Salsa, Reggaetón y Nación: Race, Music and Puerto Rican Identity

Entry Question

What do you understand by Afro-diasporic musical genres?

Cocolos Modernos

Professor and scholar of race and Caribbean music Petra Rivera-Rideau argues “that a cultural politics of blackness links salsa and reggaetón. This cultural politics of blackness denotes a particular positioning that not only calls attention to the processes of racial exclusion embedded within Puerto Rico’s so-called racial democracy but also situates the island within the broader African diaspora. Salsa and reggaetón are [many times] connected through diasporic cultural politics that centers on blackness. ” (1)

Socio-cultural context

Hegemonic constructions of Puerto Rican and US Latina/o identities tend to uphold race mixture as their foundation; however, in the process, they also frequently diminish the importance of blackness, privileging a whitened ‘Hispanicity’ instead. (2)

What current or day-to-day examples can you give of cultural whitewashing?

Afro-Diasporic Musical Genres

Salsa and reggaetón are linked together via a cultural politics of blackness that foregrounds broader connections to the African diaspora. Alternatively, it denotes a strategic positioning in relation to racial politics that denounces the problematic and essentializing tropes of blackness that are intrinsic to the discourses of western modernity within which Puerto Rican and Latina/o identities have been defined. (2)

In general, salsa musicians composed songs that contested the structures of power that adversely affected their communities, including colonialism, classism, and racism… salsa nourished an appreciation of African style evident in its musical aesthetics, dance forms, and the hairdos and fashions adopted by many salsa artists and fans. (3)

In Puerto Rico, reggaetón developed in part as a response to the neoliberal and racist policies that adversely affected working-class, predominantly non-white communities living in the island’s urban housing projects and barrios. (4)

Case Studies

I. “El negro bembón”

“‘El negro bembón’ can be read as a denouncement of racial violence and an account of the everyday strategies that black Puerto Ricans must use to avoid such incidents. This directly refutes one of the fundamental premises of racial democracy discourses, pointing out the persistence of racism despite rhetoric to the contrary.” (7)

Someone killed el negro bembón,
Someone killed el negro bembón
People are crying night and day

Because Everybody loved
al negrito bembón

And the police came and they arrested the killer
and one of the policemen who was also a bembón/ a black man got bad luck and was assigned the case
And you know what question he asked the killer?
Why you killed him?
And you know what the assassin answered? I killed him because he has big lips.
The policeman bit his lips and said:

That is not justifiable.

II. “Las caras lindas”

‘Las caras lindas,’ or ‘Beautiful Faces,’ describes the resilience and beauty of black communities throughout the diaspora, and especially in Latin America, and it has been embraced by many as an anthem celebrating Afro-Latina/o identities. Like his recordings with Cortijo, Rivera’s performance of ‘Las caras lindas’ represents a stark contrast to the privileging of whiteness in Puerto Rico and much of Latin America. (7)

The beautiful faces of my black people are a parade of molasses in bloom. When they pass in front of me my heart is happy with its blackness. The beautiful faces of my brown race have crying, grief, and pain they are the truth, survivors of life’s challenges and they have a lot of love inside. We are the molasses that laughs, the molasses that cry, we are the molasses that love. It is touching. That’s why I’m proud of our color. We are welcoming clear poetry. They have their rhythm, they have a melody, the beautiful faces of my black people.

III. “Loíza”

Located in the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico, Loíza is a town that is often described as the epicenter of Afro-Puerto Rican life and culture, sometimes in problematic ways that reiterate the ‘folkloricization’ of blackness. However, Calderón departs from this dominant image of Loíza by frequently describing socioeconomic conditions in the town as the product of perpetual institutional racism (P. Rivera, 2010, pp. 137–138). In this regard, Loíza serves as a metonym not of a folkoricized blackness, but rather of black communities that are consistently subject to racism on the island. (10)

Oye!
This is for my people/pueblo!
With love, el abayarde!
With DJ Adam!
And Cachete, the big man of the drums!
For my people, that I love so much!
From Calderon, pa’ Loiza!
Hey!
I’m in no hurry
But your slowness angers me
And the one who doesn’t deals/brega with Loiza
(No, don’t cry!)
He wants me to think
That I’m part of a racial trilogy
Where everybody is equal, no special treatment
I know how to forgive 
It’s you who doesn’t know how to excuse yourself
So, how do you justify all this bad treatment?
It’s just that your history/story is embarrassing.
Among other things
You traded chains for handcuffs.
We are not all the same in legal terms
And that has been proven in court
In the clear justice is obtained only by fighting 
That’s why we are as we are (Fuck it!)
If there’s no money for the lawyer, the state will provide one 
But brother
The one who takes you is the one who brought you
They kill you and don’t draw their guns
The cage is flooding
A legal sentence is a lame defense
There will never be justice without equality
Damn evil that destroys humanity
Because he’s protesting, he’s going to take away my freedom.
If I don’t recognize your authority
There will never be justice without equality
Damn evil that destroys humanity
If I protest, he’s going to take away my freedom.
I know that I don’t belong to your society
Of hypocrites
Vanity, plenty of falsehood 
There’s a lot of everything [consumerism] but no happiness
I have nothing
Just these fed up lyrics
And the ability not to believe in your truth
Who else
would think of 
saturate the mind of innocent children
With inconsistent education
Viciously manipulated
for the convenience of the wealthy
In the past they got away with it, they abused and they refuse to let me know of their wrongdoings
It is said that things have changed
but don’t go to sleep, they walk with sticks
And I’ve heard Ruben Berrios advocate for me.
I don’t trust anyone.
All with Vieques
My black people suffer
Little by little, mi negrito
Be smart
Be proud and honor god
For those niches
that believe themselves better by their professions
Or for having factions of their oppressors
Bastards, suckers
España go fuck yourself (Ja!)
I’m niche
Proud of my roots
Of having a lot of bemba and a big nose
We don’t stop being happy not even when suffering
That’s why our father God blesses us
There will never be justice without equality
Damn evil that destroys humanity
If I protest, he’s going to take away my freedom.
I don’t recognize your authority
Boricua!
This is el Abayarde!
Bringing it as it is!
I’m pushing them hard, to wake up my people!
Ja!
Hey, how nice is my Loiza!
Look how pretty it is!

Group Discussion

Discuss the similarities and different perspectives of blackness between “El negro bembón” by Cortijo y su Combo, “Las caras lindas” by Ismael Rivera, and “Loíza” by Tego Calderón.

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