Truth and Dare
TOKISCHA HAS BECOME THE MOST PROVOCATIVE SUPERSTAR IN DOMINICAN DEMBOW BY MAKING SONGS THAT PULL NO PUNCHES ABOUT SEX, DRUGS, AND QUEERNESS. SHE WANTS TO GO EVEN FURTHER
I’m knocking on the door of a spacious hotel suite in midtown Manhattan, and a teasing voice on the other side calls out in Spanish: “The person you’re looking for no longer lives here!”
A couple of giggles follow, and the door swings wide open. Standing in front of me is Tokischa Altagracia Peralta, 26, the Dominican force of nature whose explicit, rambunctious, and proudly queer songs about sex, drugs, and popola (or pussy) have made her one of the most talked-about figures in the
Spanish-speaking music world. She’s the dembow ambassador whose star power has been expanding like the universe, who’s made Bad Bunny fangirl at award shows, who’s selling out venues with no album out. She’s controversial, outrageous, and completely beloved or relentlessly reviled, depending on who you ask. She’s been fined, threatened with jail, and denounced by conservatives — all things that have only made her more flagrant about who she is. A few days after we meet, she’ll upload a video on Twitter that shows her having sex on the balcony of this very hotel, just for the hell of it.
Right now, however, she’s smiling sleepily, soft-spoken and approachable, looking more like a college freshman roused for an early class than the Latin-music industry’s leading provocateur. It’s about 10 a.m., and she stretches out in a lounge chair, enjoying a few free minutes during her first U.S. tour. Tales of her shows have spread like wildfire: They’ve become liberated, raucous spaces, where everyone lets their freakiest freak flag fly. “I’m very crude with my lyrics, and everything that I’m expressing is very, very, very real,” she tells me. “People identify with all of it.”
There can be downsides to her approach to fame. Last year, she and J Balvin took heat after the video for their song “Perra” portrayed Black Dominicans as dogs; Tokischa said at the time that she was “truly sorry that people felt offended,” but that “art is expression.” More shocking was a since-deleted Instagram post she uploaded in April in defense of Rochy RD, a dembow artist arrested
that month on allegations of sexual abuse against a 16-year-old girl. (He has maintained his innocence.) The post, which included a claim that minors will have sex for money, angered even Tokischa’s die-hard fans, exposing a chasm between what people want Tokischa to represent and her actual impulses.
Tokischa has been an avatar for so many things — sexual freedom, queer desire, radical feminism — but she says she is simply articulating her own truths, which include experiences with addiction and sex work. “When I started making music, I said, ‘I’m going to be honest about what I’m living through.’ This is what art is: the sum of your experiences, your fantasies,” she says. That’s how she rose through the male-dominated world of dembow — and it’s how she plans to keep bulldozing forward.
The story that defines Tokischa’s childhood, the one that spills out of her in conversations like she’s reciting her own version of Genesis, happened when her mother left her in Santo Domingo to find work in
New York. Tokischa was about three years old. Her mother would visit when she wasn’t working in factories or as a care provider, but Tokischa was hurt that they couldn’t be together. “When I’d see my cousins, my neighbors, my half-sisters from my dad’s side with their moms, I’d be conscious of that,” she says.
She was an artsy kid who did theater and dance, with a no-bullshit sense of honesty. She always knew she liked girls (she identifies as bisexual), and her first kiss was with a close friend when she was young.
“My brother found us, and he hit me so hard,” she says, laughing weakly. It didn’t stop Tokischa from doing what she wanted. “I gave myself liberty,” she says. “Living with a conservative family, one of the first things they tell you — that the whole world tells you — is that you need to wait, stay a virgin until marriage.” She lost hers at 16, and the rebellions kept coming: “I’d escape from school all the time. I’d go to the edge of the ocean. I’d go out with guys. Then I’d walk quickly back home, before anyone saw,” she says.
At 18, she took a job at a call center. She did it begrudgingly, until someone told her about Craigslist, where wealthy tourists posted ads looking for female escorts. “Millionaire gringos: ‘I’m going on vacation, and I’m looking for a girl to share my time with,’ ” she recites from memory. “Through those ads is how you’d find sugar daddies. I found one, then another, then another.”
Around that time, Tokischa met Raymi Paulus, who had been sending shockwaves through the Dominican art scene with his underground films and photography about sex and queer life. “She had a special energy, this way of seeing life that was as real as mine,” Paulus says. He’s been her manager ever since.
Tokischa started out with hard-hitting trap-soul sounds before moving into dembow. Her songs were often blunt and chaotic, reflecting what she was going through. She’d started using drugs more, and she was living with an older man she describes as a millionaire. “It was a toxic relationship,” she says. “Two drug addicts who don’t like each other, who are just completing a transaction. But it was a big source of livelihood for me, so I could see my mother, so I could invest in my music.” Still, she felt like everything was catching up with her. Getting high, feeling the adrenaline from the crowd at local shows, and experiencing the euphoria of being onstage was too much.
She went to the countryside to detox and has been clean for two years (she started drinking alcohol in December). The process, she says, left her with a sense of clarity that she wants to channel into her debut
LP. “I want to make an album that has everything that happened to me in it. Then I can close that chapter.”
Just before midnight that night, at New York’s Terminal 5, she saunters toward the microphone in a translucent black dress. When she turns around, she reveals that the outfit is completely backless and also assless. The crowd goes berserk. What she saw, she tells me later, was a sea of people from around the world — straight, queer, weird, nonconforming — feeling as free and uninhibited as she did in that moment.
After they broke up four decades ago, ABBA famously refused all kinds of money for reunion performances and tours. But a few years ago, British impresario and entrepreneur Simon Fuller had an idea that piqued the Swedish superstars’ interest: What if they could play live without having to show up onstage? “We got sort of turned on by the fact that we could actually be onstage without us being there,” ABBA singer-songwriter Benny Andersson says over Zoom. The band, along with Fuller and their producers Ludvig Andersson (Benny Andersson’s son) and Svana Gisla (music-video producer for the likes of Radiohead and Beyoncé), initially explored hologram technology, but that didn’t pan out. They finally realized a grander dream: ABBA Voyage, the 196-show concert residency at newly built ABBA Arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park that began May 27. Made with help from George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, digital avatars (also known as ABBA-tars) embody the stars in their Seventies prime, performing a 22-song set alongside a flesh-and-blood backing band assembled by James Righton of the Klaxons and including U.K. singer Little Boots on keys. “It’s been a lot of uphill,” the elder Andersson says. “Brexit, the pandemic. It’s been a lot of stuff that hasn’t worked well, but we’ve been resilient.”
The band and the team and ILM realized early on that not only was a tour not going to happen, an existing venue wasn’t going to
work either. There are 1,000 visual-effects artists on ABBA Voyage, making it the biggest project ILM has done, according to Gisla (and this is the company behind Star Wars, Marvel, and Jurassic Park). The roof of ABBA Arena was reengineered three times to fit the complicated lighting system. Where many concerts might
use only one lighting rig, this one uses 20.
There was a lot of work put into making the ABBA-tars — which, the band stresses, are not holograms, but digital versions of the members — feel like real, physical performers. The four members of ABBA met from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, for four and half weeks straight, performing for 200 cameras and a crew of nearly 40 people while wearing motioncapture suits. They posted up in a sound studio within the Swedish Film Institute, playing all the songs they had carefully curated for their first show in 40 years. “It was really a pleasure for all of us,” Andersson says. Back in London, body doubles emulated the performances, but with a younger energy. “We are sort of merged together with our body doubles. Don’t ask me how it works because I can’t explain that,” Andersson continues. “If you’re 75, you don’t jump around like you did when you were 34, so this is why this happened.”
Andersson was impressed when he watched himself and the others “perform” for the first time in April. “I see myself standing onstage, talking to you. It’s absolutely believable. It’s not unbelievable. It’s believable!”
In rehearsals, Andersson and bandmate Björn Ulvaeus were hit with a spark of creativity. They penned “I Still Have Faith in You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down,” and asked Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad if they’d record the songs for the show. “We found we’re still good enough,” Andersson says. Eventually, they recorded a whole album, last year’s Voyage.
As impressive as the tech is, Gisla and Ludvig Andersson worry about how it could be used. “I personally don’t think that doing things posthumously with artists that are passed away, where they have no hand or opinion or say in the matter, is a good idea,” Gisla explains. “ABBA made this show, but had they not been involved, it wouldn’t be an ABBA concert.”
For millennials and Gen Z kids, ABBA are fixtures: There are ABBA-themed parties across the globe, and songs like “Dancing Queen” have become hits on TikTok. Andersson still doesn’t understand. “That’s pretty weird, isn’t it? It’s 40 years ago, and the corpse is still moving. I don’t know. Maybe it’s good enough. Maybe that’s the only answer.”