Isabelia Herrera, music + culture journalist

Video by Stephanie Stoddard Cortés

Isabelia Herrera’s taste for music, art, and style is deeply rooted in her Chicago-Quisqueyana roots. Born and raised in Chicago to Dominican parents, Herrera fostered her affinity for music and Latinx culture in the capital of political movements, like the Young Lords Party and the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, and iconic musicians, like Kanye West and Chance The Rapper. It’s the perfect stirring pot for the type of journalist that Herrera is today.

She spent four years as Remezcla’s music editor, before leaving to pursue a master’s degree at NYU. Today, she’s also a freelance writer working with publications like The New York Times, GQ, The Fader, and Playboy. Herrera welcomed the Emperifollá team to her Brooklyn apartment to discuss reggaetón, why she loves to do her nails, and why the best stories are the most complicated ones.

On Being Quisqueyana:

I was born in Chicago in ’91. Both of my parents are from Santiago in the Dominican Republic. I grew up between Logan Square, Bucktown and Oak Park in Chicago. But we would go to DR. All my family still lives there – mis tías, mis primas, everything.

It always felt like it was me and my family only [in Chicago]. There’s not that many Dominicans in Chicago. It’s a very Latino city and I was always surrounded by a lot of latinos. But mostly Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. It was interesting because when I moved to New York and I was in a very Dominican context for the first time I was like, “What? You could be like this?” It was really affirming to move here and have that for the first time. 

On Style: 

I remember in sophomore year of high school I had this moment when I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna start dressing cool now.” But my version of dressing cool was going to H&M. I actually feel like my style cultivation was connected to my love of music and getting inspiration from the music scenes and music cultures that I loved and followed. I definitely had an emo phase. I loved hot topic and would go there all the time to get my band t-shirts from Hot Topic. My brother actually had a big influence on me and he would take me thrifting. He’s 3 and a half years older than me. He loves to say “I fathered your style.”

I feel like the 90s and the early 2000s influence me. I have a lot of memories of playing dress up as a pre teen girl. I would always do my nails as a little girl and play with makeup. I definitely feel like as an adult it’s fun to tap back into the freedom of those years. 

As far as the hoops, for many of us, we were pressured not to wear our hoops or not be associated with that. I grew up in a predominantly white spaces and I was very discouraged from doing that or expressing any of my Latinidad in a way. I think more recently, in the last few years, I’ve been experimenting more with that and trying to embrace certain things. 

When I feel sad or low, I try to take care of myself. There is so much power in looking your best. I think that’s something that my mom taught me, just taking care of yourself and feeling good about yourself and your appearance. I feel like for me emperifolla is trying to embrace that and feeling yourself whatever that means. I think thats something that I try to aspire to.

On Music: 

I had the weirdest of musical upbringings. My mom definitely would play merenge or bachata classics like Juan Luis Guerra all the time growing up and she actually went to his first US tour in Chicago. My dad actually had a radio show in college of music and film. My dad was a communist activist. He wrote the pamphlets for the Dominican Communist Party. He really exposed me to a lot of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise listened to. I remember he would play everything from like operas like “Carmen” on Saturday mornings to like Silvio Rodriguez. He was all about the nueva canción revolution. 

I think my first CD was Britney Spears. I loved Britney as we all did. When I got into middle school, I actually started listening to a lot of punk music. I had a lot of friends that were in the punk scene and I would go to a lot of shows. So, Los Crudos, they are from Chicago too. I would go to a lot of pop punk shows and mainstream Blink- 182 and Taking Back Sunday. I was obsessed with Taking Back Sunday. I think a little bit later, when I was starting high school, I started listening to a lot more hip-hop. Kanye, as problematic as he is. I remember when graduation came out and everyone went to the tour, and then the next day everyone came wearing all of his merch at school and I was so jealous because I didn’t get to go. And reggaeton was just always present in my life. 

On Career: 

I studied sociology as my major and my minor was race and ethnicity studies. I always say that Barnard gave me the language to talk about certain things that I didn’t have but i always knew. there are experiences I had growing up or injustices that I witnessed and I finally had the vocabulary to talk about for the first time. 

I never thought that I would become a music journalist. I thought that I’d be going to academia and becoming a professor. I had a radio show with a friend of mine in college. It was every week for like two hours and I think it really set me up to always find new music. I had to curate a playlist every week with my friend. I think that really set me up to going to that path. 

Lately I’ve wanted to write more stories that allow me to write about Latinx culture and identity but not the conventional way. This is hard because a lot of mainstream outlets aren’t ready to talk about this and think that the entire community is monolithic and has the same opinions. Working with bigger outlets it’s really hard to unpack the contradictions. We don’t fit into these neat narratives. I also don’t want to be the spokesperson for all Latinx. I think for example the Rosalia story that I did for Fader. That was my first cover. I was very grateful for that because I got to get deep into it. It was definitely hard to write but I’m looking to challenge myself as a writer. I feel like a lot of big magazine profiles of artists there is no nuance or controversy. It often functions as this glowing profile of their art and their work. Even with the Bad Bunny story, I was really grateful that I got to talk to him about this celebrity worship concept and unravel the fact that he’s just a regular person that’s concerned about his community and that he doesn’t want to be lauded as this incredible spokesperson for all the politics in PR. 

On Remezcla: 

I always say Remezcla was my school of life. When I started there, I started as a copy editor. it wasn’t until 6 or 7 months in that I got the music editor position. In terms of music journalism, it convinced me that my opinions are valid. I think I went in with a lot of self-doubt and uncertainty about what I wanted to do. Frankly, it was a lot of responsibility at 23 or 24. I was so grateful for that opportunity because it convinced me that I have valid opinions and gave me some confidence. I was very passionate about covering things in a certain way and unpacking certain things.

You would see these articles where people would describe every song by a Latino artist as reggaeton without any context of what the history was. I definitely feel grateful to have steered the coverage in a way. I also feel like there are a lot of journalists and writers out there and people in social media who have been influential in covering this. At the end, I felt like I had accomplished everything that I wanted to do there. 

Frances Solá-Santiago

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