Oh, how the ever-familiar plight of Afro-Latinx folk has flared up yet again. We’re here, we’re Black, and we built (and dearly love) Latin-American pop, rap, and reggaeton. Similar to our fellow Black-American feminists or womanists who are conflicted as they twerk to misogynistic rap lyrics, the recent 2020 global “Fed-Up” reckoning has had a couple of us morenitas looking sideways at our white-washed Spotify Perreo playlists. And it’s definitely got many reconsidering their loyalties to Latinx musicians who have responded poorly, or worse not at all, to the Black Lives Matter movement on their social media.
Let’s get some perspective on the problem. In the past couple of years, the genre of Latin-American rap dubbed “Latin-Trap” has experienced a significant boom in the global music industry. Since “Despacito” took the world by storm and was nominated for Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 2018 Grammys, everyone wants their hands on the undeniably danceable Latin-Caribbean beats and the new-age Latin r&b and trap music that Bad Bunny brought to the radio. This is a genre of music that was previously stigmatized and tied to a long legacy of racism and colorism in the Latinx community, in addition to recently following trends in Black American trap/hip-hop. In Latin America it finds its roots first in Panama, then in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic among the poor and Black underground club scenes in these countries, all while continually making exchanges with immigrants in New York and Jamaica. “It’s clear that perreo, sandungeo, or even twerking all seem to have similar origins tracing back to the enslaved Africans who were forcefully brought to the Americas,” explains Remezcla writer and Reggaeton historian, Eddie Cepeda.
And yet, it has been brought up numerous times that the Latinx media and music industries are still plagued with colorism and white supremacist ideals today. They push lighter-skinned artists with European features into their studios, radios, and awards shows. Up until now, most reggaeton, dembow, and Latin r&b fans have generally sort of given a thin pass to this kind of cultural appropriation and white-washing because they’ve just been grateful that the genre has been getting due attention at all. Grateful that their “calle” aesthetics and beats have been deemed grammy-worthy. If the music’s good, why ruin the party, right?
Tension has been festering below the surface for many Afro-Latinx listeners for a while now. Bad Bunny wore a du-rag at the 2020 Super Bowl rather than join the Black artists who boycotted the NFL, making his non-Black privilege hard to ignore. Rosalia, a European who is not even Latin-American, won best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album at the Grammys. Meanwhile, she incorporates hip-hop moves with flamenco dance and dons iconically Latinx and Black, jewel adorned, long acrylic nails. J Balvin, Anuel AA, Nicky Jam, Lunay, and more adopt American hip-hop’s large chains, baggy sweatshirts, and snapbacks as their styles. Newcomer Mexican rapper, Niña Dioz, is known for wearing microbraids and dreads, despite being very white. Karol G and Natti Natasha model themselves in physique and fashion after Kardashians (who copy and paste from Black women every day).
These are the things that make them iconic, and they are Black things. Cultural appropriation is natural in an age of digital globalization. Hip-hop is the biggest music genre in the world, obviously, it’s going to have an impact on global culture. However, there is a difference between appreciation and negative appropriation paired with white privilege. The appropriation hits even harder when done in a landscape that does not also lift up Afro-Latinx artists for doing the same things. All that Black Latinx fans have been asking for is an appreciation for the Black origins of these visual and musical styles and an acknowledgment that Black Latinx artists are not being represented.
That is the key part that is missing from many of these recent twitter statements and apologies. Very few are actually bout it bout it when it comes to social activism. We’ve been getting the bare minimum with regards to Black rights activism, in addition to a refusal to acknowledge the white/light skin privilege that these artists hold. Part of this is because, like white people, most non-Black (and even some Black) Latinx folk aren’t taught to think of themselves in racialized ways. They instead form identity through nationalism. Organizations like the Black Latinas Know Collective have recently put out statements calling out non-Black Latinos to “use your street race, not your #ADondeEstaTuAbuelaRace”.
They assert that white Latinos need to learn to name their whiteness, rather than continuing to falsely claim that just because their nations are multi-racial in makeup, so are they. Privilege doesn’t care to look into your far-removed ancestry; it just cares about what you look like today.
Nothing makes this clearer than the onslaught of problematic social media from Hispanic and Latinx people lately. Rosalia posted a Black Square, said Black Lives Matter, and kept it moving. J Balvin posted a video of him dancing with a Black woman with the hashtag “#LatinosMatterToo” and proceeded to post two regularly scheduled music videos since then. After backlash, he tweeted,
“Me critican sin ni siquiera tratar de enseñarme, ¿asistencia cómo aprendo?”
(Though Balvin often uses childhood video games as inspiration, no sabia que tambien era niñito que tenemos que enseñar, but I digress). Karol G will now be infamous for tweeting a picture of her black and white puppy, claiming it to be an example of equality of races. Each time they mess up, these artists obliviously hurt their Black listeners even more. It’s exhausting.
After a month of silence from Benito (while on his social media mental break hiatus), I anxiously awaited for him to inevitably speak on the global Black Lives Matter movements. His response came late on June 12, with “Time Magazine” in the form of song lyrics. His plea statements like,
“Perdonen que mi furia hoy sea silente. // Perdónenme por hoy sentirme impotente // Les juro que les amo y siempre estaré con mi gente”
came in addition to some great calls for education and better knowledge of internalized racism that exists within Caribbean culture. He claimed in the interview that, “In the case of reggaeton music, we have always struggled against discrimination..for being Latino,” — but who is struggling here, really? ‘We’ is not the blanqueamiento of current reggaeton. It is not the white Latinx people that were discriminated against. It is the Black people. Reggaeton was stigmatized for its proximity to blackness. Even after reading Bad Bunny’s lyrical statement — filled with true calls to action, sure — I was left somewhat dissatisfied. Both at the fact that this was turned into a PR stunt and the fact that some of his statements sounded more like “Latinos for Black Lives” when it should be “Black Lives ARE Latinos”.
To me, this seems to be the perfect moment for non-Black Latinx artists to be vocal about understanding their own racism and privilege. Again, these artists have all built their careers on the backs of Black Americans, Immigrants, and Afro-Latinx that are currently putting their lives on the line protesting brutality. In the case of Afro-Latinx people, they are additionally protesting just to even be acknowledged for existing. Everybody wanna be Black until it’s time to be Black. Artists need to contend with their own anti-Blackness, open up their purses, pass the mic, and work to dismantle the very anti-Black industry that has granted them so much success.
In an interview with Billboard on their Afro-Latinidad, Columbian music group Chocquibtown stated it was “unnecessary and irrelevant to speak about their (Black) experiences in an industry that systemically appropriates and then profits off their work.” In the same article, Cuban-Canadian artist Alex Cuba continues that “there aren’t very many successful, famous Afro-Latino artists in Latin music. I believe that’s an error and a profound problem.” If now is not the time to talk about cultural appropriation and anti-Blackness in the Latinx music scene, when is?
Despite their colleagues, some allies (very few) have risen. Daddy Yankee posted a family picture on instagram with the caption:
“Padre NEGRO Madre BLANCA los colores más bacanos por eso que veo a todo el mundo como un HERMANO”. Así lo dije en una de mis canciones porque estoy orgulloso de mis raíces, de ser latino y de mi color de piel. Orgulloso de la herencia de mis abuelos dada a mi padre, la cual comparto con mis hermanos de sangre, familiares, amigos y muchas personas que respeto. Entre ellos muchos afroamericanos que valoro su trabajo y he tenido la bendición de trabajar con ellos. RESPETO! #blacklivesmatter 👊🏽👊🏾👊🏿”
He later posted “#TheShowMustBePaused” as most Latinx artists (like J Balvin) continue to churn out content and music videos without interruption amid civil unrest. This acknowledgment of Black American and Afro-Latinx influence on his career is the bare minimum, yet it is the most I’ve seen from a high-selling Latino musician. Becky G has also been outspoken with regard to the police brutality, discrimination, and colorism within her own California community. As a Latinx ally, all she’s missing is further depth into anti-blackness and the invisibility of Afro-Mexicans and Afro-Latinx people across the diaspora, but she’s off to a solid start passing along resources to organizations in her community. Hopefully, more will follow suit and keep doing what they need to do.
So what to do if the lack of activism from top-selling Latinx artists have put your solo bedroom reggaeton parties on pause? Well, amidst the endless lists of Black creatives going around, Spotify has created an Afro-Latino playlist you should definitely check out. It might be a good idea to look into native traditional African-Latinx music — Palos in Dominican Republic, Garifuna in Honduras, Bomba in Puerto Rico just to name a few (best believe our ancestors created some very twerkable spirituals). The following are some Afro-Latinx artists in the reggaeton/hip-hop scene that continue to speak on Black Lives and Black issues: