A Sound Cloud favorite, boasting an impressive 180k plus plays of her 2014 single, “One of One”, meet the Queens native behind the sultry voice known as Duendita – Candace Camacho.
Primarily identifiable by her soul stirring sound and mesmerizing melodies, Candace has spent most of her career as a mysterious siren. Intentional or not, her unconventional approach of limited visibility is a welcomed objection in an age of overwhelming self-exposure. With the premiere of her latest release, aptly titled, “Open Wide”, Candace shares more than her talent of composing music with the power to elicit raw emotion but, also her infinite beauty. An untouched spirit filled of beauty and consciousness, Camacho’s aura, strength and intelligence transcends her mere twenty-one years of life – stunning those captivated. In this particular case, myself.
It’s a sweltering, mid-August day in NYC. The early afternoon temperature of 93 degrees swamp the grey concrete and its patrons. Intense humidity amplifies the stench of piled trash as a cacophonous symphony of yellow cabs, Ubers , honk and rev across the Avenue of the Americas. Romantically plagued by friends’ Instagram uploads of Italy’s Puglia and Sorrento coastlines, I lightheartedly attempt to bring the idyllic seaside to our meeting, suggesting a lunch date at Eataly’s rooftop eatery, Sabba at La Berriera.
As I enter the crown of the Flatiron staple, the Puerto Rican beauty clad in an olive maxi dress greets me warmly with a hug. A sweetheart with an understanding of the art of hair blending, she cautiously points out the mist fans spurring tiny bursts of water around the rooftop perimeter. As a blown out natural, I quickly oblige as we make our way to the table. Once seated, we dive in to her cataclysmic journey of the past year and I find myself instantaneously enamored by her unpretentious wit, admirable courage and uplifting charm. After a brief hiatus due to personal health scare, Candace discusses her newfound outlook on life – including the politics of womanhood, race within the Hispanic community and of course, hair.
CM: For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “duendita”, could you provide a loose translation and meaning behind the moniker?
DUENDITA: In high school, my English class read The Theory and Play of The Duende by Federico Garcia Lorca. I was absent when they read through it together but the day after, my friends literally rushed to tell me that this essay was “about me”. In his cornerstone work, Lorca describes “duende” as an almost magical/dark creature that lives inside every artist, giving us soul, a dire need to express ourselves and extreme emotional depth. When I went on a hiatus, I uploaded “one of one” online under the name and it went viral so, I stuck with it.
CM: As a young Afro Latina score composer and singer in a white male dominated genre, how do you define success?
DUENDITA: In order to be successful, you need to be flexible with the idea of success and know that you can redefine it each day. There is no standard. Success does not equal money or popularity. I set little goals each day, and I conquer them all. Example, two months ago I wrote Open Wide and my aim was to release it, and here we are. I feel extremely fulfilled and I am ready to set another goal. Being able to do that makes me the most successful version of myself. Success is a continuum.
The whole world is a boys club. I am sick of it, but instead of complaining, the best way to combat it is a) by living as freely as possible and being a bomb ass lady — oppressors HATE when you’re lit b) employing other women. Half of my team is made of women and most of my mentors are women. Whenever folks ask for a recommendation, like if they need an architect or a creative director, I always suggest women of color above anyone else.
CM: What do you aspire to accomplish musically?
DUENDITA: My short term goal right now is to work on an album. I think I have enough emotional experience to create one. I don’t have the academic experience though, so I am excited to be back in school, learning/reading as much as I can. There is so much reading involved in writing. I hope to create the most honest work I can until I die, that’s my continuous goal musically. It seems really hard to do.
CM: Music is referred to as a universal language and artists have the unique ability to express their message to a global audience. What do you intend to communicate with your new single?
DUENDITA: Something I intend to do with my whole existence is recondition people so they understand that girls who don’t “fit” anywhere, like me, have feelings too and can do great, monumental things. My favorite part about being ‘duendita’ is that THIS interview is the first time I’ve actually shown my face, or exposed my identity in depth. A lot of people are at home, listening to me, having no idea that I’m black and chubby and not a typical, conventionally beautiful, perfectly marketed artist. That’s really powerful to me, because I know my work makes people feel things deeply. I hope with “Open Wide” I continue to push that forward. I feel like a scam artist sometimes. Like HA! you are afraid of ugly and unfamiliar art, but that’s exactly what I am. I love it!
CM: How has life inspired you musically?
DUENDITA: I really feel like a sponge. I walk around and absorb as much as I can. I see myself as a very porous vessel for experience to flow through. I let life inspire everything I am, so it definitely informs my art.
CM: Who inspires you musically?
DUENDITA: First of all, my best friend Ken-I-Produce is my favorite collaborator. He is responsible for all of the goodness in Open Wide. My favorite part of the song is that the second half was created by sampling the first half of the record. That’s all him. We are such geeky friends that like one day we’ll be binge watching movies while eating lasagna and the next he’ll be in a 8 hour mix session and I’m like “ooo that’s right, I forgot you’re a genius.” That’s always a good friend to have. He has an album coming out this fall that I’ve been inspired by since March.
Nina Simone, Karen Carpenter and Donna Summer are all artists I dreamed of being when I was a kid. I used to sing/dance to Donna Summer’s “Live and More” album on vinyl, and pretend that the audience’s applause was for me. Right now, I am listening to the Frank Ocean album. I love everything Om’mas Keith does! We’re from the same part of Queens and the new Red Bull documentary “Om’mas Keith: Across the Board” really hit home for me. My mentors Jon Batiste and Mike Chav both gave incredible advice throughout making Open Wide. Mike actually sent Ken and I a long, technical email about our mix, when we read the email it felt like Christmas. It is such a gift to be inspired by these professionals.
CM: There are many within the respective Hispanic and black communities who do not acknowledge the term, “Afro Latina”. As a woman who categorizes herself as such how do you respond?
DUENDITA: I didn’t know I was black until I was older and able to research the history of my people beyond what they ‘taught’ us in school (NYC’s Public School system did a great job at illustrating Ponce de León as a saint). On top of the internalized hatred that some Hispanic-Americans experience in this country, I think lack of education has a lot to do with the push back against the term. Latinx is not a race. It’s an ethnicity. A lot of people are confused by this! Millions of slaves were brought to the Caribbean during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, especially when sugar became a major export for Puerto Rico.
I identify as Afro-Latina because I recognize that cultural diffusion created my race. I have huge, black lips and a very Taíno face shape. When I straighten my hair, I look like my indigenous great grandmother. My sister has light skin and blonde hair and some of my uncles are blacker than blue. The blood that flows through us is Taíno, European and West African. How could I deny one part of myself and not the other?
CM: It’s no secret society hair holds tremendous value when measuring a woman’s beauty. Why do you think that is?
DUENDITA: Historically, hair has been a symbol of strength and femininity. I immediately think of Samson having the strength of God through his hair, or throughout history, women having their heads shaven as punishment. During the Women’s Liberation movement, femmes would cut their hair very short to express themselves and their freedom. I think its amazing that hair can be a symbol for so many different things.
I love to express myself with hair, but it does not equate beauty to me. I lost some of my hair because of medication I could not avoid taking. I lost all of my baby hairs, I began balding at the top of my head and the texture became so thin, I had to cut most of it off. It hurt me so much. Since I was having issues with my reproductive system for almost three years, and also losing my hair, I felt like I was losing bits of my femininity slowly.
CM: What proved to be most difficult during your transition of hair texture (psychological or physical) and how were you able to overcome?
DUENDITA: On top of all of the emotional stress, there were social issues that hair loss put me in the middle of. In Hispanic culture, hair is everything. That’s why when you buy a weave they have the “Latina Body Wave”! There are stereotypical and even racist taboos when it comes to hair and texture. Curly hair is looked down upon in some communities, it makes you look poor, unhealthy and dirty.
I only lost some of my hair, but it felt like the end of the world. I didn’t wear my natural curls out at all. First, I tried a weave that was incredible. I took it out, and then switched to wigs, which was so fun. My favorite was this purple ombre one I had. Then, once treatment was over, my hair began to grow back. This was a major problem because I had some old hair left over and now NEW little hairs were growing up/out my head and they did not want to with my old hair. In an effort to to save myself, I cut my hair back to my very famous bob that I did Freshman year of college, but it didn’t help much. I had an afro of hair growing back in the center of my head! All of this was happening, but the only people I showed this stuff to was my boyfriend and Kenneth, because I was both sad an amused, and I didn’t think people would understand that tension.
After the bob, I decided on another weave. My friend Carly hooked it up in her dorm room. My hair wasn’t strong enough though, so she put braiding hair in. I kept that weave for a few months, it came a bit loose because my hair wasn’t strong at all. After that weave, my baby hairs grew back and the afro inception on my head was finally blending. I decided to go natural. That’s when I fell in love with R&B by Lush thanks to my girl Shaira Chaer, she is a beast photographer and incredible human being. She helped me fall back in love with my natural look. I would wash my hair, dry it in a cotton t-shirt and then put a dime size helping of R&B in my hair and BOOM. My hair looked like it was living and talking on its own!
Now I do a mix of either wearing a clip in wig or just my natural hair. I love the length of the wigs and the fabulousness of dressing up. I still have uneven hair on the top of my head. Actually, just yesterday I made Ken look at it because, we’ve come a long way. I remember showering and screaming the first day my hair started shedding, or even waking up to hair on my pillow. It hurt me deeply. Now not only do I feel strong, but I look stronger too. My hair hasn’t grown much in length but the texture is so close to how it used to be. By spring of 2017, I’ll be stunting again.
CM: How would you describe your brand/genre of music?
DUENDITA: It’s surrealism because it offers a dreamlike reality instead of a conscious one. But my music is also R&B/Soul because I am black and in my voice you can hear all of those colors. A few blogs called me the “Queen of Lo-Fi Hip-Hop”, because my song “One of One” was the sample that basically pushed that genre forward on the internet.
I am not sure what genre of music this is. I think Honesty is my genre. I know a lot of gangstas cry to me, they tell me all of the time. It’s cause the music is emotional, but Kenneth really hooked up the low end, so it’s vulnerable music to bump in your whip.
CM: What has been your greatest achievement?
DUENDITA: I really think my greatest achievement was finding my soulmate. There is nothing I could achieve that is greater than being his life partner. Love is monumental.
A lot of feminists give me side eye when I say that, but feminism is what liberates me from societal norms so I can say that in the least derogatory and demeaning way. My boyfriend and I are both feminists, and besides being on stage or around my close friends, our relationship is the only place I truly feel free.
CM: We spotted your songs on Spotify! Congrats! Where do you see yourself headed next?
DUENDITA: Thank you! I can’t believe they liked my song. It’s really humbling. Especially because my songs are unconventional — “one of one” had no chorus, dream of me has a weird instrumental break and weird form and Open Wide is actually two songs. It’s so weird to me that people like this music.
I am playing a lot of shows in NYC and LA this Fall/Winter. I hope to work on an album and continue collaborating with a lot of people. I am headed back to school too, where I study songwriting and recorded music. My brain will be stimulated at all times, I can’t wait! Outside of music, I am devoting this Fall to perfect my pie making. Oh yes, I forgot to mention in this whole interview that I loooooove to cook. I make my friends come over all of the time to feast. They’re like “here goes Candace, setting the table and lighting candles again.”