Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the late Puerto Rican historian, writer and activist, was an indispensable component of the Harlem Renaissance. Born and largely raised on the island, Schomburg dedicated his life to collecting and documenting the literary and artistic contributions of African peoples in the Americas and across the diaspora. Concerning the “lost black Hispanic heritage,” one figure Schomburg studied and discussed at length was the prestigious Puerto Rican painter José Campeche, who in his lifetime emerged a toast of the art world among white Spaniards, but whose ancestors were little-talked-about — “a conspiracy of silence” Schomburg spent all his years breaking. That is precisely what this project has been about: undoing a dreaded history of silence.
Thanks to Schomburg and to works like Dr. Vanessa K. Valdés’ Diasporic Blackness, we know the richness, brilliance, necessity and gravity of black narratives in places like the Caribbean, from where lots of the music we Latinxs know and love is rooted. At the top of 2018, Billboard sent out a particularly non-traditional call to some of our favorite recording artists of varied backgrounds, but bound by one exquisite attribute: negritude.
We solicited a number of video submissions that responded to the query: What has been your experience as a black Latino musician or recording artist navigating today’s industry? To my surprise, there were no apparent concerns and no one required clarity on the topic, which I was fully prepared to expound on. (My personal anxieties were rooted in the arguable fact that for all intents and purposes the Spanish-speaking world is years behind when it comes to discourse on race, ethnicity, gender, sex etc.).
The cadre of artists we reached out to included the likes of Ozuna, one of the most successful reggaeton singers of his generation who almost always refers to himself as a negro with light eyes on his songs; OG reggaetonero Tego Calderon, a pioneer in the genre that was generally disdained and perpetually associated with the lower-class during his era; and award-winning and internationally-acclaimed Colombian hip-hop group Chocquibtown, whose very name derives from their native Chocó, a Colombian department famous for its widespread African population. Restoring said history of silence, the band’s management remained mum before ultimately expressing feeling offended by the request, saying it was unnecessary and irrelevant to speak about their artists’ experiences in an industry that systemically appropriates and then profits off their work. It was disheartening to say the least, but not surprising.
“No one is asking what is it like being a white male producer in music, no one is asking that knowing that [white men] have made millions off black, queer and marginalized peoples and paid them dust in return,” says Maluca Mala, a Dominican singer-songwriter, model and activist from Washington Heights, New York. “See, no one is asking those questions. Marginalized communities need to unify because we need to take up space. The youth needs that, they need to see themselves and to hear themselves.”
She adds: “I feel very empowered by my blackness. Because the public looks to me as a tastemaker, and that’s valuable. As an Afro-Latina, I know my stock is up there. Because you need me for that cool factor, the [universal] cosign. You need me to sell that record. My stock is worth a lot.”
In places like the Dominican Republic, there are all kinds of names that allude to blackness: trigueño, moreno, mulato — anything but negro because that would mean a blatant call to that which we’ve long been conditioned to hate. Esteemed urban Latin artist and Soberano Award-winning singer, Vakeró is proud to go by the latter. “Don’t call me moreno, call me negro,” he says in his personal response to the topic at hand, adding that the “perfect” color is the human one.
Fellow singer-songwriter and Roc Nation signee, Mr. Paradise echoes the same in his take: “The moment we start to categorize skin color is the moment we separate ourselves and everything around us.” However honorable and righteous his point of view, it leaves no room for the necessary discourse on the black-and-white binary, which is inherently about separation, one that black people themselves did not originally establish.
Latin Grammy and Grammy-nominated musician Concha Buika was born to Equatoguinean parents and raised in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Trained in the genres of flamenco, copla, jazz and soul, Buika celebrates her blackness all year round along with her family. In the face of a monopolizing and historically racist industry, Buika considers her personal experience a fulfilling one, hardships and all: “To be a black woman in the world of music has been and always will be marvelous, divine, difficult and hard, but ultimately great because this is a profession of soldiers. I cannot lie and say things are easy. This profession is hard, and things are heating up. But with faith, hope and – above all – hard work, we can rise to the occasion.”
She continues: “Even with all the obstacles, I am here because of two reasons: a marvelous fan base and all the great maestros who guided me.”
Cuban music experimentalist and historian, DJ Jigüe has performed on stages all around Europe and the Americas thanks to a traveling visa he obtained by a stroke of luck. His work in the world of music fuses traditional bata drums, elements of hip-hop and electronica, and is both performance and political.
“First and foremost, it’s a challenge. It’s a personal challenge because in Cuba I represent what’s called the urban genre, which is, for lack of a better word, contemporary,” he explains in a thorough response (although he is not featured in the video). “The act of trying to establish that sound within and outside the island has been incredibly difficult for its creators and pioneers. To try and position that kind of music within the Cuban industry and the international one, it’s been interesting for me because it’s forced me to work harder. Not to mention, I’m doing it from an Afro-descendant disposition. And in doing so, I am keeping those who came before us – our ancestors from Africa – alive.”
Latin Grammy and Juno Award-winning Cuban-Canadian musician Alex Cuba has seen monumental success as a black recording artist in today’s Latin industry, but has one bottom line nonetheless: “The reality of the situation is that there aren’t very many successful, famous Afro-Latino artists in Latin music. I believe that’s an error and a profound problem.”
From the lens of a U.S.-born Latina, Brooklyn-based rapper Nitty Scott (of Puerto Rican descent) has this to say on her negritude: “Being a black Latina is not defined as being half black and half Latina, but one whole valid identity. For me it’s like living on the hyphen. Growing up I didn’t feel black enough for certain spaces, or Latino enough in certain spaces, having my Latinidad invalidated for not speaking perfect Spanish or surprising a room full of people who perceive me as black for speaking any Spanish at all. Sometimes it means being exotified in America for being something “other than black.” It’s a total experience, one where you’re existence itself is often questioned.”
Highlighting two different sides of the same coin, Nitty expounds on the invalidation of Latino contribution in hip-hop culture and music. “In American hip-hop music, there’s a huge erasure of Latino contribution and voices, despite being very instrumental in the beginnings of the culture. So much so that if you do claim Latino, if you do wave that flag, you end up being boxed and stereotyped as opposed to simply existing in more than one culture. It turns into being restricted to Latino platforms and events, and Latino festivals. For every mainstream platform, there is that platform with “Latino” after it as if to say this special version for Latino listeners. You get boxed into that the minute you claim your Latinidad in this primarily black space that is hip-hop culture.”
Nitty’s final thoughts are perhaps conclusive and lends to the very heart of this argument: “Then there’s the Latin market, where there’s a really strict idea of what a Latina is, looks and sounds like, of what is acceptable. The world thinks we all look like J. Lo. So in terms of our representation, of what a Latina can be and look like, there’s still a lot of visibility work that needs to be done there.”
In honor of Black History Month, this article originally appeared on Billboard.