Guitarist Jafé Paulino on being raised in and around Afro-Dominican roots culture, discovering electronic music, and his dreams of a solo career.
When I arrive at Jafé Paulino’s house in the South Bronx, he’s just come home from the night before. It’s one in the afternoon and he’s getting ready for a shift as a server at a Williamsburg restaurant. Nursing what appears to be a nasty hangover, Jafé puts on music and sits on a big chair in the living room which he recently converted into his bedroom after moving from an upstairs apartment. The apartment is littered with instruments: a keyboard, three guitars, multiple drums, and other kinds of percussions. This is no doubt a house of musicians.
Jafé is the fiercely playful guitarist for The Freaky Baby Daddies – a New York-based afrobeat and rock band. He started performing at a young age, having been raised by his mother, Nina Paulino, who played a vital role in bringing Afro-Dominican roots music to New York City. He dreamily recalls playing drums and performing at Symphony Space at the age of 5. By 15, he started a band called Mayday (which was later renamed Viva Mayday) who were well-known in the all-ages show circuit.
Jafé was born in the Bronx by natural birth. When he was still a toddler, Jafé’s mother moved back to the Dominican Republic for a year, where she met the father of her second child, Jafé’s sister Kaila. Back in New York, Jafé grew up in Manhattan, and went to majority white public schools (“that nevertheless also enrolled kids from marginalized communities like myself”). Having lived apart for a few years, Jafé now again shares close quarters with his sister Kaila, who once in a while emerges from her room to make lunch and comment on things her brother says, making sure he’s adequately representing their experience growing up on 106th and Amsterdam (“back when it was known as Manhattanville and not the Upper West Side,” Jafé emphasizes). He’s more than used to straddling multiple worlds, having built irreplaceable friendships with classmates who summered in the Hamptons, while being raised in and around leaders in anti-police brutality movements and Afro-Dominican roots culture. He carries so much joy into all the projects he’s a apart of, from Viva Mayday to his recent collaborations with S’natra and producer Russ. Though he speaks openly about wanting to be successful and support himself fully through his art, you’ll never hear Jafé speaking ill of a fellow artist, as he truly works outside of a competitive mindset. He seeks his own brand of liberation through his devotion to connecting with people through a blend of Rock, Afrobeat, Jazz, and Hip Hop.
What role has your family roots played in getting you involved in music and performance?
I was born into a family of musicians and creativity. Even my sperm donor/father who was absent my whole life was a musician himself. He was a pretty big Reggae musician and was one of the first light-skinned Dominican people to take on Rastafari and Reggae culture and music and to spread that message in New York. He got into it while in college at Penn State. He’d grown up taking a limo to school with body guards. His father – my grandfather – was very high up in the military. He totally black-sheeped on them and grew his dreads. When they found out, they shipped him back to DR. But then his band that he had started in the States, Rebel Souls, sent him money to take a banana boat back to Florida, and that’s how he made his way back to the city. He actually got everybody in his boat through customs because he was the only one of them that could speak English. He pretended to be a tour guide and got him and twelve other people through customs. Him and his band toured with The Wailers, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, and all the big acts. The music is encoded into my DNA whether he was present for me or not. It exists in me as a form of energy and connection to the music.
My mom always reminds me that when I was two years old I pointed to this Bob Marley poster and told her I wanted to grow my hair like his. That’s when I started growing dreadlocks. I had to cut them when I was like 8 years old because Kaila got lice and I caught them from her. When we shaved my dreadlocks to get rid of the bugs, my mom and I were both crying. I had them down to my ass, they were epic!
Because she was a single parent, my mom would always bring me and Kaila wherever she went. There were neighbors and other family who also took care of us but most of the time we were with her. We were constantly immersed in the Afro-Dominican music and culture and community that she was building in New York.
My mother was the first light-skinned Dominican to bring this kind of music to New York Dominicans; with that I mean that she was the first to bring it to the surface. It’s a huge deal that she was a woman doing this work. She brought together and organized lots of different groups. Take for example all the drum circles that people are familiar with seeing in Central Park in the summer. My mom and Kaila’s father started one of the first real groups to do this. They would start with five people, grow to twenty and eventually there would be too many to count.
Of the millions of Africans that slave traders brought to the “New World”, many ended up in the Caribbean, and they became who we are. Dominicans are sometimes uncomfortable engaging with African culture and race and throughout history they’ve discriminated against Haitians, but we all have our roots in Africa. I think it was important that a light-skinned Dominican woman started doing the work of bridging these cultures in New York in the 80s and 90s. For years, she organized Quisqueya en el Hudson which was a huge festival that happened every summer, and she incorporated us into everything she did. I was playing drums and dancing from the moment I could stand up. It defined me.
Would you say that you are influenced by your family’s politics?
I’ve always been surrounded by politics and philosophy but I couldn’t fuck with it like the rest of my family and some of my friends. I can’t involve myself in it or I explode. It makes me violent – not towards masses of people, but towards people around me. I hate that game. I realized this being surrounded by Kaila and mom who are constantly organizing and being at the frontlines all the time, pushing that Dominican culture, fighting back against oppression, building movements and protesting. My medium has always been music – although my music has always been very politically charged.
What are some distinctive phases of influences and music you’ve been through?
I went through all of the phases, especially after I cut off my dreads. I went through an Eminem and 50 Cent phase wearing Roca Wear sweatsuits. One of the first albums I bought with my own money was the Slim Shady LP and Get Rich Or Die Trying. I wasn’t always into the things that my mom was exposing me to. As you grow up, you rebel against everything your parents put you on to. I was like, no! I don’t wanna be in touch with myself. I’m thirteen, fourteen, I want the freshest Uptowns and I want Adidas in every color, I don’t wanna listen to you. Everybody goes through it.
Spending time with my friends who were white, I ended up listening to Bruce Springsteen every day. I hate Springsteen but I’ve been to four concerts in my life! Deadass. I have to admit, that motherfucker can play four-hour shows at age 60, longer than I can. I also learned about The Clash through my white friends when I was fifteen years old. They changed my life. That music was completely different from what I grew up on, which was all vocals and drums, none of it used electronic instruments. Going electric was great but different.
What drew you to punk bands after being raised around Afro-Dominican roots music?
My best friend Duke Hoover – who I formed my first band with called Mayday which eventually became an offshoot project called Viva Mayday – his dad told me about The Clash because he knew I liked Reggae, and The Clash was inspired by Reggae music in many ways. And when I heard them I was like, “What are these nasty-ass white boys doing, playing this music? How dare they!” The culture shocked me. Even though I had been exposed to lots of different cultures I couldn’t believe these dirty London dudes were playing music so out of tune. I was like, I can do that! If they can record and tour the world, then what the fuck am I doing?
Luis “El Terror” Dias, who was a good friend of my mom’s and a legendary musician, was one of the first Dominican dudes to fuse rock music with native music of the Dominican Republic. At 13, I played drums in one of his performances at one of my mom’s festivals. Afterwards he said to me: “What the fuck are you doing? Stop playing that slaves’ instrument – look at your fingers.” He told me I should play the guitar because my fingers are long like a wizard’s. That resonated with me, but I didn’t actually pick up a guitar until I heard The Clash a couple years later.
I looked up guitar tabs – I never learned how to read or write music – that show you how to position your fingers. Kaila has been witness to the process of me playing every day. I sucked when I was teaching myself, but I just sat down and practiced all the time and got good. If you rehearse something every day you get good at it.
At what point did you start a band?
I started Mayday in high school with my friends Duke and Paul Sorensen and played in the basement of my mom’s building (eventually Paul left and our friend Gian Stone joined). We couldn’t find anybody who wanted to sing so I was like, I’ll play drums and sing. We recorded a cover of “Come Together” by The Beatles on a karaoke machine with one microphone hung in the middle of the room from a pipe in the ceiling. It was painfully awful. I practiced down there for years. It was the spot – we’d hang there with the rats and our friends would come down and hang also.
It sounds like you made your friends your family at a very early age.
I’ll tell you a story. My junior year in high school I decided I really wanted to start drinking and partying. Duke’s two brothers Indiana and Texas would throw parties at their nice crib. The first party I went to at their house I drank a 40 oz and then vodka on top of that. I got insanely fucked up and didn’t know what I was doing.
I spent so much time with them, I eventually moved in with them and their parents when I was 16. Even though I wasn’t always close with all of the brothers, I was accepted as a part of their family. I wasn’t having any issues at home, nor did my mom kick me out of the house – it was just a natural evolution that looking back on now was completely necessary in molding who I am today. With friends like these, when you start coming into your skin you sometimes realize you don’t share common interests anymore but you’re still family.
You came up in the heyday of all-ages shows and teen bands in New York City. What’s your most memorable moment from those days?
One of my favorite shows was at The Bushwick Starr; everybody knew our lyrics, everybody was under 18 and dancing like mad people. Everything felt so charged. It was young people who were discovering things, looking for any medium where they can find angst they identify with. In your teenages years there’s still a little bit left of those discovery eyes you’re born with. Playing for older audiences, it’s like pulling teeth to get people to come see you play. But when we were younger, seven or eight years ago, there were friends and kids we didn’t even know that well who would come to every show and sing the songs with us.
We would smoke weed in basements and drink 40 oz because that’s the only place we could do that without getting in trouble, have our moms called on us and have to pick us up from a precinct or something. The all-ages shows and the DIY scene were the only places we could get together and express ourselves at that age – when we were thirteen, fourteen years old. We wrote songs about current events at that time like Sudan, a trip that I took to Cuba with a youth brigade to learn about state socialism and U.S. imperialism, the genocide that was happening in Papua New Guinea. It wasn’t my own experience and I thought I could make music for the masses. Now I’m more focused on making music for the individual and writing for one person. With time and age I realized that really connecting with one person can be more impactful.
At the time, I was trying to make politically charged, conscious music. Because I grew up around Afro-Dominican roots music, which is about spirit and struggle, obviously that was the kind of stuff I was going to end up doing anyway and through rock music I was able to find a way to do it that worked for me and fit my voice and experience.
How did you meet The Freaky Baby Daddies and how did you end up joining the band?
My band at the time Viva Mayday (which by this time my friend Duke had left the band and our friend Sasha Korolkoff had joined on bass) agreed to play a Source Magazine residency at SOB’s in New York. The Freaky Baby Daddies opened one of the shows. They were all black dudes except the guitarist who was Latino, a light-skinned dude like myself. They were a heavier afrobeat and metal band but they did a cover of “Heathen” by Bob Marley and at the time Viva Mayday were doing our roots version of “Get Up Stand Up”. That was my thing, that was the essence of our work. But when The Freaky Baby Daddies played “Heathen” I was like, get the fuck outta here! They played an awesome show.
We built a relationship based off of this mind-blowing cover of Bob Marley and I started booking them to play with Viva Mayday a lot. The lineup for the last show I booked was Slothrust, The Skins, Viva Mayday and The Freaky Baby Daddies. I left Viva in June of 2013, and The Freaky Baby Daddies asked me to join the band shortly after that. I refused because I said I am a fan of their music and I want to stay a fan and support them in that way.
At one point, the band and I were working together grooming an Ethiopian woman singer. We jammed together and it was just obvious that we had chemistry. I had to give in and join them.
You mostly made music with bands consisting of white guys before joining The Freaky Baby Daddies, which is made up of all black men besides you. How has that transition been for you?
What attracted me to this band in the first place was the vibe and how I could feel our collective lineage just in the way they played. I consider this project very much aligned with how my parents were able to connect with their African and black roots – this is my coming. I appreciate surrounding myself with the counterculture of black and brown artists, feeling their souls and vibing with them. It’s just not something I’ve experienced with projects I’ve worked on before. They just didn’t have the same soul and we weren’t coming from the same place. It’s nothing personal but it’s just the way it is.
When I was working with Viva Mayday, we used Blues Rock as our main medium like Jimi Hendrix and Band of Gypsys. I always wanted to do more afrobeat-type stuff but my bandmates weren’t as into it so I could only incorporate it in small doses.
With The Freaky Baby Daddies, I’ve never ask them personal questions. I’ve never asked them how old their mom’s are, what their mom’s names are, where they are from. I know they are from Brooklyn because it’s in the music but I’ve never asked them where they grew up. We haven’t had these conversations. However, I know everything about them through the music we make together. It’s like our ancestors are hanging when we play; our great great grandparents are hanging, our parents are hanging and we’re hanging through this jam session. I know everything, I can feel their children. It’s fucking beautiful. We played and it was like skeet, skeet, skeet, my brain, my ears, I’ve known you for centuries. And here we meet again through instruments.
My bandmates are just very connected people, they sacrifice themselves for their deities, and being around that energy and presence has changed me and put me on a different path. Playing with them, I rediscovered Afrobeat, I started reading a bunch of books about Afrobeat, which is a genre of music that was made in the last 50 years, but has its origins in ancient rhythms.
What’s compelling to you about Afrobeat?
It’s the kind of music that you may not know anything about when going to a show, but you don’t need to because it makes you move regardless. If you don’t react that way, you must not have anything going on inside because how could you not? It’s serotonin inducing, it unleashes chemicals in your brain.
Afrobeat is credited to Fela Kuti and his drummer Tony Allen. Fela was an incredibly powerful force of a man who used his music to physically, mentally, spiritually inspire revolution in Africa. He mixed African rhythms with jazz – he studied jazz music in London for years. When he discovered James Brown and funk he started using those chords and then Afrobeat just happened.
Feed Your Ego promo video
Sweet Dreams cover by The Freaky Baby Daddies
How do all your influences come together to make up your performance and on-stage persona?
I’m trying to bring intergalactic futures to Dominican kids who don’t fit into mainstream Dominican culture. I’m trying to introduce myself into all of my work as this alien, multidimensional being from space that’s transmitting through a human vessel. That’s how I feel.
Doing this has been a part of the process of loving myself and finding myself. It’s me not having to take on other people’s ideas of me, or explain myself through other people’s stories or other political struggles. I can just tell my own story now. I’m not old, I’m 25-years-old but I’ve lived as an individual struggling to survive from a young age. I have to trust myself and know that I’m good, that I’m talented, and stop being surprised by myself.
Any upcoming projects? What should people look out for in the coming months?
I’m a precise person and like to make progress but I’m not willing to share all energy with a band at the moment. I’m working on developing a solo career because I need to harness my creative drive and make good things happen for me. I love being a part of bands but I’m discovering the freedom of making music completely on my own. I could work with one person and create a whole orchestra.
My new project is a solo EP that is bilingual, and draws on Hip Hop, jazz, with touches of Rock, Latin and Afrobeat. This project has allowed me to take on the name that my mother gave me and use it for the first time as a part of my art. My legal name is spelled Japhet, and is the name my father gave me, but my mom changed it to Jafé. It’s fucking awesome and liberating to produce, rap, play guitar, sing, and use my own name.
I can’t afford to get a studio or spend hours recording but I can make beats on my laptop. You gotta be realistic about these things and not let unfortunate economic bullshit restrict your process and growth.
Now I’m making songs for individuals or trying to just speak to one person at a time through each song – that is what I’m trying to do with my solo project and the mentality I have going forward into different collaborations.