Vilassar de Mar is a sleepy seaside town on the Catalonian coast, home to a tiny 20,000 people. Prior to becoming a globally-reaching reggaeton sensation, Alba Farelo, AKA Bad Gyal, used to work at a bread shop there. Her ex-boss, a woman in her forties, came to a festival she’d just played over the weekend. “I don’t know what she made of it,” Farelo laughs of her performance, which involved shaking her denim hotpant-clad bum a lot, while singing lines that translate as something close to “I’ve got an ass to bounce”.
Bad Gyal looks like the kind of popstar you wanted to be if you grew up in the ’90s. Gigantic hoops, diamanté-stamped shades, and a ton of lip gloss are staples of her look, and when we meet in a cafe in Islington, her nails boast the kind of impossibly long glittery extensions that must make daily life a nightmare.
We’ve both been at the same Mallorcan festival over the weekend and, among a varied line-up that included The Black Lips and Primal Scream, Bad Gyal’s booty-filled performance was the one people were really losing their shit to. “People get excited when I play in my country,” she nods, her false eyelashes bouncing. “Most people haven’t seen the live show yet, so it’s still hype.”-
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It was in Spain that her first hit, ‘Pai’ - a rework of Rihanna’s ‘Work’ - took off, Farelo’s autotuned Catalan licks aligning perfectly with the syrupy dancehall beat. Since then, she’s rode the escalating hype by dropping two mixtapes in quick succession. ‘Worldwide Angel’, her latest, sees underground beatmakers like DJ Florentino, Jam City and Fakeguido finessing the production, as well as previous collaborator Dubbel Dutch. “It was very exciting when these producers hit me up,” she says, explaining her decision to delve outside of the commercial circuit for beats. It was a good strategy, it turns out; her sleek, pop-meets-reggaeton sound packs some serious dancefloor heat, earning the admiration of critics and festival goers alike.
Born the eldest of five siblings in the small town, the now- Barcelona-based Farelo was raised on the “elders of reggaeton”; Wisin y Yandel, Ozuna, Zion y Lennox, Ñengo Flow, and Arcángel. “When we were younger it used to be more perreo - music for dancing and the club, moving your body,” she says. Glued to MTV’s music channel, as were most kids around that time, she witnessed the commercial dancehall explosion of the ’00s, citing Sean Paul’s ‘The Trinity’ as a particular favourite. Just as dancehall has re-exploded onto the commercial stage in the last couple of years, so have Spanish language songs - creating the perfect environment for Bad Gyal to position the crown on her head.
While reggaeton has historically been a male-dominated genre, Farelo is spearheading her own female-led, zero-fucks version. “My music makes women feel really, really good,” she says, albeit adamant her work doesn’t making an explicit feminist statement. “I don’t think all reggaeton music is sexist, or treats women badly - there’s a lot of lyrics that make women feel good within themselves and their bodies. It makes them want to move their bodies and feel good, and not be ashamed of that.”
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Quick to wax poetic about her love of Caribbean culture and artists like Spice and Busy Signal, Farelo flew to Jamaica recently, tasting dancehall at its source by linking up with choreographer Blacka Di Danca and 10 famed dancehall crews. During some post-interview small talk, I ask where she’s going on holiday and the answer arrives with a wide smile: “Jamaica.” Yet, Farelo’s rise has not been without accusations of cultural appropriation (not helped by her patois-inflected moniker), and it’s a complex issue - particularly as reggaeton and dancehall have an interlinked history. Reggaeton was born in Puerto Rico via the Caribbean dembow riddim, named after Shabba Ranks and Bobby Digital’s ‘Dem Bow’, and would spread like wildfire throughout Europe in the mid- Noughties, mostly in Spain as a result of the shared language.
On stage, Farelo is a magnetic presence, locking eye contact with seemingly the whole of the packed tent. At Barcelona’s Primavera Sound, she zoomed on stage on a motorbike in a very Xtina-in-the-video-for- ‘Dirrty’ move (they also both share a love of assless chaps). I wonder whether there’s a separation between her on and off-stage personas. “There’s a lot of Alba in Bad Gyal,” she replies. “I’m a human being. Sometimes I feel as insecure as everybody and I don’t have that Bad Gyal attitude. Me being able to do live shows came from a power that I needed as a person, you know?”
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I think it’s important when you receive all this attention - it means something...
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As an artist who’s connecting the international dots - a self- described “worldwide angel” - her life back in Barcelona is a much more DIY setup, where she’s the one “putting on the shows, running things.” Here in London, she says, there are more opportunities, studio hook-ups and potential feature artists than in Catalonia and, as if on cue, M.I.A walks into the café we’re in for our chat. Farelo sees a growing change in her native land’s industry: “Music wasn’t taking risks in my country, and it’s so good that now we have a lot of different artists that are doing something different.”
Still proudly independent and running things on her own terms, Farelo stresses the importance of waiting and surveying her options: “I think it’s important when you receive all this attention - it means something. That doesn’t happen a lot of times in life.”
“It’s rare that anyone from my village has travelled like me, and my career is just two years old,” she continues. “I think they are really proud of that, of me starting to be a little bit international, you know?”
“There are some haters, too,” she admits. But, as the ancient proverb goes, only when one has made it does one acquire haters.
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Words: Felicity Martin
Photography: Philip White
Fashion: Justin Hamilton
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