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.