La Doña's singular blend of Latin musical traditions, reggaeton and hyphy has made her one of San Francisco's biggest breakout stars since the pandemic. YBCA's Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists is helping fuel her rising career. (Photos: Beth LaBerge; design: Kelly Heigert)
Editor’s note: Two years into the pandemic, artists are charting new paths forward. Across the Bay Area, they’re advocating for better pay, sharing resources and looking out for their communities’ well-being. Welcome to Our Creative Futures, a KQED Arts & Culture series that takes stock of the arts in this unpredictable climate. Share your story here.
It’s no coincidence that La Doña has become one of San Francisco’s biggest breakout stars in the past two years. If you’ve been to her concerts or seen her music videos, you’ve immediately noticed that she places a premium on craft.
On stage last Saturday at Oakland’s Fox Theater, La Doña expertly hyped the crowd while switching from powerful vocal runs to trumpet solos and dance moves, all while leading a six-piece band. She’s currently on tour with soul quintet Durand Jones & the Indications, and juggling a busy schedule of studio sessions (not least a collaboration with fellow San Francisco native Stunnaman02).
The artist, whose real name is Cecilia Peña-Govea, is in go-mode. Even though the pandemic disrupted the rollout of her highly anticipated debut album, 2020’s Algo Nuevo, her singular Bay Area blend of rancheras, salsa, reggaeton and hyphy caught the attention of national publications like The New York Times and Billboard. This year, she followed up her initial success with a slate of singles, sold-out hometown shows and six performances at South By Southwest.
But excellence is expensive, and Peña-Govea, who’s not signed to a label, often has to pay out of her own pocket to maintain the momentum of her career. That’s gotten a little easier since she became a recipient of the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists (SF-GIPA), a program administered by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Given how little musicians earn from streaming—coupled with the fact that COVID erased two years of touring revenue—the guaranteed income program is proving to be a crucial support structure for independent artists at a time when the economics of the music industry mostly work against them.
“[Independent artists] are always hustling,” says Peña-Govea. “Especially because creating art in the way that it needs to be consumed is super expensive, right? Music videos, photo shoots, mixing and mastering, playlisting, doing publicity, all of these things. It’ll cost you $10,000 to put out one single song if you do it to the industry standard.”
Artists are Essential for Healthy Communities
The 130 artists selected for the SF Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists, which launched in May 2021, receive $1,000 a month for 18 months, no strings attached. Unlike most grants, which fund specific projects, there’s no requirement for output, and no tracking of expenses. The model operates on the principle that artists are vital components of thriving communities, whether their work is profitable in the commercial market or not. (SF-GIPA hasn’t been without controversy: Some artists and organizers have taken issue with the choice of YBCA to administer the program, arguing that Mayor London Breed’s office should have selected an organization more embedded in communities of color. Others criticized its eligibility criteria and selection process. YBCA addressed some of the concerns in an Oct. 2021 report.)
“Artists truly offer unique talent and skill—creativity that fosters social cohesion and belonging, trust, civic engagement,” says Stephanie Imah, senior manager of artists investments at YBCA. “Artists bring so much to a community’s identity.”
That’s certainly true for Peña-Govea, whose lyrics—among narratives of love, queerness and self-empowerment—give voice to Frisco pride and the grief of gentrification, displacement and cultural loss. Raised by a village of artists, teachers and activists in Bernal Heights, she’s buoyed by a close-knit team that wants to see her shine. That includes her partner, her dad and a handful of childhood friends, all of whom are in her band.
Peña-Govea is both a culture keeper and an innovator: Growing up as a member of her family band, La Familia Peña-Govea, she honed her trumpet, guitarron and vocal skills and mastered a variety of Latin musical traditions. She does her part to pass them down as a mariachi music teacher in the San Francisco and Oakland Unified School Districts, and is a teaching artist in SFJAZZ’s Jazz in the Middle music program. And as La Doña, she pushes these traditions forward by blending them with feminist lyrical concepts and the party energy of rap, dembow and reggaeton.
Peña-Govea’s approach is resonating with a new generation, as her 54,573 monthly Spotify listeners can attest. But, because Spotify only pays about $0.0038 per stream (this is an unofficial calculation; the streaming service is notoriously opaque about its finances), she says she only earns about $300 a year from the platform. Her art is clearly impactful, but the commercial market isn’t designed to support it. And as housing in the Bay Area only grows more expensive, and gas prices and inflation mount, guaranteed income could emerge as a permanent strategy of keeping music scenes alive in cities like San Francisco.
“Guaranteed income is rooted in this belief that everyone deserves economic security,” says Imah of YBCA. She says other recipients of the program have used the funds to rent studio spaces, and Liminal Space, San Francisco’s new trans-centering art gallery, received funding from the program. According to YBCA’s voluntary surveys and informal conversations with recipients, other artists have used the funds to travel and see family for the first time in years, pursue educational opportunities, or simply take better care of themselves.
“[There are] improvements to mental to mental and emotional health, less stress,” Imah adds.
And less financial stress frees up energy to make better art. For Peña-Govea, the Guaranteed Income Pilot provides much-needed stability. “It’s the end of the month and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what is happening? How am I going to do this?’ I look at the next tour. I have to book all these things,” she says. “And then it’s the first, and I have this little angel descending a grand into my account, and I’m like, ‘OK, thank God.’”
The Many Jobs of an Independent Artist
Independent artists like Peña-Govea must juggle multiple roles that—in the well-resourced ecosystem of a major label—are each jobs of their own. There are rehearsals with the band; time in the studio crafting new material; creating social media content and monitoring engagement; and managing all the contracts and logistics that go into booking live performances.
“I can’t work a nine-to-five if I have to go on tour and if I have to be churning out all this content and going to different sites for gigs and, you know—I mean, it’s an artist’s life,” says Peña-Govea. “It’s not very conducive [to a job] with full benefits and stable income.”
Her teaching work—made up of contract gigs—helps her pay the bills, but that comes with its own challenges. Many children are traumatized from pandemic isolation and poverty; some have fallen behind because of distance learning.
“Most of the artists I know definitely do teaching work,” she says. “It’s kind of a catch-22. … If I get sick in the classroom, then I can’t play my gig and I miss that income. What happens if I get sick on the road and I have to quarantine, and I can’t teach when I get home?”
The $1,000 a month from the Guaranteed Income Pilot only covers a fraction of Peña-Govea’s expenses. It’s crucial to take her band along on tour to capture the full dimension and energy of her sound, she says, but it’s costly. The South by Southwest trip cost about $5,000, and she crowdfunded to cover costs for her current tour with Durand Jones & the Indications. With the Guaranteed Income Pilot, the regular check on top of earnings from teaching means that she can breathe easier, and spend more time working on her craft instead of constantly hustling for grants.
Taking Guaranteed Income from Pilot to Policy
There’s a lot of need among artists in a gentrified city like San Francisco, which Peña-Govea refers to as a “contested area.” Coming to fill that need is an expanding array of guaranteed income programs, engineered to deal with the realities of rising inequality at a time when wages haven’t increased to keep up with the cost of living.
The goal for the Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists, Imah says, is to take the program from pilot to policy. She wants to see it written into law. “We’re really, truly advocating for the city, state and federal level of guaranteed income implementation,” she says.
For artists like Peña-Govea, investments in guaranteed income are part of a necessary reexamination of the value of art in society, which isn’t always legible from earnings reports or follower counts. “You’re not going to go see Beyoncé playing at 24th Street BART. What about the people that show up there every single week and are playing for free and vivifying our whole lives?” she says. “It doesn’t have to be Apple’s featured artist for it to be important and impactful artwork. I think the way that we value different types of artists definitely has to change.”