Djali Cepeda-Brown Uncovers the Lost Stories of Marginalized Cultures and Amplifies Her Own Afrodescendencia
Afrodescendencia is a series honoring the institutions and rights created by the Afro-Latinx leaders before us and those who are currently present in our communities. The Latinx of African descent are vocal, culturally active and politically aware. By telling the stories of the unheard we remain conscious of the community, its struggles, its past, and its future.
Bursting onto the scene with “Family Swank,” a Mass Appeal blog, while still in high school, multifaceted creator Djali Cepeda-Brown first delighted her followers by introducing them to young, fascinating, on-the-cusp DJs, rappers, photographers, artists and the like. In 2016, she produced, directed and hosted Reign(a), a web series for the mag, where she spoke with women who challenged the conventional definition of feminism, like Princess Nokia, before they were popular.
But lately, Cepeda-Brown is leaving the present to take unearth cultural histories obscured by the dominant white-male-American meta-narrative.
Her talents were put to good use as an associate producer for Railroad Ties, a film produced by Mass Appeal in collaboration with Ancestry.com that played at Sundance in January. The film follows the six descendants of fugitive slaves and abolitionists to Brooklyn where they uncover more information about their lineage.
“It was a cool project because we got people to come together, those descendants of the slaves that escaped the underground railroad as well as the people who helped people escape the underground railroad,” she explained.
Her work is rooted in ancestral research. She explained to CHICA: “Through that type of work, you are able to heal and come up with different conversations because we are still dealing with trauma.”
The native of upper Manhattan’s Inwood/Washington Heights area is well-versed in the importance in understanding one’s history. “We’re only given the stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. It’s really important that we dig way deeper, and we don’t just stop at what we learn in school. We’re never really told about Malcolm X. We’re never really told about the Black Panthers. We’re never taught about the Young Lords. Many of them were Afro-Boricua and were Black Panthers as well,” she notes.
Her writings offer the side of history that often gets hushed, for example her post “A Celebration of Barbarity: The Intergenerational Trauma of American Thanksgiving,” where she reveals the true history of the holiday and the current state of the native communities.
Most recently, she started an Instagram account called Nuevayorkinos — a curated visual archive of vintage Latinx photos, from anyone who wants to submit them. The project embraces New York culture through the Latino/Latinx experience.
One of her joy’s is talking about African diasporic influences aligned with being of Dominican descent. “To be Dominican means to be many things, and one of those things is to be African. Whether you are talking about merengue, very African-inspired, our belief system, like Palos and 21 Divisions, and the way we speak. Our tone is very West African–inspired.”
“For me, identity was always something I was lucky enough to have open conversations about in my household,” says Cepeda-Brown, whose mom is an author and documentary filmmaker and whose step-father is a cultural journalist and creative director of Mass Appeal; her biological father was a musician. “My father is black and indigenous, my mother is Dominican. I was taught that I am a black woman, an indigenous woman, and a Dominican woman…I was always taught to embrace all sides of my identity — never told, you’re just Dominican.”
The young curator, however, has always known who she was thanks to in-depth conversations with her mother. Even throughout middle school, when African-Americans called her “Spanish.” “I would be called Spanish, which I always said, ‘I’m not Spanish; I’m not my colonizer.’ Even in Spain, people are not just Spanish, they can be from Catalonia or Basque.”
Don’t try to pigeonhole her professionally either. Aside from being a young film director, Cepeda-Brown is a DJ, yogi, model and activist. More important, perhaps is her singular perspective on her various endeavors: “All the things that I do, I do for my ancestors and I do for the people whose shoulders I stand on, and I do for the people who came before me,” she explains.