From ultimate outsider to underground force:
A hip-hop artist’s journey of self-discovery
Here & Now: In Partnership with Levi's Performance Denim
Tofel Santana learned to adapt as a way of life. Uprooted from his family at an early age, his only constant has been the power of performance: a dancer who can rap, sing and dare to be different. At 27, he’s still shrugging off what society thinks he should be – determined to define himself as he sees fit.
“It’s really awkward. Don’t judge!” Tofel Santana is playing back a music video by his old band, a gloriously mid-2000s nu-metal/emo fantasia that sits somewhere between My Chemical Romance and Linkin Park. He’s been thinking of those days lately: a time when he couldn’t help sticking out from his bandmates.
Taller, more confident and the only non-white member of the group, he had a way of naturally pulling focus. Often that meant drawing the loudest cheers at gigs and causing inter-band tension along the way.
“I was a skinny black Latin boy walking around with tight jeans, gauges and piercings – going for something that people weren’t used to,” says the German-Dominican musician. “I think I was 16 in that video. But it shaped everything that I did afterwards: just being bold and bringing something new to the table in [terms of] who I am and what masculinity means to me. I define that for myself, not necessarily taking into account what society thinks.”
“I’ve never felt like a normal guy. I’ve never felt comparable to other boys my age… Why shouldn’t I present myself that way and show the world?”
- Tofel Santana
The Tofel Santana of today is altogether more interesting than that earnest teenager; his solo material has become political and angry, loaded with sexual openness and sweaty antagonism. That said, the Tofel speaking to Huck over Skype is even more radically different than the persona he presents in the studio: soft, giggly and endearingly nervous, prone to second-guessing and apologising for his English despite it being near-perfect.
But to spend just a few moments with the musician is to be made aware of the multitudes that exist within him. You quickly realise not only how much those layers play into his creative output, but how they’ve shaped the way he sees the world.
Tofel is both assured and apprehensive, gym-ripped and model-pretty, with a ring in his nose and his locks cut into a messy high-top. He’s 27 but has the face of someone much younger. And that juxtaposition – old versus new, brazen confidence meets youthful insecurity – is best illustrated by his current short-term base: his childhood bedroom in Munich. It’s where all the clothes, instruments and expectations of a genre-hopping dreamer are crammed within four walls – a space that once formed his entire universe but now feels too small to truly be home.
Excited for a move to Berlin in the coming weeks, Tofel acknowledges that his life is in flux. He’s been gigging regularly, developing an encouraging following online, but with the release of his second EP, Decapitated, on the horizon, it’s time to build on that momentum elsewhere.
“I’m still discovering a lot,” he says. “Everything is still turning; there’s always so much new stuff that I can identify with. It’s a journey, and I don’t think I am 100 per cent defined yet, because there is so much to this world and so much I still have to learn about myself.”
Tofel grew up poor in the Dominican Republic, estranged from his biological father and distant from his mother. His early years saw him raised by a succession of aunts, uncles and grandparents. In the eyes of his older siblings, he was their annoying kid brother: the one dragged along under their care to friends’ houses and dance classes.
“Coming from such a humble part of the Dominican Republic, we only had music and art to keep us happy,” he remembers. “My sister, the one who was taking care of me the most, used to dance – so she always took me to rehearsals, where I had to sit in the corner and just watch them.”
It was those classes – and more specifically, the stomps, shrieks and hollers accompanying the traditional music blaring out of a nearby CD player – that would provide a much-needed anchor to his homeland once he was plucked out of it. At the age of 11, Tofel emigrated to Munich with his mother and left his older siblings behind. (German law stipulated that foreign adults could only bring children under the age of 15 into the country.) Living with a mother he barely knew, and feeling suddenly isolated, Tofel clung to his memories of home.
“I would listen to the music,” he recalls softly, breaking into a wistful smile. “Bachata, Salsa, Merengue – those were my points of reference to still feeling Dominican at heart, even though I was on the other side of the world.”
After spotting a flyer advertising a local dance troupe, he gradually immersed himself in breakdance, hip hop, jazz and modern street dance. That might sound like an unconscious effort to emulate his older sister back home, recreating her world in Munich, but Tofel rebuffs the suggestion. He’s similarly ambivalent, at least initially, to the idea that it took courage to stand up on stage as a newcomer of colour, to perform as someone still learning German, to be a frontman only just beginning to acknowledge what he’d later identify as his own queerness.
“It was [a process of] exposing myself and making myself vulnerable,” he says, before pausing. “I also had this feminine side, but I actually didn’t care about it.” There’s a gentle insistence to Tofel’s tone but, as soon as the words appear, he stops again to question himself – wondering aloud about how he became so independent so early.
“Maybe I was too innocent?” he asks. “Looking back – and I’m surprised I even thought this way when I was so young – but I learned that the only one in charge of me being happy was me. No one else was going to push me into my happiness. I didn’t think about any obstacles that could happen and instead just went for it… No fears at all.”
Producing his own music would come much later. Along the way, Tofel joined various bands, including an electro-pop duo with a friend and the aforementioned detour into nu-metal/emo hybrid, but only after years of struggling to find his place in a world eager to put him in a box. Being a young black man interested in all genres of music (and not just hip hop) seemed particularly difficult for others to accept.
“It was hard for me, being Afro-Latino,” he says. “I didn’t want people to assume I had certain interests just because I looked a certain way. I really felt that in Munich a lot. There were times I felt that I was going towards the norm, but then I started to learn about artists who didn’t do that, like Lenny Kravitz or Travie McCoy, and the freedom they had.” He imitates that moment of discovery, gasping with mock surprise. “There are alternative black people! That’s so great!”
You can easily spot a little of Kravitz’s outré fashion sense in Tofel’s videos, as well as the luxe swagger of Kanye and the gender-blurring playfulness of icons like Andre 3000 and Skin. That refusal to bend to regressive societal expectation is something he still wears with pride. “I’ve never felt like a normal guy,” he explains. “I’ve never felt comparable to other boys my age. I don’t really care about being different or looking different, though it does give me some sort of satisfaction. Why shouldn’t I present myself that way and show the world?”
Tofel says that his mother and stepfather are supportive if still somewhat baffled by his art – “One of the biggest things they said was that my first video looked like a gay orgy,” he jokes – but he has learned to accept the gulf between them. Prodded further, his sentences become more noticeably considered, his hands distracted by random bits of cable on his desk, as if suddenly nervous and stumbling upon something he has never properly articulated until now.
“Coming to Germany, I didn’t have that bond with my parents so much,” he says. “I had the support but not the emotional bond. I never felt comfortable speaking to my parents about certain topics. Of course, my stepdad was always asking if everything was okay in school or if I got bullied – he had that interest in knowing that everything was fine. But I didn’t have the confidence to go to him and say that I wasn’t really happy, or that I didn’t really understand who I was or where I belonged. So right now, speaking about all of this, is helping me learn so much about myself.”
He smiles. “It’s been more of an atypical road [to get here], but I’m slowly becoming the person that I want to become and doing the stuff that I love. Even if it hasn’t been easy.”