Amara La Negra Shouldn’t Have To Educate You. But Class Is In Session.
The Love & Hip Hop: Miami star would like her “dinero” — and a little bit of understanding.
“I have to show proof that this is my natural ass — ever since I was a little girl. That this is part of my DNA, and I was born like that,” Amara La Negra announces. We sit facing each other, any Zoom-related disconnect vanishing as she stares directly at me through the camera. Despite claiming not to be “fixed up,” Amara’s auburn curls hang to perfection around her immaculately highlighted face. Every time she blinks, it is impossible not to notice the purple shimmer dancing on her eyelids; each gesture brings my attention to her inch-long bright pink coffin nails. (“I couldn’t see myself without nails. I think I would feel like a boy.”)
“I didn’t get my nose done,” she continues. I didn’t ask, but 29-year-old Love & Hip Hop: Miami star Amara is used to people assuming she’s lying about her appearance. Despite years of defending herself, Amara must constantly explain her Afro-Latina identity as a dark-skinned woman — down to whether or not her body is natural or surgically enhanced.
It’s early September and Amara is in her Miami home, talking to me while that aforementioned natural bottom sits comfortably on a rococo chair that might better be described as a throne. Its gold curves and filigree rise above her shoulders, a stark symbol of luxury against a flat white wall. This manse is well-known to fans who tuned in to watch Amara in Love & Hip Hop: Miami season 3, which aired earlier this year. Yet the opulent confidence of her personal brand and ardent Afro-Latinx advocacy are juxtaposed with a lesser-known story, one that includes homelessness and visits to adult film sets. Amara is open about the complexities and multiple facets of her life. It’s all part of her crusade to cut through ignorance about her community, which is comprised of all the people whose ancestors were “brought” to Latin America from Africa (read: brutally kidnapped and sold into slavery).
This campaign is personal for Amara in more ways than one. Since becoming a public figure in 2012 with her single “Ayy,” the self-described singer, author, performer, dancer, and “activist” has dealt with allegations that she dons blackface, and criticism that her skyward-reaching afro is fake.
For the record, Amara’s hair isn’t a wig, but she does add extensions to maintain a perfect round shape in the Miami humidity. “I know that it’s very loud and scandalous for a lot of people when they see me,” she explains. “But it’s what makes me feel the most comfortable, because it goes with my personality. It represents my beliefs.”
Amara’s fans can now see more of those convictions on HBO’s Latinx-led special Habla Now, which premiered on September 18. The special is a part of the educational blitz Amara has been on for years, having served as pop culture’s Afro-Latinx 101 professor on The Breakfast Club radio show, NPR, The Real, and her own VH1 reality series. Amara is a natural at schooling ardent followers and casual fans alike, thanks to her unflinching honesty and willingness to answer potentially uncomfortable questions even before they’re asked, like, when she point-blank told me over Zoom: “This is part of my genetics. I don’t take melanin shots. I don’t take melanin pills. I am naturally Black.”
Born Diana Danelys de los Santos, Amara’s confidence, work ethic, and stage name — Amara La Negra, meaning “Amara the Black Woman” — are, she tells me, a tribute to her parents and heritage. A first-generation American born in Miami to Domican parents, Amara was raised by her single mother, Ana Maria Oleaga. “I come from an immigrant mother who is Carribean. We are accustomed to working very hard. If I were to work just one job, I think I would feel like my life is trash.” Her father, whom viewers saw briefly on Love & Hip Hop, wasn’t in her life until recently.
An only child, Amara was a natural-born performer. At the age of 4, she auditioned to be a dancer on the classic Latinx variety show Sábado Gigante with the support of her mother. Although it might seem like a dream to be cast in a show at such a young age, Amara has since explained that as “the only Black girl” in the cast, she was often pushed to the middle of a number or into the back row, despite her talent. In Habla Now, she recounts a formative moment, when she overheard Gigante’s hair expert telling her mom that Amara’s coily hair was simply “unmanageable.”
Amara — whose stage name is taken from the girl group she was in as a teen — bounced around the Latin music scene until her breakout hit, “Ayy.” But fame — even coupled with a childhood showbiz career — doesn’t necessarily mean fortune: Amara was broke. In 2015, she spent three months without a home, something she fearlessly spoke about on Love & Hip Hop this year. “The truth of the matter is, everything is not glitz and glam,” she says now. “I was washing my ass in a freaking 24-hour McDonalds and Walgreens because I was embarrassed. I was already famous. I didn’t want people to judge me or look at me in a different light because I had no money at that moment.”
Her quest for financial security is often reflected in her bilingual songs, in which she demands her “dinero,” as well as revealing her romantic struggles. Lately, Amara tells me, she has been wondering if she needs to go into more “raunchy” territory. While she is totally comfortable talking about sex — “If you want to have threesomes, orgies, you want to try bondage, if you want to stick a banana up your ass, do it! It’s your life. It’s your ass!,” she urges over Zoom before regaling me with memories from an adult film set trip — Amara doesn’t sound prepared to follow in the summertime success of explicit songs like “WAP,” from fellow Love & Hip Hop star Cardi B.
“Do I have to talk about all the things I’m going to do?” Amara asks. “‘I’m going to ‘deep throat.’ You know what I’m saying? The hell?” Amara is, she emphasizes over the course of our conversation, a self-described “traditional woman.”
In many ways, Amara’s path to her current industry success is in keeping with tradition. In the last five years, she has released more than 10 singles, plus 2019’s seven-track EP Unstoppable. These accomplishments don’t mean she’s disowned her past, or that she’s in any way embarrassed by it: “Because I feel that the day that I die, nobody else’s opinions really matter.” But some of her professional endeavors are outside of the performing realm, and have raised many eyebrows, like when she uses Instagram to promote questionable products. In recent weeks, she boosted the profile of a credit “expert” and then took the post down within days. Amara has also partnered with a supplement company that has 189 complaints on the Better Business Bureau website. She makes no mention of these complaints in her many Instagram posts advertising the brand. When asked for comment, Amara’s team told R29 that these posts were “binding” promotional obligations from “a former manager she’s no longer with.”
While Amara’s current team won’t name her “former manager,” Love & Hip Hop viewers are intimately aware of Amara’s behind-the-scenes career difficulties. In a season-long plotline on Love & Hip Hop, the disintegration of Amara’s professional relationship with her manager, Julian Boothe, and his desire to retain ownership of Amara’s musical masters, should she sever their professional ties, was prominently featured. While much thinkpiece ink has been spilled about white women artists and their artistic autonomy (see: Taylor Swift), there was no similar furor when Amara’s troubles were laid bare on VH1 every week.
Amara, who says she is still technically in the midst of legally disentangling herself from Boothe, isn’t surprised by the public neglect for her situation, though, telling me with zero affect, “We’ve normalized everything that’s bad with Black women… We are the most unprotected species on the planet in my eyes.”
There’s a reason Amara has compartmentalized the most punishing aspect of her road to fame: the pervasive specter of colourism that follows her everywhere as an outspoken Afro-Latinx woman. “Do I get a lot of [racial slur] notes? Yeah. Do I get a lot of death threats? Yeah. Because I have become one of the main faces for the Afro-Latino community,” she says matter-of-factly.
While she’s measured in even the most infuriating of interviews — like when a Breakfast Club host DJ Envy nonchalantly told her “I thought you were Black until I heard you speak” — Amara’s passion and rage reveal themselves when it matters most. “We just want justice, man. We’re tired. We’re sick of having to fight to be human. Fuck that,” she told her 2.3 million Instagram followers in late May, after rushing to participate in the Black Lives Matter protests in Miami, wielding a sign reading “By Any Means Necessary.”
However, even this inspiring activism courted controversy for Amara. While her participation in the movement was guided by her moral compass, Amara, in contrast to the other protesters around her, was not wearing a mask. She remains unapologetic about the decision — and also revealed that she had made it more than once.
“I went to three protests with no mask. I’m not saying to do it. But I’m saying I did it,” she says. “There was so much anger and passion built within myself that I even forgot about the pandemic. I’ve never had COVID, and I’ve been good thus far — thank God.” (The CDC has recommended mask use in public since April, both to protect yourself and those around you.)
The vision of Amara in her protest videos — powerful, principled, flawlessly made-up, and, maybe, controversy-prone — is one that she works to project to the world. Amara admits to maintaining a carefully curated image for her public, saying, “I allow people to see what I want them to see … I always have to show that I am strong, that I can do this.” Amara’s Love & Hip Hop boss, Mona Scott-Young, respects her for this work, saying, “Whether it was tackling the very real issue of colourism within the Black and Latin community or sharing her challenging experiences of being a darker-skinned Latin artist trying to cross into a medium that favored lighter-skinned artists, Amara never hesitated to be vocal about her thoughts or tackle the issues of race and gender prejudice head-on.”But behind the ornate black doors of her home, Amara reckons with the immense pressure of constantly advocating for her people — and the racist hate that comes with it.
“I cry. And I cry a lot. I cry a lot in the privacy of my home. In my bathroom. In the shower. Sometimes with my mom,” she says, her eyes darting around the room, driven by the rare vulnerability of her words. “Because it’s hard. It’s hard to have that responsibility. It’s hard to be the one to be called every time there are these conversations. ”
Still, Amara continues to dive head-first into the thorniest of topics. Take her plan to re-release her Unstoppable song “Not Tonight” next month as part of a campaign for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. “During the pandemic, the rates went up for domestic abuse,” she points out. “My mom came from a domestic abuse relationship. I personally suffered a lot of verbal abuse, which a lot of women don’t know is abuse. I want to do something for [those women] to encourage them to leave that situation.”
She doesn’t have plans for her new music beyond October, though, and says she’ll be taking a step back to “reset” in 2021, offering no further explanation.
Amara leaves our conversation exactly how it started: Purple shadow still dancing on her lids, an hour of vulnerability and tense questioning once again filed away as her impassive expression resumes its place. This appears to be the last stretch of a marathon of interviews for Amara — the final lap of tirelessly educating someone else about her community… for today.
“Me breaking those barriers gives you an opportunity for people to not look at you the way that they’ve been looking at you for years. And I will continue,” Amara says, speaking to the Afro-Latinx community, then concluding: “I truly believe in my heart that I was placed in this world for a reason, with a purpose in this era.”
Latinidad is ever-evolving. It cannot be defined by a blanket term or monolithic idea. That's why it's important to look at its future with respect to its past and present — and that's our mission. In a series of essays, reported articles, and stories for Refinery29 Somos and Latinx Heritage Month, we'll explore the unique conversations and challenges that affect these communities.