Photography Rebeca Diaz

roxiny turns personal trauma into powerful feminist pop

In the new video for ‘Goliath,’ co-directed by Shan Nicholson, the Dominican-American artist and activist performs a ritual to surrender.

by Sarah Gooding
Mar 23 2018, 2:49pm

Photography Rebeca Diaz

Roxiny Rivas has really lived. The artist and activist was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Spain, Panama, and Italy. At the age of 17 she ran away from home and flew to the US, where she drove cross-country to California. There she signed to a major label, then moved to New York, where she severed ties with the label in a bid to start afresh, independently.

The fearlessness and determination with which Roxiny has lived her life is immediately apparent in her music — strong, shimmering synth-pop inspired by post-punk. It contrasts industrial beats with brooding, emotional vocals, often touching upon the most harrowing moments of her life.

Over the last year Roxiny has built a body of work that reflects a newfound sense of self, starting with her debut song “9 Months” — a powerful grunge-pop anthem about breaking free from an abusive relationship — which was released to widespread acclaim. This was followed by droning synth ballad “The Lights,” an ode to New York, written after a bomb threat in Chelsea.

Roxiny’s latest is the video for her song “Goliath,” which premieres today on i-D. Featuring four female dancers, it creates a powerful image of sisterhood and female solidarity, which Roxiny says is key to her whole musical project. “I’m always pushing for and rooting for women, and I’ve ended up with a group of amazing women around me who are 100% about the project. It’s really starting to feel like a sisterhood, because we’re doing so many things together — they perform with me at every single show. It’s like they’ve become my band, but they’re dancers, which is even more awesome.”

“Goliath” was co-directed by Roxiny and Shan Nicholson, who is best known for directing Rubble Kings, a documentary about the harsh reality of gang life in the Bronx in the 70s. Roxiny says she wrote the song about Shan, her “favorite feminist and muse.” They share a history of telling stories about overcoming obstacles, which seems to have made their visions blend seamlessly.

Roxiny says the video combines her concept of a “ritual to surrender” with Shan’s idea of showcasing the dancers’ choreography. It starts by panning over a scene of scattered tarot cards and burning sage, and we see Roxiny slowly stripped of clothing, until she’s naked under a veil. “It was inspired by the process of becoming naked — emotionally, spiritually, physically — before you can really allow love into your heart,” she says.

The ritualistic imagery in “Goliath” is something Roxiny is expanding on for her upcoming EP, Rituals (due for release on April 20). Written in collaboration with Chris Coady at the legendary Sunset Sound studio in Los Angeles, the songs include “9 Months,” plus an amazing cover of Blur’s “Song 2,” with oscillating synths and a pulsating industrial beat replacing the distorted guitars and spare drums.

“9 Months” isn’t Roxiny’s only song on Rituals that deals with abuse — the final track “Golden Prophet” is about sexual abuse Roxiny suffered as a child. For Roxiny, it’s a relief to write about these hardships, and turn them into art. She says of Rituals, “This was the most cathartic work that I’ve done, because I finally started digging deep, into places that I’d always been afraid to go before. There were a lot of things that were haunting me, that I hadn’t found ways to work through completely. So I finally felt like I had the strength to be able to go there, and it was just an incredible experience.”

Roxiny’s ability to turn awful experiences into songs of empowerment feels connected to her work as an activist, a role she’s taken up after her mother and grandmother’s inspiring legacies. As the granddaughter of a revolutionary who helped mobilize against the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, Roxiny has grown up with activism as part of her daily life. “I come from a line of women who very much take it into their own hands, and it’s not like, ‘let’s write a check and give it to this situation and kind of shy away from it,’ they really do care.”

In her life in New York, Roxiny tries to do the same thing, by working with a number of women’s rights organizations. In February she joined the Resistance Revival Chorus, a collective of more than 50 women which launched last summer in response to the Trump presidency. You might have seen them perform with Kesha at the Grammys in January.

As a featured performer in the RRC, Roxiny sings two of her own songs (one being “9 Months”) with the group at each of their appearances. Earlier this month they performed at Carnegie Hall for the annual Tibet House US benefit, curated by Philip Glass, alongside Carly Simon, Dev Hynes, and Patti Smith, the latter of whom Roxiny managed to snag a photo with. “I was so excited!” she gushes. “I think she’s such an incredible writer and I have so much respect for her. That was one of those bucket list moments.”

In addition to regular gigs with the RRC, Roxiny leads monthly music workshops for Girls Educational & Mentoring Service (GEMS), an organization that helps victims of sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. She also runs her own campaign to raise awareness about violence against women, called #9MonthsGirlsRising. She initially campaigned for nine months with nine different women’s rights organizations, and planned to end it on International Women’s Day, but decided to extend it indefinitely, so now all downloads of “9 Months” will continue to benefit GEMS.

“They’ve created this environment where these girls have an opportunity to start a new life, and they provide them with the tools to do so,” she says of GEMS. “So I decided that I’m not going to end this campaign, it just doesn’t make sense. The work isn’t done, so there’s no need to end it.”

She adds, “There’s a lot of work to do in this world. I just always tell people, it doesn’t matter what you do, just do something.”

"Rituals" is out April 20 via Revoluna.

Dominican Republic
Shan Nicholson