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Rocky Rivera is “gonna turn you into a feminist”

Rivera Rocky
Rocky Rivera in the video for "Turn You"

In her video “Turn You,” Oakland emcee Rocky Rivera rides a San Francisco MUNI bus while she raps, “I’m liberated, ain’t nothing you can do about it,” “My fate is greater than the gender you assign to me,” and “Rather be a pirate in a red dress with a treasure chest—fuck a diamond ring.” The chorus of the song goes, “I’m gonna turn you into a feminist,” and at one point, Rivera sits in the back of the bus, reading professor, writer, and cultural critic Roxane Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist.

The song was part of Rivera’s 2015 album, Nom de Guerre. Rivera made the video recently, though, after encouragement from her neighbor and friend, hip-hop journalist Dave “Davey D” Cook, who hosts the popular show “Hard Knock Radio” on KPFA, a Pacifica station. He told Rivera that whenever he played “Turn You,” it got a big reaction, and he felt it needed a video. When Rivera went to speak at his class on hip-hop and politics at San Francisco State, three film students volunteered to make the video with her. They shot it on the MUNI with Rivera’s brother’s best friend, a driver, who let her and the students ride with him as he drove from downtown San Francisco out to the beach and back on the late shift.

Along with her music, Rivera works with a nonprofit, Oakland Kids First, organizing students at underserved high schools to fight against punitive discipline and for restorative justice. Sitting on a sunny bench at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, fielding compliments on her sunglasses from passersby, she says that when she talks about respect and values with teenagers, feminism naturally comes up.

“I want them to identify as feminist, and I want them to know I’m a feminist. If you’re for social justice, you’re for all oppressed people, and women are oppressed in almost every culture,” she says. “It’s really, truly, just women wanting to be treated the same. Feminists don’t mean women are better, they’re just trying to get the same rights, the same privacy, and the same access as men.”

Rivera, the youngest of three daughters, feels she’s always been a feminist. Her grandmother was a strong figure in their family, she says, and her parents encouraged independent thinking and asking questions. Rivera took her name from a character in Jessica Hagedorn’s book Gangster of Love; her given name, Krishtine de Leon, comes from the spiritual figure Jiddu Krishnamurti, who stressed the need for a revolution in the psyche to bring about social change.

Now Rivera is raising her son, who’s almost 9 and appears at the end of the “Turn You” video, to ask questions as well. He’s inundated by pop culture, she says, so she wants him to come to her and her partner, also a rapper, to talk about the images he sees.

“His father is a feminist, of course,” she says. “I wouldn’t be with him if he weren’t. It’s very intentional that we teach him to be respectful of all people.”

Rivera got into her profession in an unusual way—she was a music journalist, with a contributing editor position at Rolling Stone magazine via the reality show I’m From Rolling Stone. After a while, she decided she wanted to perform herself. She always wrote as a kid, she says—journals and poetry—and wanted to see what she could do performing. She did a little spoken word, and was in a short-lived group, Rhapsodistas, where she found a progressive audience for rap. When she moved back to the Bay Area after her stint at Rolling Stone in New York, she decided to start making music. She loves the connection she has with the audience.

“I feel like I’m creating more space for young women,” she says. “I’m not just creating it, I’m taking it—I’m pushing people out of the way. I’m willing to be the trailblazer because I know it didn’t start with me and it won’t end with me. I know that seeing somebody who looks like me up there is a revolutionary act.”

Davey D would like to see more rappers like Rivera, who he describes as a gifted artist who is “serious about her craft and serious about the freedom struggle.” The DJ has some idea of what Rivera is up against, calling some promoters and radio programmers woefully out of touch.

“They get angry about being asked to include women on the bill,” he says. “I’ve had some say to me, ‘Well, there’s not a lot of good ones.’ So I made a list of 500 female emcees everyone should know, and if they say that, I can say, ‘Here’s a list you can choose from.’”

Roza Do, who performs with Rivera as DJ Roza, says they are often the only female artists on the bill. Rivera will point that out during the show, Do says.

“She’ll say, ‘Gentlemen in the front, please make space for your sisters,’” Do says. “She brings awareness and attention and says, ‘Hey, we’re here and we have something to say.’”

Audiences have a powerful reaction to “Turn You,” Do says.

“People listen and hang on to every word,” she says. “When the chorus hits, and it’s ‘I’m going to turn you into a feminist,’ it’s like people are rallying around her and standing behind the words. Female, male, young, old—everyone can find a place in that song.”

Rivera also says the response to the song has been incredible.

“What job do you get instant gratification where people come up to you and say you fucking changed their life?” she says. “I wanted to speak to young women who didn’t see any representation of themselves.  Just occupying that space and saying, ‘I’m here for you,’ it’s life changing. It’s cathartic for the both of us.”

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