The future is female, brown and conscious AF, and this week’s #WCW Djali Brown-Cepeda is further proof of that.
At just 20 years old, the New York dominicana is using all her flair and genius – from writing and video producing to organizing and teaching yoga – to big up Black and brown young women.
As a student studying film and ethnicity & race at the New School, Brown-Cepeda co-founded Students Decolonizing Academia, an organization that aims to establish and promote the decolonization of collegiate syllabi and curricula. Outside of the classroom, the Black Latina hosts and produces reign(a), an interview series for Mass Appeal featuring strong females who challenge cookie-cutter definitions of “feminism,” has helped organize efforts for Standing Rock and is quickly becoming a famed figure on the ‘gram, both for her rousing content and fly aesthetic.
Ahead, learn how this mujerista is crushing the patriarchy with a camera, pen and around-the-way girl attitude.
You identify with feminism but are also very critical of the recent trendiness of it. What do you think we risk when social movements become the latest fad?
I think that what ends up happening is we get really excited about it and begin to fetishize it, and, in fetishizing, we lose the true essence of it. For instance, I was really involved in Standing Rock efforts, and I saw how people were going on Instagram, using a hashtag and then being considered “woke” for it, which was frustrating. When certain experiences are part of your daily life and are what inform you as a person, it’s irritating to see people who call themselves an ally not because they want to understand and help but because it’s cool. It’s like, I’m going to call myself a feminist and wear a pussy hat or a “#feminism” t-shirt, but I’m going to think that sex workers are dirty and I won’t include some women and some women’s experiences in my feminism.
Being critical of the trendiness of social justice, however, doesn't mean you condemn popular culture that challenges injustice and uplifts social movements. What would you say is the difference between these two?
When it’s a trend, then it becomes commoditized, something that can be objectified, something people buy and trade and sell because it’s cool. While rappers, singers or artists, of all mediums, who do these things in their work, like Kendrick Lamar’s work about blackness, for example, are entering that same market, the intention and the intended audience are different, and that’s important. It’s about treatment and intentionality.
On that, who are some of your favorite feminist cultural icons?
Gloria E. Anzaldúa, just because she’s so important for Latina women, and women of color in general, and did a really great job at bridging gaps. That’s missing now, which is kind of paradoxical because we’re supposed to be connected with social media, but, really, we’re so divided. Anzaldúa tried hard to bridge gaps. She was a Chicana, but her work went outside of that and was for Latin American women, women of color and third-world women. Another woman I love is Cardi B. She has that New York Caribbean, Uptown thing that I know and love. For so long, feminism, that label, has been white-centric, not even all white women, but rather liberal college-educated white women. But Cardi B is just as much a feminist as your college student moving here from Ohio from a wealthy family. My feminism, my womanism, my mujerismo is for women who look like me, including the girls who have attitude on the block, girls who are strippers and sex workers. Cardi B shows that you don’t have to have thousand-dollar words or write a dissertation. As women of color, you’re inherently political, a feminist, an activist. I also love Amber Rose. She’s great, especially when talking about sexual education and sex stigma.
Making people uncomfortable, part 2! This one goes to my idol, #GloriaAnzaldua! "We cannot educate white women and take them by the hand. Most of us are willing to help, but we can't do the white woman's homework for them. It's energy draining." #internationalwomensday #womensday #whitefeminism not #feminism soy #mujerista
You are the producer and host of reign(a), an original web series you created for Mass Appeal last year. Through the series, you highlight, speak with and learn from femmes who, maybe not outwardly feminist, challenge sexism and racism by just existing, whether in male-dominated fields or realities that aren't expected of young, low-income women and girls of color. Why did you want to make this specific series?
I wanted to make reign(a) because I feel that women are pigeonholed, especially women of color. Considering myself a mujerista, I care about the uplifting of women of color. And I don’t mean excluding white women, but we’ve been excluded from this space and, sometimes, it’s OK to make space just for us. I thought it was important to have women of color showcasing women of color, people of color helping each other out. I wanted to do something like that for Mass Appeal. A lot of women rappers, female artists and female activists have this preconception of what they can be. There’s an archetype. I wanted to show people defying them. For example, I have an episode with Princess Nokia, a rapper, singer and spiritual woman. She’s showing you can be all of that. You don’t have to just be super tough to be a female rapper. You can be smart and explore your culture, which isn’t to be confused with exploiting your culture. The women I interview are corky and multifaceted. They can’t be placed into a single box.
I love the name of the series, reign(a), particularly its spelling. Can you talk about its meaning or significance to you?
I felt really excited when I came up with the name. When I think of reigning, I think of monarchy, kings, presidents, men in positions of power and control over a certain mass. But at the root of reign is queen, reina in Spanish and rainha in Portuguese. I wanted to do something in a way that was nuanced and rooted in activism in the name itself. I also wanted it to be something that was Latino-centric. Being bilingual is a part of my culture, and, even if you don’t speak Spanish fluently, we’re all still bilingual and must code-switch. I thought the name would represent the girl who doesn’t see herself portrayed.
In a previous interview, you described reign(a) as talking "to naturally fly women who inspire other fly women to be fly women." What role does style, aesthetic, this idea of "flyness," play in your own life?
I think because I grew up in New York City and my mother is this really cool down Dominiyorkian woman, my whole idea of flyness is more of an attitude and way of being. For me, flyness is knowing how to respond to the guy who catcalls you on the street in a way that doesn’t victimize yourself but makes them feel like they won’t want to mess with you; it’s knowing how to get around the city and hold your own. It’s really this New York thing that is being challenged because of gentrification, which is so sad and makes me want to throw up. It’s flavor.
You're also a Film and Ethnicity & Race student at the New School, where you co-founded Students Decolonizing Academia (SDA). Can you tell us about that organization, 'cause it sounds dope af and long overdo?
SDA was created last year in the midst of the Standing Rock fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. For whatever reason, New York City still celebrates Columbus Day. My family recognizes it as Indigenous Day of Remembrance, so it was really frustrating that my school, which prides itself on being a place for social justice, didn’t do anything about Standing Rock. In response, two of my friends, one trans and the other Latina, and I worked with students at NYU and Columbia to do something about it. We had a drive and donated clothes. Through this, though, I realized that academia, the one we know, is white and Eurocentric, and I started to realize how much my school was like that and how its syllabi reflected institutionalized racism. I started to ask questions about the lack of people of color authors, stories and courses. I just became really frustrated. New York would be nothing without Latinxs. The United States would be nothing without Latinxs. We need to know that.
Why do you think the decolonization of academia is necessary?
For me, academia, in the way that we know it, is a grand intuition, a place and space made for white people and white consumption. It’s not a people of color space, which is why HBCUs are so important for Black people, including African Americans and those of the diaspora. We have to be taught history right, not just the victors’ version. We have to decolonize it because we can’t keep feeling less than, we can’t keep believing that Black history started with the transatlantic slave trade. We have to know our history is deep and beautiful, and although it’s tainted with imperialism and colonialism, we do have a history that’s not whitewashed. This is important for our self-esteem and mental health. It’s nice being taught that you don’t come from savages and need Jesus Christ to save you. It’s nice to hear a different part of history, that we come from warriors, that we are still warriors and that our existence is a sign of strength and resilience.
So you're a student-scholar and a producer but you're also a yoga instructor, a DJ, a writer and an activist. Your very being is a direct contestation to one-dimensional stereotypes of women of color. How, at such a young age, do you think you were able to embrace your multifacetedness?
It’s because of my mother teaching me the right history, telling me to challenge the status quo since I was small, to stand up for myself when teachers mess up my name or laugh at it, to question what I’m being taught, to stand up in the face of the oppressor. She taught me to never be quiet and to always voice my opinion. She taught me that power lies in breaking the box and never conforming to it. As humans, we are not things you can easily categorize. We became that because it’s easier and works well with statistics. I personally think that it all goes back to slavery, and what we witness and experience today is a byproduct of that. I don’t want to be checked off like an object to be used or for my being to be understood for someone else’s consumption. We’re already exploited. I want to break those boxes. I think women of color are quite magical, and you can’t contain magic. It’s impossible.
How do you see your work as helping to crush the patriarchy among other oppressive systems?
I hope that my work, in terms of reign(a), for instance, reaches young girls (and other people, men too), helping them question their own opinions and internalized conceptions of women and what constitutes womanhood. I hope it empowers people to see women, women of color, women of mixed race, helping each other, being in charge and not misrepresenting their community. I hope my Instagram posts keep invigorating people, keeps speaking to them and empowering them as people tell me it is. I was cyber-bullied in high school, so I hope to be the antithesis to that. Receiving nasty comments? Go to my page. I’ll show you we’re not crazy; it’s colonialism.
Want more from Djali? Claro que si. Follow the fly Dominiyorkian on Instagram.