During her recent visit to NYC, I was able to catch up with the extraordinary hustler/emcee, Rocky Rivera, for a quick talk about trick habits, community support, and her new life as the Gangster of Love. This is a full transcript of the interview intended for the upcoming ACV Cinevue blog article “Quality In the Age of Viral Video: Time with Rocky Rivera.”
h!: What are you up to in NYC? Any special projects going on right now?
Rocky Rivera: I have a mixtape coming out, June 7th. We haven’t even announced it yet. It’s called the Popkiller Mixtape; it’s basically a collection of beats furnished by the artists or producers themselves. The concept behind Popkiller is really a critique of the mainstream, but at the same time, it’s a way for me to utilize the same tools to get my message across. Whether it’s guerrilla advertising; basically trying to get my main message across using the same methods that a pop artist would use while simultaneously trying to keep the underground true. So, that’s really what Popkiller is about. It’s about utilizing those same methods to getting a really substantial message across, something that should actually be shared with the masses.
h!: What is “La Madrina” a part of?
Rocky Rivera: It’s the first leak off the Popkiller Mixtape. It was a free download, and we’ll be doing more in the following months. But “La Madrina” is from Popkiller. I’m doing one last video for the Rocky Rivera LP, “Girl Like Me,” which is coming out in a couple weeks. We’re really transitioning into the next project. The video will be coming out in May, which is the final single from my Rocky Rivera LP.
h!: I have last summer’s Rocky Rivera Hearts + Minds Mixtape with DJ Roza. Where do you see the mixtape heading, and why do you think making them is something significant?
Rocky Rivera: The significance of the mixtape is that in his day and age, it’s counterproductive for an artist to commit to a whole album, because it takes up so much time, and it’s such an investment. People aren’t even digesting music in that way anymore. They’re not digesting entire albums. They’re taking in a song at a time. So, with the mixtape, it’s really for the masses. It’s really something I can invest my heart and soul into, because it’s really for everyone. At the end of the day, the significance of the mixtape, even the ones DJ Roza and I do, is really just to provide that balance. To provide that context. [The mixtape is] available freely in the mainstream, which is why it was important for me to do. Had I not had to rely on my touring and my LP for income – [the Rocky Rivera LP] would have been free, too.
I just see how the game has changed and I see that mixtapes provide universal accessibility. Basically, people can download and it’ll spread like wildfire. That’s the significance of doing the mixtape at this time.
h!: You used to go by EyeASage, and now you’re Rocky Rivera, heroine of Hagedorn’s Gangster of Love. Why the name change?
Rocky Rivera: Well, I felt like EyeASage was something that was part of the Rhapsodistas. The Rhapsodistas came together for a specific moment in time, but we were all destined for different things. In order to move past that, I had to change who I was. And at the same time, to tell you the truth, EyeASage is a hard name to pronounce. My name is already Krish; so basically, I’ve had to fight for my real name my whole life. I didn’t want to continue another lifetime, fighting for a name that I wasn’t really emotionally attached to.
With Rocky Rivera, she was such a strong protagonist, she was the Gangster of Love, she was part of Jessica Hagedorn’s legacy, and at the same time, the name “Rocky Rivera” is universal. Rocky is strong. It’s unisex. The name itself, “Rocky Rivera”, is a strong name of the protagonist of Gangster of Love, and I really wanted to represent that.
h!: Aside from Jessica Hagedorn, there are other nods to sheroes that come across in your music. Dolores Huerta in “Heart” and even some Angela Davis peppered through some of your work. Is it important for you as a woman artist to pay homage to these revolutionaries?
Rocky Rivera: “Heart” was such an exceptional beat for me, because as a female artist, I always have to keep my own personal life at a distance. There’s this whole double standard of being a woman in a male dominated industry. I know the challenges of that. For me to be able to channel that kind of inspiration from these different women on such an emotional beat was such a way for me to get in touch with my emotions and my own history, without really revealing too much of myself and my private life. It was a way for me to put myself in their shoes, and really think about their struggles. The things that made it possible for me to do what I have to do today.
Whether it’s Dolores Huerta, whether it’s Angela Davis, whether it’s Gabriela Silang, or whether it’s cocaine QueenPin, Griselda Blanco. These are women’s stories that need to be told. These are important stories. I feel like I’m a storyteller. As a journalist, I’m a storyteller. I am the vessel in which their stories come back to life. I would take that role, but at the same time, it’s not the only thing that I do.
From “Heart” to Griselda Blanco on “La Madrina”, everything that I spit is real fact. I consciously didn’t want to blow a fire. I consciously did not want to say anything that would misrepresent these women who mean so much to me, so I kept it as factual as possible. As a journalist, that integrity is intact for me whether I’m an artist or a journalist. It was important for me to tell those stories without glorifying it at the same time.
h!: I‘m going to rewind just a little bit. Earlier, you spoke about being in this male-dominated industry. What is it like for you as a woman emcee in that realm?
Rocky Rivera: There’s a lot of responsibility there. It’s really a challenge. At the end of the day, I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t gonna make everyone happy. There are gonna be contradictions which the organized community won’t be happy with. And there’s gonna be things that I say that the mainstream isn’t gonna be happy with. So, at the end of the day, I have to be true to myself. I have to be able to say, “This is my story.” You might not have experienced it, you might not even like the method in which I tell the story, but the story is necessary at the end of the day.
In terms of community, [certain things] needs to be known about me, whether it’s [my experience as] a woman of color, being assertive, someone from San Francisco, somebody who’s willing to go into the mainstream and speak on some real issues. At the end of the day, I gotta be true to myself. Like I said before, you can’t make everybody happy. Can’t make the organizers happy, the club-owners happy, so I’m just trying to bring balance. Once people understand that – that struggle and love and pain and oppression and revolution are universal, we can talk about how these are [also] the recurring themes of my music. They’ll be able to look past the gender, the color, the sound. They’ll get down to the truth, and to the real message: we all go through the struggle, we all are oppressed, and we all have a story to tell. That’s really what I want, balance. I wanna be able to say to Geo, Bam, Kiwi, even though they represent so much to the Filipino community, that’s still just one side to the story. I hope I can encourage young women, across different communities, to say, “Hey, Rocky did it. I can do it, too.” That’s really the basis of everything that I do. That I can show these young women of color that they can be included, that they can be accepted, and they don’t have to sell their souls out, in order to make music that touches people. That’s what I’m about. Being an example for my community, contradictions and all, that you can make it on your own terms.
h!: Your last response covered about four of the next questions I wanted to ask, so, let’s just talk about your “Trick Habit” video premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival, instead! How did you come up with the concept for that video?
Rocky Rivera: I first heard the sample by April March, which was a remake of an old French song. The narrative was so strong – like Quentin Tarantino movies when the women are really powerful and I felt like I had to flip that because no other male artist would do it in that way. Because it was such a strong narrative, when I finally got together with Patricio from Kid Heroes, we wanted to utilize our creative abilities.
The video concept was actually Bam’s idea. We had an original treatment that was a little similar to Patricio’s work with another artist, so we had to switch the treatment last minute. It was Bam’s idea to write this treatment about this filthy rich doctor who fixes men for these women, because that’s what every woman wants – to be able to not really change her man, but to swap out the defective parts. Refurbish him, if you will. So, it was a really great play on things. If you watch the video, it’s a light-hearted way for me to get my message across without scaring dudes. But if you listen to the content of it, it’s really this message of – “THAT GIGOLO SHIT, I’M NOT FEELING THAT. If you wanna be a gigolo, then you’re gonna get the repercussions of being a gigolo, and that doesn’t attract women like me.”
For me to do a video and actually have Patricio do what he does best, which is be a director, be creative, and create a sound stage, create a green screen, make it a collaborative process and all that – it was a perfect example of utilizing the resources I have, [resulting in] something that is mutually beneficial and has a great message. Hang up the trick habit, we’re not feeling that.
Trick Habit is a perfect example of collaboration at its finest – It’s not about Rocky Rivera. Rocky Rivera to me isn’t even one person, it’s not just me. I represent a culmination of people that are supporting me, and a collaborative effort to really get this music out there. Beatrock music believes in my message, so does Bambu, so do the people who support me, so that’s really important for me. “Trick Habit” is just one small example of how collaborative my music really is. I’m very proud of it. I’m very happy that it got picked up, because it shows that people still want that message, and people still want that quality in the age of viral videos and bullshit.
h!: You said something I haven’t heard any other artist articulate in quite the same way: that their artist persona is a collaboration between them and the people who support them. Can you please talk a little more about that?
Rocky Rivera: Yeah, when I watched Sade: Behind the Music, that’s what she said, too. She said, “Sade is not one person, ‘Sade’ is a band.” And I may be a solo artist, but I rely on my community, and the people who believe in me – for me to exercise my gifts, the storytelling, or whatever it is – I rely on my community to have my back. That’s just the kind of artist that I am. I wouldn’t have been able to make it to this point without the people who believed in my message and what I’m here for.
It’s true; Rocky Rivera to me, in my mind is not one person. It’s a fictional character. It’s really a symbol of collaborative effort, and I’m very proud to wave that flag, and be the face of Rocky Rivera, especially in terms of something that everyone feels invested in.
h!: As Rocky Rivera, what is your work’s take-home message?
Rocky Rivera: At the end of the day, it makes me happy when people, male or female, listen to my music. It makes me happy when I hear male artists listen to my music musically, as well as contextually, to be able to say, “This is my favorite song.” To know that the message is there to them. But because of the kind of artist that I am, it’s not merely about the message. I’m not an organizer trying to rap. I’m the artist. If [listeners] could take away from that experience – that collaborative effort, that love, and that [my music] still has a message at the end of the day. Then it’s done. That’s what I want. That’s to say, we can do quality music, we don’t have to be backpackers, we don’t even have to be underground. We can be in the street.
But my politics will always be there. My politics – me wanting my sisters, my people of color, my disadvantaged youth, and my third-world hustlers – I want it to really be a symbol of success in a situation where all odds are against us. That’s just my whole shit – for me to be able to break those barriers, I had to be who I wanted to be, regardless of what anybody said.