Salvador Santana and Asdru Seirra
Photo by J.A. Moreno
Exclusive: Salvador Santana And Ozomatli’s Asdru Sierra Announce New Politically Charged Project RMXKNZ
If you look back on decade’s past, you could say that some of the most trying times, whether for an individual or an entire nation, have produced some of the best music. For renowned producers, songwriters and musicians Salvador Santana (son of GRAMMY-winning guitarist Carlos Santana) and Asdrubal "Asdru" Sierra (lead vocalist, trumpeter, and pianist for GRAMMY winners Ozomatli), who have announced a new collaborative project titled RMXKNZ (pronounced "remix-icans") and will release their first album this fall, the point of inspiration was the turbulent aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But what listeners shouldn't expect from the forthcoming self-titled, self-released album, due to drop during National Hispanic Heritage Month later this year, is a set of songs lamenting the state of the country. Instead, the songs on RMXKNZ serve to uplift, make you dance and inspire action. Santana and Sierra are using their new artistic platform not just to call out those to blame for the current contentious climate of society, but as a call-to-action for those who believe we can be the change we want to see.
The first song on the album, and the duo’s first-ever original song, "Canvas," is a funky, jazzy, hip-hop-tinged danceable track featuring the notable sound of Sierra’s trumpet that sounds like a call-to-action itself. Through the lyrics on "Canvas," the duo encourage listeners to look at their lives as a blank canvas with which they can design who they want to be. The coinciding music video further enhances the song's message, depicting the lively Latinx neighborhoods of East L.A. and Downtown Los Angeles and addressing the issues that affect it: women’s and abortion rights, LGBTQ+ rights, immigration rights, gender inclusivity and more.
“What we wanted to do was [not] just talk about the obvious and create more problems. … We decided that…we want to just wake people up to what is going on,” says Santana.
“Everyone has a blank canvas when they walk into this world,” adds Sierra. “You could draw on it and that’s what your world becomes. It’s really about walking the walk of what you believe. About being the change.”
The songs on the genre-blending debut address the issues that continue to affect the diverse communities of the duo’s city of residence—Los Angeles—including immigration, racism, social injustice, identity and humanity. As Santana and Sierra would say, RMXKNZ is music for the world.
In an exclusive interview with the Recording Academy, Santana and Sierra discuss the making of RMXKNZ, the inspiration behind the songs and for whom the songs were written. Listen below for an exclusive first listen of the debut track "Canvas."
Let’s start from the beginning of RMXKNZ. How did you guys meet?
SALVADOR SANTANA: We met in 1999 on the Supernatural tour when Ozomatli—Asdru’s band—was touring with my father. It was in the summer, so, since I was in high school, I could go out and hang out with dad and the band. I got to meet Ozomatli, which, at the time—and still now—I was a huge fan of. … Meeting Asdru, and … just everybody that was part of Ozo, it felt like reuniting with a long-lost family. … From day one Asdru has been like an older brother to me.
ASDRU SIERRA: I remember being really young and my wife was pregnant with our first son. Obviously, there was a lot of fear and a lot of wondering what it was going to be like. A lot of [my] anxieties got calmed down when at the Gorge [Amphitheatre in Washington] I saw Sal when he was a teenager sitting in with his dad onstage. I was like, "Wow, that’s cool." … Everybody in the band had families and every time they would see us like all young in our early and mid-20s about to have babies—I guess we looked like babies to them—they all had their turn sitting us down and talking to us and letting us know what it’s like. And just helping us out.
It was actually Sal that introduced Ozomatli to his dad. He showed him the demo and that’s how we ended up hooking up with Carlos. It was all meant to be. Every time we work together, it’s like working with family.
It sounds like it was really an instant connection with you guys. How did the conversation start to work on the RMXKNZ project?
SS: It all just kind of happened organically and naturally. When I first moved into my house that I live in now—it was my new place—Asdru came over and we hung out. I just showed him what I was trying to build—my home studio and everything.
He was like, “Yo, man. I got these couple of demos that I’m working on. I think it’d be really dope if you mixed it up with some lyrics and piano stuff. Just put your fingerprints on it.”
The first song we wrote happens to be the first single, which is "Canvas." And he just played me the beat and I was just nodding my head. For Asdru and I, it either has to make [people] get up and dance. … Or it’s got to have that head nod factor. If you don’t want to dance, then you have to nod your head. So, if it doesn’t have any of those two ingredients, we don’t mess with it. Because it’s just not going to do anything for us, and that’s how we built our sound sonically was between those two things. And it started with "Canvas."
The songs on the album sound very happy and uplifting. Lyrically, there’s huge stories behind every song. What was the impetus for a lot of the songs? What was "Canvas" about and what’s the story behind that?
SS: Lyrically, at the time when we first started writing a lot of [the album], it was during and around the time of the 2016 elections. So, there was a lot on our minds. … We felt like we wanted to express how we were feeling, musically and lyrically.
But [we also wanted to keep] it palatable and not be too preachy. [We wanted to] make people dance. And if you don’t want to dance then just listen to the lyrics. Hopefully they uplift … and rearrange the narrative. At the end of the day, when people put on the record, we just want people to enjoy what we were able to create.
AS: Watching in 2016, how the world is in that moment, instead of really having a fighting spirit about it, let’s have a realization moment, and understand that we have to be the change that we want to see in the world. … It’s us walking the world as an example for our children. That’s the best thing we can do is just to be that change even though things are a little crazy. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for a lifetime, it’s always been that struggle. It’s always been there. It’s just now there’s somebody out there that’s pretty blatantly being that way and it’s emboldening the evils that are in the world. The divisions rather than the similarities.
We can put on the canvas the compassion that people need to remember and need to have for humanity before we start dehumanizing everything that we don’t understand.
SS: We’re all blank canvases when we come to this planet. We’re born here. We have the opportunity to create exactly who we are. To define who we are with our canvases. … The key is to not allow anybody else to paint on your canvas and define who you are. … For us, what was inspiring about the elections and what was going on around that time … was that Asdru and I realized that it’s not about trying to control others, it’s about influencing. And what better way to influence than through music and through uplifting lyrics.
It’s for the people. It’s for everybody out there that wants a positive distraction from all the craziness that’s going on.
There’s a song on there, "Make it Betta." It sounds like a call-to-action, like you’re giving people tools through music for how they can do their own part to make the world a better place. How do you think each of us can do our own part to make sure the future canvases that come into this world aren’t corrupt or negative, but peaceful and loving?
SS: Basically, we walk around with this flame. And every single person that we meet has a pilot light. Some people’s pilot lights are out. It’s not that they’re lost or forgotten. It’s just the pilot light is out. And they just need to be ignited. And that’s our job. Especially on songs like "Make it Betta." We’re not trying to tell people what to do. We’re just reminding them of what their purpose is and what we’re all here to do, collectively. And what better way to do that than through music? Through uplifting and conscious lyrics. That was our overall mindset with creating this whole album and that song in particular.
AS: Martin Luther King [Jr.] had this quote about people that know that something is wrong, and they stay in silence just letting it happen without saying anything. … The best way we can make it better is to be those lights in darkness. To speak up when these things are happening. It doesn’t necessarily mean to go out there and cause a fight. It’s not about fighting. But to hold accountable everything that we see in this world. If that means speaking up, that’s fine. Just let evil know that you see it because only the ugliest things happen in darkness.
"Martin Luther King [Jr.] had this quote about people that know that something is wrong, and they stay in silence just letting it happen without saying anything. … The best way we can make it better is to be those lights in darkness. To speak up when these things are happening."
I want to switch gears and talk about each of your upbringings. Sal, you were raised in San Francisco. And Asdru, you were raised in Los Angeles. How do you think the environment of the cities in which you were raised shaped the music you’re making today with RMXKNZ?
SS: I was always encouraged to just understand as much as you possibly can. There’s not just one culture. It’s one world but there’s so many people and cultures and beautiful things that people offer and make up, musically and sonically. For both Asdru and I, both in Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area, we just heard pretty much about everything. It’s not that we gravitated toward one music or one style or one sound, we just took a little bit from each so that we could create our own sound. And I think that’s what makes our album and collaboration so unique because you hear all of the sounds and music that inspired Asdru and I from all the cultures that make up both the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.
AS: I grew up in Glassell Park in L.A. It was a small town in Northeast L.A. But I was there in the '80s before all the gentrification and everything now. Back in those days there was a lot of gang violence, there was a lot of drugs, there was a lot of poverty, but for the most part it was like maybe 10 percent of the population was about the gangs. When you would watch the movies, it was everything else. On my block everyone was a hardworking homeowner. Latinos just trying to make the best they can in the world we lived in. But again, there was a lot of gang influences and that was something that we as a community tried to deal with, you know?
Through my community, that is what defines what I do with music. … It’s a trip because in my world when I was a kid there was a lot of things going on. But the only thing that I saw was a battleground. … I saw a lot of people get shot. I guess because we’re minorities it didn’t really matter to the news or something. But with that said, it’s all these neighborhoods in L.A. that the only way that I could speak up about it was with music.
Other than preaching to the converted or singing to the same choir, we have to let somebody in the middle of America know what’s going on. The best way that I know how to do it is with music. Just to let them know that it’s just a stereotype they’re seeing. … There are a bunch of people that were cartoonists, that were artists, that were actors, that were people. What happened to the children of all these gang members? What kind of journey did they go through? The immigrants. It doesn’t always look like they’re out there trying to get your jobs. Other people are just trying to escape from whatever craziness is going on in the countries that they’re in and seeking asylum. There’s so many things going on in this world and the best way that I know how to explain it is by that same canvas. That same music. At the end of the day, I’m ultimately trying to reach the people that don’t understand it.
SS: [We want to] reach out to those that need to be woken up. They’re still asleep. They need to be awake to understand what we’re talking about. But also, to acknowledge those that want to say, what we have the opportunity to say with our platform, with our microphone and with our studio and with our ability to be able to express that.
Would you consider yourselves activists before musicians, or vice versa?
AS: I know activists. I know real ones that dedicate their lives to it. I play a little guitar but I’m not an activist. I like to say that I have been active. As activists, [people] have died, they’ve been shot at, they’ve been beaten by clubs by the police. … As a member of the human race I had to be involved somehow. When real activists would actually call me to support the cause I would show up. But it’s hard to call myself an activist.
SS: Being an activist is not a part-time gig. You’re either in it or you’re not in it. For me, it’s just about being a musician and supporting activists that we know. … So as opposed to necessarily calling us activists, we are of service to those in the community to be of service.
We’re going to continue through our music to just wake people up and make sure that they stay woke because that’s really what it is at the end of the day.
The activists you’re talking about that are out there doing the work full-time need people like you who have the platform to be able to continue to spread that message in a different way.
SS: Exactly. Both of my grandfathers and Asdru’s were living in a different time and era where it was illegal just to be who you were. The skin tone, where you come from, and how you immigrated here. It was illegal just to be you and that is just crazy to me. For me at the end of the day that’s why I’m just so grateful to be able to use our platform, our talent, our passion, which is music, to be able to express and abolish that old way of thinking.
AS: We answered the call to arms. We show up at the marches. But calling ourselves activists, there’s a certain humility about that.
SS: We’re musicians that aspirer to inspire. That’s who we are.
What’s the meaning behind the name RMXKNZ?
AS: If you look at who we are—both Sal and I—we’re of Mexican descent. [But also] there’s Irish in my family. I have freckles. And obviously Salvador has African-American in him. Mexico is very similar to the U.S. in many ways. It’s not just the natives who are the original Mexicans. … It kind of plays into wordplay about doing remixes and stuff and the fact that we’re Mexicans, with the "mix." It kind of makes sense. The world is a lot bigger and smaller at the same time.
SS: It’s paying homage to who we are and highlighting who we are. But at the same time, it’s also leaving room for how we’ve evolved. We’re not just Mexican. We’re a little bit of this; we’re a little bit of that. It shows in the music. It shows where we come from and our upbringing.
AS: We also don’t want to limit ourselves either, just because we’re of Latino/Mexican/Latinx decent. Just because we’re that doesn’t mean we only do Latin things. It could be from Africa. It could be from the Middle East. It could be Mongolian.
It sounds like that ties in to what you were saying earlier about educating people. Letting them know there’s many different types of people all over the world.
SS: We didn’t mean to, but I think in making this record, we stumbled upon a new genre of music. So, when people say, "What type of music is RMXKNZ?" Asdru and I, we play life. It’s life music. All the music that is in our lifetime that we have loved and just continued to dance to, nod our heads to, inspire to. Is life cumbia? Yeah. Is life Afrobeat? Yeah. Is life hip-hop? Yeah, it’s all that stuff. That’s what we play.
You’re calling this music for the people. It’s heavily influenced by the current climate of society. Who did you write these songs for?
AS: For me, and I think this resonates for Sal, everything we do echoes back to our children. Whatever we want to change is what we want to do. For me, I just want to create a world in which my children can live comfortably long after I’m gone.
SS: When my son was born, I literally watched the future being born. And like what Asdru’s saying, it makes us now as parents realize, man we gotta set up the future right. We gotta make sure we teach these kids right so that they’re good for whatever they’re going to encounter in the future. To make sure that they know that they can have either control or especially influence in what happens in the future. For me, that’s what it’s all about.
Salvador Santana and Asdru Sierra are involved with the following causes and non-profit organizations: Change.org petition, and Letters of Love to Kids, along with Al Otro Lado and Haitian Bridge Alliance, two groups at the forefront of the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.