courtesy of Kaitlin Prado

This past weekend Helado Negro and Xenia Rubinos performed for Vassar’s winter concert, and we have WVKR DJs Jonathan Rodriguez ’19 and Paul Kennedy ’19 to thank for it. Latinx radio station Valentina Gansito + Friends organized an amazing event.

Rodriguez explained, “We didn’t try to cater it as a Latinx showcase, but both of their art and both of their work really focuses on identity-based work and work that supports the experiences of Latinidad, Latinx folk. We wanted to be able to reach a bunch of people who haven’t been able to have that connection with performances on campus yet and I think it was the first of its kind in terms of centering non-white folks and understanding the implications that go with art and your identity.”

This concert was unlike anything I have ever experienced at Vassar. It was clear that the entire crowd was captivated by Helado’s soft tunes and Xenia’s powerful energy, but it wasn’t just the exceptional musical talent of these artists that made this concert so unique. Larissa Archondo ’20 offered an explanation as to what really made this an exceptional event: “It was important that the event was being organized by Latinx students for Latinx students, so I didn’t feel like Latinidad was being exploited or appropriated. Saturday night I saw myself and so many of my friends understand what it was like to feel like there was a space made for us on campus.”

Archondo hadn’t heard of Xenia Rubinos prior to the announcement of the lineup, but has been a fan of Helado Negro for a while. They continued, “His music means a lot to me as a Latinx person because it’s not easy to find Latinx artists in contemporary alt/indie genres that are overwhelmingly dominated by white artists.”

They added, “It’s inspiring to see a Latinx POC musician creating music that’s extremely beautiful and mesmerizing to all audiences, but especially meaningful in the clear Latin influences and songs centered around Latinidad and brownness.”

Looking back on the concert experience as a whole, Kennedy recalled, “What was really a highlight for me was being able to watch Helado Negro and Xenia Rubinos work throughout the day before the concert, and to see the kind of dedication they put into making their concerts good: making it look right, and sound right, and the high level of professional artistic quality control, and like how throughout all of that they were also really kind people to everyone involved, from us to everyone like the production team, the dancers—I think everyone had a positive interaction with them.” Both artists made it a point to engage with the audience in the intimate Shiva theatre space.

The performers reached for the crowd with both their hands and their words. Helado even wrapped his arms around a person while singing, and Xenia stepped down into the audience to start a mosh pit of sorts.

Some of the lyrics in Xenia’s song “I Won’t Say” come from the essay “Who Will Revere the Black Woman?” by Abbey Lincoln. The audience roared as she powerfully questioned, “Whose hair is compulsively bleached…Whose nose is too big? Whose mouth is too loud?…Whose face is too black?”

I was especially taken by one moment when Helado welcomed the audience to sing along at one point. Many of us joined him in repeating the lines that serve as the title of the song: “Young Latin & Proud.” The softness of that line was not sung as a wilting apology—we all took that quiet moment to be careful with ourselves.

Rodriguez recalled his personal favorite moments of the show: “I think he [Helado Negro] was having technical difficulties with ‘It’s My Brown Skin’ (that’s a personal favorite of mine because it’s really empowering), and when he performed it, he decided to sing it a capella—just his vocals and it was really interesting to see that because it was like impromptu, but also the song really came through and the lyrics that are the most important part of that song in my opinion really came through, and that was really exciting to watch. For Xenia—she really brought the energy up. She gave the crowd energy that I was could not even fathom.”

He added, “Half the crowd didn’t know the lyrics and the other half didn’t know Xenia at all but it was wonderful to see that energy come through not only through her but the entire band and through her as well.”

While some of the audience hadn’t heard of either artist before attending the concert, it was clear that both artists have a diverse fan base. Mixed into the Vassar crowd were non-Vassar college students and even younger teens with their mom!

Speaking to the way in which the concert brought people together, Kennedy added, “It was great to see that on this campus and that’s a good thing, there needs to be more of it. I guess that was one thing that I was really inspired by—when I looked into that crowd I saw like a bunch of different kinds of people having a good time. That’s how, on this campus, a lot of things will get better.”

Looking towards future events on this campus, hopefully student organizations can continue to find ways to recreate these same kinds of space for people of color on campus. Vassar has to work together in order to make events like this happen while paying special attention to the constant load of labor people of color students often shoulder in order to create these spaces all by themselves.

Kennedy wanted to make sure he gave credit where it was due, saying, “There are definitely a lot of POC on this campus that are doing really cool shit and making good spaces.” He also remarked, “This campus talks the talk, but time and time again it doesn’t follow through on that kind of rhetoric of wokeness.”

Thinking about how this concert fit into a bigger picture, Archondo said, “While I know that the concert was an abnormality, and that I’ll probably never experience another concert at Vassar centered around the needs and art of Latinx people, it was so special that I did get to experience what that feels like for one night, to feel seen, heard and cared for. It was especially valuable because events centered around POC/other marginalized identity often focus on discussion and more explicit forms of activism, which are crucial and I also enjoy participating in, but it was a relief how this night was just plain old fun.”

This event scrubbed me clean if only for a night, and served as an important reminder of Audre Lorde’s famous words: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Make sure to tune in to Valentina Gansito which airs at 2 a.m. on Friday mornings at WVKR.org or 91.3 FM Poughkeepsie independent radio!

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