Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Titi Chronicles: Santa, The Holy Child and the Three Kings

Christmas Day, Republic of Hialeah (land of excellent food and horrible politics) --- According to my lil' nieces, today is Santa Claus' Day ("el dia de Santa Clo").

Every parent is entitled to cultivate in their kids the holiday myths of their choice, so this Titi (auntie, in Boricua Spanish) is careful not to step on any parental toes. I'm no fan of religious dogma, but just letting Santa steal the limelight completely away from Baby Jesus just doesn't sit right with me.

I decided that asking (not telling) the girls about Baby Jesus would not violate my Code of Titi Ethics. So I asked them if they knew what else people celebrated on December 25th. But I only got back little cute shoulders shrugging. I pressed on and asked if they knew that people also celebrated the birth of "el niñito Jesus" that day.

Their reply?: "De quien?" (Who?)

I thought maybe they didn't hear me. So I repeated: "Del niñito Jesus."

Their wide-eyed reply: "Y que niñito es ese?" (What little boy is that?)

It took me a few seconds to get my bearings straight and decide if I should continue with the interview that I didn't want turning into an indoctrination session.

So I showed them the plastic "nacimiento" (nativity scene) that Mami has been putting under the tree ever since I can remember.

"Do you know what this is?" I asked.

"No," said the eldest, shaking her head.

"That's a cow, that's a donkey, that's a baby..." the youngest said, pointing to each of the little figures.

O.k., enough meddling, Titi, I thought. Hopefully, at some point in the midst of today's present-opening frenzy, I'll get to ask their parents (my cousins that I adore and that have become "my Cuban brother and sister") about what they've told (or not told) the girls. And, if my cousins give me the green light, maybe some other day I'll tell the girls about that other myth that I find so inspiring.

I have no idea how to spin it, though. How to instill both critical thought and a love of myth in a four year-old and a six year-old?

I know it is possible, since my Dad infused Christmas with his nationalist views, managing to convince me early on that Santa was o.k. but the Three Kings were even better, because Santa was a gringo tradition while the Three Kings were "ours."

In fact, maybe next Three Kings Day, January 6th, is the day to start with my nieces. Maybe like the little girl their Titi used to be, they'll get a kick out of cutting grass and putting it in a shoebox under the bed as food for the 3 Wise Men's camels. But, frankly, Titi's hesitant. The last thing I want is for the beautiful story of the Three Kings visiting Baby Jesus turning into another excuse for accumulating an even bigger mountain of toys.

Maybe Titi's Three Kings will bring them cash on the condition that it go straight into their college fund.

These thoughts are inspired by Titi's Little Angels and the Christmas bundles of joy of Titi Sandy, Titi Michelle Alamo and the proud titis and tios of the Torres Saez clan.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mochila and Go

Dear compis, friends and fams:

I'm unplugging from the matrix for a few weeks, so my apologies for
not being able to post, check comments, or reply for a while. I've gone with my mochila and my brother a "buscar en el río el camino hacia el mar".


Monday, December 03, 2007

The Treacherous Crossroads of Race and Ethnicity

November 28 I did a lecture at University of Connecticut Storrs titled "From Hip Hop to Reggaeton" and subtitled "The Treacherous Crossroads of Race and Ethnicity," sponsored by the Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Institute and the Puerto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center. I'm pleased that The Daily Campus published an article about it and, even more, that the writer highlighted my concerns regarding the traps of the racial and ethnic categories we use. Click here to read the article. I'm still trying to fine-tune the best strategies to debunk the myths surrounding race and ethnicity, so suggestions are especially appreciated.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Reggaeton Nation

What follows is an excerpt of the article I co-wrote with Frances Negrón-Muntaner and published in the most recent issue of the journal NACLA Report on the Americas. To read the full article click here.

Reggaeton Nation

by Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Raquel Z. Rivera

It was a stunning sight, circa 2003. Onstage at San Juan’s recently renovated Hiram Bithorn Stadium, five-time senator Velda González—former actress, grandmother of 11, and beloved public figure—was doing the unthinkable. Flanked by reggaeton stars Hector and Tito (aka the Bambinos), the senator, sporting tasteful makeup and a sweet, matronly smile, was lightly swinging her hips and tilting her head from side to side to a raucous reggaeton beat.

Only a year before, the same senator had led public hearings aimed at regulating reggaeton’s lyrics and the dance moves that accompany it, known as el perreo, or “doggy-style dance,” in which dancers grind against each other to the Jamaican-derived dembow rhythm that serves as reggaeton’s backbone. Using her reputation as a champion of women’s rights, González chastised reggaeton for its “dirty lyrics and videos full of erotic movements where girls dance virtually naked,” and for promoting perreo, which she called a “triggering factor of criminal acts.” Her efforts as reggaeton’s “horsewoman of the apocalypse” touched off such a media frenzy around perreo that Puerto Rican writer Ana Lydia Vega humorously noted the irony of transforming a mere dance into a national obsession. “To perrear or not to perrear,” Vega wrote with characteristic flair. “Finally we have an important dilemma to fill the huge emotional vacuum that we are left with, every four years, by electoral victories and plebiscitary failures.”

Originally dubbed “underground,” among other names, reggaeton is a stew of rap en español and reggae en español, cooked to perfection in the barrios and caseríos of Puerto Rico. Drawing on U.S. hip-hop and Jamaican reggae, Spanish-language rap and reggae developed parallel to each other throughout the 1980s in both Puerto Rico and Panama. Although it was initially produced by and for the island’s urban poor, by the mid-1990s, reggaeton’s explicit sexual lyrics and commentary on the violence of everyday life had caught the ears of a wary middle class that responded to the new sound with its own brand of hostility. “Many people tried to stop us,” recalled Daddy Yankee, reggaeton’s biggest star. “As a pioneer, I think I can talk about that, about how the government tried to stop us, about how people from other social extractions . . . looked down on young people from the barrios, underestimating and seeing us as outcasts.”

Running contrary to middle-class values, reggaeton has been attacked as immoral, as well as artistically deficient, a threat to the social order, apolitical, misogynist, a watered-down version of hip-hop and reggae, the death sentence of salsa, and a music foreign to Puerto Rico. In the exemplary words of the late poet Edwin Reyes, the genre is a “primitive form of musical expression” that transmits “the most elementary forms of emotion” through its “brutalizing and aggressive monotony.”

Faced with an unprecedented and seemingly uncontrollable crime wave, the state also paid close attention to reggaeton. Associated with Puerto Rico’s poorest and blackest citizens, and their presumed disposition toward indiscriminate sexual depravity and violence, reggaeton was targeted by the island government as a dangerous criminal. In 1995, the Vice Control Division of the Puerto Rican police, assisted by the National Guard, took the unprecedented action of confiscating tapes and CDs from music stores, maintaining that the music’s lyrics were obscene and promoted drug use and violence.9 The island’s Department of Education joined in and banned underground music and baggy clothes in an effort to remove the scourge of hip-hop culture from the schools.

But slowly throughout 2003, a campaign year, the body politic began to swing the other way. It became common to see politicians besides Senator González on the campaign trail stiffly dancing reggaeton to show off their hipness and appeal to younger voters. By early 2007, when no one complained after Mexican pop singer Paulina Rubio told the media that her reggaeton single was a tribute to Puerto Rico, since “it is clear that reggaeton belongs to you,” writer Juan Antonio Ramos declared the war against reggaeton officially over.

“Five or seven years ago, such a statement would have been interpreted not only as an unfortunate mistake, but as a monumental insult to the dignity of the Puerto Rican people,” Ramos wrote. “Reggaeton’s success has been such that it no longer has any enemies. . . . It would not be an exaggeration to say that condemning reggaeton has become a sacrilege. It's almost equivalent to being a bad Puerto Rican.”

Though Ramos is overstating the point that reggaeton has no enemies—as recently as August, a local TV personality promised to explore how reggaeton is “fueling the country’s current wave of criminality”—he calls attention to the genre’s trajectory from a feared and marginalized genre rising out of Puerto Rico’s poorest neighborhoods to the island’s primary musical export.11 How could such a dramatic change happen so quickly? How did reggaeton become the dominant sound of the “national” soundtrack? How did a Spanish-language musical phenomenon originating in a poor colonial possession of the United States make it so big that even its former enemies must now pretend to like it?

In a nutshell: commercial success—achieved, however, in the most unexpected of ways.

(To read the full article, click here.)

Nación reggaetón

(Esta fue mi columna de ayer miércoles 28 de noviembre publicada en El Diario / La Prensa)

Nación reggaetón

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2002: Velda González, entonces miembro del Senado, protagonizaba una campaña en los medios de comunicación y la legislatura para controlar la visibilidad del baile conocido como “perreo” y la música que lo acompañaba. En ese entonces, González fustigó al reggaetón por sus letras y videos violentos y sexualmente explícitos, y también por promover un baile que, según ella y muchos otros, constituía un factor que incitaba a la criminalidad.

2003, San Juan, Puerto Rico: Un reportero de Telemundo de Puerto Rico le informaba con cara de asombro a su teleaudiencia que estaban a punto de ver en vivo “nada más ni nada menos” que a Velda González bailando reggaetón en un tarima donde cantaban Los Bambinos. Las imágenes eran comidilla para los medios noticiosos ya que entonces aún no era común ni ver a una persona mayor, y menos todavía a un oficial del gobierno, bailando este género ante las cámaras. Pero todo cambió durante ese año de campañas políticas, cuando no sólo González sino muchísimos otros políticos se lanzaron a bailar reggaetón con entusiasmo, tiesas caderas, y la esperanza de cautivar las miradas y los votos de los más jóvenes.

2007, San Juan, Puerto Rico: El reconocido escritor puertorriqueño, Juan Antonio Ramos, declara (y no precisamente complacido) que de un género perseguido, el reggaetón se ha convertido en “el” género puertorriqueño de nuestros tiempos: “No sería exagerado decir que hablar mal del reguetón es casi un sacrilegio. Es casi ser un mal puertorriqueño.”

¿Cómo es posible que tanto haya cambiado en Puerto Rico en tan poco tiempo? ¿Y qué nos dicen estos cambios sobre la sociedad puertorriqueña de principios de Siglo XXI? ¿Cómo logró este fenómeno musical ser lo suficientemente exitoso para que sus antiguos enemigos sean ahora algunos de sus más prominentes lambeojos?

En un artículo titulado “Reggaeton Nation,” publicado en el más reciente número de la revista NACLA Report on the Americas, Frances Negrón-Muntaner y esta servidora intentamos esclarecer el asunto. Para aquellos interesados en ver el texto completo, haga click aquí.

Monday, November 26, 2007

La isla infinita y la cultura popular

(Este artículo fue publicado como mi columna del miércoles 21 de noviembre de 2007 en El Diario / La Prensa)

Usando el concepto de la isla infinita para pensar y re-pensar las similitudes, diferencias y posibilidades de las islas del Caribe, el Museo de Brooklyn tiene en exhibición hasta fines de enero una muestra de arte contemporáneo titulada Infinite Island. La exhibición incluye a artistas de diversos países, entre éstos, República Dominicana, Puerto Rico y Cuba.

El sábado 17 de noviembre tuve el placer de participar en una charla pública en el Museo junto a la profesora Sujatha Fernandes de Queens College y el artista puertorriqueño Miguel Luciano cuyo trabajo es parte de Infinite Island. Nos ubicaron a un extremo de la galería, justo al lado de la sección dedicada a la cultura popular, ya que esa tarde teníamos como encomienda hablar sobre las conexiones entre la música y la cultura popular en el Caribe. La conversación que se dio entre panelistas y público tocó importantes temas como: la relación de las islas hispanohablantes con el resto del Caribe, el rol de la industria musical en el desarrollo de la cultura popular, las identidades nacionales, la producción musical de las mujeres, y la cultura juvenil, entre muchos otros temas.

Las obras localizadas en esa sección de cultura popular se prestan para discutir variados temas, particularmente con niños y jóvenes. La serie Pure Plantainum de Miguel Luciano, por ejemplo, toca el tema del consumerismo y la estética blin-blinera del hip-hop y el reggaetón a través del símbolo cultural e histórico que es el plátano. Jorge Pineda explora la inocencia infantil y su opuesto en su serie de dibujos titulado Niñas locas. Por su parte, Quisqueya Henríquez contrapone estereotipos culturales y realidad en su serie Paraíso de la verdura.

Imagenes de la serie Paraíso de la verdura de Quisqueya Henríquez:

Imagen de la serie Pure Plantainum de Miguel Luciano:

Mientras recorría la galería, me fijé en una pareja que junto a sus niñas dibujaba plátanos frente a los plátanos platinados de Miguel Luciano. Mentalmente felicité a estos padres por proveerle a sus niñas esa tremenda oportunidad creativa y educativa. Miré a mi alrededor y vi escenas parecidas que se repetían a través de la galería. Y me alegré mucho.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Youth, sex and sexism

Many parents, educators, legislators and academics—among many others—worry over the influence that popular music has on youth sexual activity.

A New York Times article earlier this month addressed the issue by citing the most recent academic research undertaken by public health experts. Though only hip-hop is referenced, the issues that it touches on apply just as much to reggaeton.

Dr. Miguel A. Muñoz-Laboy, assistant professor in the department of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, spent three years conducting research in the hip-hop club scene, observing youth in dance action and interviewing dozens of them. The study, published this month in the journal Culture, Health and Sexuality, concluded that the main factors that have bearing on youth sexual activity are peer pressure and drug and alcohol use, not the sexual explicitness of lyrics and dancemoves.

The journal Pediatrics had already published last year research findings suggesting that hip-hop’s sexually explicit lyrics are not the main factor influencing young people’s decisions to be sexually active. The key, according to the study, are “degrading lyrics,” not sexually explicit lyrics. (The researchers defined “degrading lyrics” as “those that portrayed women as sexual objects, men as insatiable and sex as inconsequential.”)

I'm particularly interested in thinking through that distinction between “sexual explicitness” and “sexism.”

I celebrate the efforts of researchers who are trying to address these issues by taking into account their complexity. I appreciate their attempt not to go to the extreme of censoring or mindlessly celebrating. I think it’s worth our while to go case-by-case, song-by-song, artist-by-artist, thinking through these issues and taking the opportunity to talk to the young people in our lives about them.

Hip-hop and reggaeton provide a great communication opportunity between adults and young folks. I worry that so many adults make the same error as our parents by simply sentencing: “it’s all the same crap.” Case closed.

If we keep doing that, we keep closing off the path toward dialogue and possibilities for change.

What you’ve read above was my column in El Diario / La Prensa last Wednesday. In response, a reader wrote in the paper’s web version: “Hahahaha!, of course that music is crap. And case closed! Just because you made all your limited ‘career’ as a sociologist based on that trash called reggaeton you think us parents have to analyze one by one all the aspects of that music? Be honest, reggaeton and hip-hop only produce delinquents and people who are resentful. Trash-music for young folks that later will be trash-adults.”

My answer: I’m not saying everybody has to like the music. I’m just saying that, for the sake of connecting with young folks, it’s worth learning and talking about it—and making at least an effort to understand and respect their musical taste. Not all artists are the same. Not all fans are the same.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Juventud, sexo y sexismo

Haga click aquí para acceder a mi columna del pasado miércoles 14 de noviembre de 2007 en El Diario / La Prensa titulada "Juventud, sexo y sexismo."

Friday, November 09, 2007

La 'música urbana' y el Grammy Latino

Post editado 4/28/17: Como El Diario / La Prensa quitó su link, abajo pongo el artículo completo.

Post original 11/9/2007: Aquí mi columna del miércoles pasado en El Diario / La Prensa.

Hoy ya es viernes y confirmado está que en el Grammy Latino de nuevo no les fue bien a los reggaetoneros "tradicionales."

Columna semanal: Reggaetónica

Bio line: Raquel Z. Rivera, Ph.D., es investigadora en el Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College.

La “música urbana” y el Grammy Latino

“Música urbana.” Jummm… Interesante etiqueta.

Para empezar, es un término fascinante porque (técnicamente) igual de “urbanos” son otros géneros como la salsa y la plena. Pero estos últimos, según la jerga de la industria musical, son géneros “tropicales” y no “urbanos.”

Por su parte, “música urbana” es la categoría donde se agrupan géneros particularmente populares entre la juventud como el hip-hop, el reggaetón y el R&B (y sus múltiples variaciones). En la música urbana se encasilla también la cumbia fusionada de los Kumbia Kings y los Kumbia All Starz, así como la bachata fusionada de Aventura y Toby Love. En resumidas cuentas, dentro del saco de la “música urbana” co-existen estilos musicales bastante dispares—estilos que hasta compiten fieramente unos con otros, como es el caso del hip-hop y el reggaetón.

Cierto es que las fronteras entre el hip-hop y el reggaetón son difusas (particularmente porque el reggaetón toma mucho del hip-hop, aunque no viceversa). Sin embargo, son muchos los fanáticos y artistas de hip-hop (en español y en inglés) que han por años resentido la supremacía comercial del reggaetón.

Lo irónico es que fue precisamente la ebullición internacional del reggaetón en el 2004 lo que le abrió las puertas a otros géneros “urbanos” latinos que antes pasaban desapercibidos en la industria musical. Más irónico todavía me parece que aunque fueron los reggaetoneros “tradicionales” como Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, y Wisín y Yandel los que pusieron a la música urbana latina en el mapa de la industria musical, el año pasado fueron los nada-“tradicionales” Calle 13 los que arrasaron con los Grammys Latinos.

Mañana jueves nos enteraremos de los ganadores de este año. Pero las nominaciones me hacen sospechar que el Latin Recording Academy le está mandando una clara señal a los reggaetoneros de que ya no son los querendones de la categoría urbana.

En la esquina hip-hopera y ecléctica: La Mala, Orishas, Calle 13, y Tres Coronas con Michael Stuart. En la esquina reggaetonera: Daddy Yankee, Ivy Queen, Don Omar, Wisín y Yandel.

No se ustedes, pero yo la veo difícil para estos últimos.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Reggaeton in the Time of Zune

(Click aquí for the Spanish version in El Diario / La Prensa.)

Wisin and Yandel—the self-proclaimed “Duo of History”—for real made history in 2006 when they became the first artists to get four of their songs into Billboard’s top ten in the Hot Latin Songs chart.

This month they again made history, according to Machete Music President, Gustavo Lopez, as the first reggaeton artists to simultaneously be at the top of three Billboard charts less than a month after a song’s release—in this case, “Sexy Movimiento.” Last week, this first single from their newest album was #1 in the Rhythm Airplay chart, #2 in the Tropical charts and #3 in the Latin Pop charts.

Wisin and Yandel also made history this week when Microsoft made them the first artists to collaborate with the corporation in the design and marketing of a Zune digital media player.

The customized Wisin and Yandel Zune is pre-loaded with their new album and exclusive music, videos and photos. This limited edition Zune is yet another corporate effort to captivate the Latino music market and, particularly, the youth sector that represents a huge portion of digital and mobile music sales. It’s of great significance that among so many musical genres in the English and Spanish markets and so many artists to choose from, Microsoft opted to market the Zune via Latinos via reggaeton via Wisin and Yandel. (Hhhhhmmm... And yet some folks still insist that reggaeton, as a commercial product, is dead.)

I imagine Wisin and Yandel are happier than a dog with two tails since their new album is dropping next week, when they will also find out if they won that Latin Grammy they’re nominated for.

Oh, and last week their new music video for “Sexy Movimiento” premiered—a Jessy Terrero production I’ll sum up as plenty more of the visual, musical and lyrical formulas reggaeton has accustomed us to. In other words: fancy house meets bling meets fancy cars meets helicopter and adrenaline-inducing scenes and fantasies of power and bikinied women—one of them with a Zune in hand. It’s probably thanks to those same formulas that reggaeton still resists its prematurely announced death.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Latinos vs. Blacks, Fruit vs. Oranges

(Click aquí para la versión en español en El Diario / La Prensa de hoy.)

Latinos are to blacks, as fruit are to oranges. Let me explain.

The deceptively simple but compelling analogy is the product of the agile intellect of novelist Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, named by Time magazine as one of the “25 most influential Hispanics in America.”

(Above: Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez)

A week ago, the author wrote to regarding her frustration with the harsh criticism showered upon film producer Debra Martin Chase for working on a project with Valdes-Rodriguez.

(Above: Deborah Martin Chase)

A bit of background: is a website dedicated to “black entertainment”. Martin Chase is an award-winning African American producer who has worked on popular movies such as The Princess Diaries and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The collaboration between Chase and Valdes-Rodriguez is focused on the film adaptation of Valdes-Rodriguez’s best-selling novel The Dirty Girls Social Club.

Valdes-Rodriguez was dismayed at all the criticism directed toward Chase from African Americans who “seem to think she ought to stick to telling only those stories they believe are ‘theirs’." The novelist explains why she is so disturbed by the arguments being made against Chase: “The hostility against Latinos among some blacks who assume Latinos have nothing in common with them is startling, but not altogether surprising, given the way the U.S. media neglects to mention our shared African roots, with nonsensical headlines like ‘Hispanics Outnumber Blacks,’ which is as absurd as ‘Fruit Outnumbers Oranges’.”

I love the ingenious and succinct way in which Valdes-Rodriguez reminds readers that most African descendants in the Americas do not live in the United States and that a huge number of Latinos are black or have African ancestry. The strict separation that many imagine exists between both groups is pure myth, lack of information and even self-denial. (Emphasis on self-denial. A lot of African American misinformation about Latinos stems from Latinos ourselves who refuse to engage honestly with our blackness.)

I’m so glad we have a high-profile writer like Valdes-Rodriguez shedding some light on the subject and giving more of a mainstream voice to what for years have been saying other writers, musicians, educators and activists. Props on the clarity and the wit. And thanks to Black Artemis for forwarding the link.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

From the Roots Up: Thoughts on Boricua Music and Reggaeton

(Clickea aquí para la versión en español en El Diario / La Prensa.)

Reggaeton is a mix of rap, reggae and parranda, among other things. Something to that effect said one of the characters in the J-Lo co-produced movie Feel the Noise (starring Omarion) that opened last week.

I sat there, stunned: “Parranda? Huh? What the hell do they mean?”

“Parranda” is not a musical genre. People in Puerto Rico sometimes talk about “parranda music” to refer to the aguinaldos and plenas that folks associate with Boricua-style Christmas. But reggaeton draws next to nothing from aguinaldos and plenas: just a little hook here and there.

The truth is, thanks to Tego, Abrante and La Sista, reggaeton draws a lot more from bomba than from those other genres of Boricua roots music like plena and aguinaldo. In fact, reggaeton has more bachata, merengue, salsa and cumbia, than bomba, plena or aguinaldo.

So why does the movie identify “parranda” as one of the main musical sources of reggaeton?

I think it’s a bit of misinformation mixed with another bit of good intentions.

It’s very common that Boricuas stuff our proud mouths talking about “real” Puerto Rican music like bomba, plena and música jíbara (seises, aguinaldos, etc.) but we have no idea what those genres actually sound like, or even what they’re called. We often talk about “bombayplena,” like its all one genre (which makes as much sense as always talking about “salsaybachata” like they’re always the same thing).

This lack of knowledge about our roots music is not specific to Boricuas. Dominicans do the same. Plenty of other folks do the same.

But we don’t have to.

I propose we educate ourselves a bit. If we’re going to be waving the flag of national pride and (in the case of Puerto Ricans) arguing that reggaeton is a Boricua genre... the least we can do is treat Boricua roots music with enthusiasm and respect NOT just pay it lip service.

Just last Monday, I was at the press event for the concert and workshop series led by world-renowned Puerto Rican musician, composer and arranger William Cepeda.

The project, titled Puerto Rican Music Roots & Beyond, is dedicated to celebrating Puerto Rican roots music and its contemporary re-interpretations. The first concert focuses on jíbaro music and will take place at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture in The Bronx on October 25, 2007. For more information visit

If anyone wants to get a taste before October 25th, I suggest you check out Tato Torres & Yerbabuena, one of the best-known and delicious-to-dance-to Boricua roots music bands in New York—made up of plenty of talented, funky, beautiful young folks, to boot.

Tato will be one of the singers of Cepeda’s Afro-Rican Jazz band that will headline the Hostos concert on October 25th, along with guests from Puerto Rico Grupo Mapeyé and Victoria Sanabria. I’m hoping we all give this musical project the support it deserves.

Oh, and, if anyone has access to the writers and producers of Feel the Noise, please tell them to check it out too.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hip-hop vs. Reggaeton: Feel the Noise

(For Spanish: Haga click aquí para acceder a la versión en español de este post en mi columna de hoy de El Diario / La Prensa)

Hip-hop is not reggaetón. And the other way around.

That seems to be one of the main points of the J-Lo co-produced movie Feel the Noise that opened last Friday, starring Omarion.

The story: a Harlem rapper gets in trouble with a local thug and his mom sends him to live in Puerto Rico with the father he never met before; there he falls in love with a cute dancer and with reggaeton.

The critics have not been enthused with the film, but moviegoers seem to have reacted a bit better, judging by the fact that it made it to #8 in the list of box office hits this weekend.

According to the New York Times, the plot is weak (I agree), but one of its pluses is that it promotes “minority kinship.” The New York Daily News says something similar: “[...]it rejects the lazy standard of onscreen enmity between black and Latin characters, instead promoting a sharing of cultures and styles. While this could be a cynical attempt to draw two segments of the audience, everyone involved genuinely seems to believe in the movie's message. Of course, none of that would matter without the music, which is packed in from end to end. Some viewers will go for Omarion; others for Voltio. Either way, they'll wind up staying for both.”

So how does this theme of “minority kinship” get manifested in the story?

Rob, the protagonist, was raised in Harlem by his African American mother, completely disconnected from his Puerto Rican father, from Spanish and from Puerto Rico. Javi, his stepbrother, is the child of Puerto Ricans, raised in Puerto Rico and has never visited New York. While Rob loves hip-hop, Javi feels the same for reggaeton (which Javi describes as a mix of rap, reggae and “parranda”. huh? parranda?)

The song that Rob and Javi do together is the symbol of the kinship between hip-hop and reggaeton, and between African Americans and Puerto Ricans.

Looking beyond the story and into the actors chosen, casting Omarion as the “half-Boricua” Rob and Malik Yoba as the bichote in Javi’s neighborhood reinforces the “minority kinship” idea, making the lovely (and necessary) point that African Americans and Puerto Ricans are often much closer (in terms of looks, in this case) than we admit.

On a few occasions, the characters explain that reggaeton is partially derived from hip-hop, but stress that they are different music genres.

The above is exactly the same thing that Latino hip-hop artists who don’t do reggaeton have been saying for years.

But rather than carving out a space for Latino hip-hop artists, this movie just perpetuates the notion that hip-hop is not a Latino space.

I appreciate that the movie highlights the kinship between African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Excellent point. But I’m not feeling the invisibility of the over three-decade history of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos doing hip-hop and not just reggaeton.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Los 6 de Jena

Haga click aquí para mi columna de hoy, 3 de octubre de 2007, en El Diario / La Prensa dedicada al caso de los jovencitos de Louisiana conocidos como "Los 6 de Jena" (The Jena 6).

Este es un caso que el Southern Poverty Law Center describe como "un caso que ejemplifica claramente cómo los acusados negros en este país son tratados de manera mucho más severa que los acusados blancos."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Sweat the Fat / Suda el jamón

I saw this video without knowing what it was at first and got a big kick out of it. The kick was not quite as big once I realized it was part of a Nike campaign.

Click here for a short article in Spanish about it.

Fight consumerism with consumerism. Horay?!

At least Nike's proposal involves excercise, endorphins and (hopefully) fresh air.

Here's a taste of the lyrics...

"Lo que prometieron,
fue por mejores de liposucciones
y también otros peores
De tanto jamones, con bisturís, cicatrices, moretones y dolores
Yo no me quiero emplasticar
No quiero el culo de otra, quiero el mío tal cual
un cuchillo, lejos de mi ombligo
ahora que yo te lo digo
ya verás que no puedes conmigo
Suda el jamón
Suda el jamón que así te pones bombón."

What they promised
was liposuctions
for so many hams
with scalpels, scars, black & blues and pain
I don't want to get all plastic
I don't want someone else's ass
I want the one I have
a knife, get it away from my bellybutton
now that I'm telling you
you'll see you can't get over on me
Sweat the fat
Sweat the fat

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Till the Break of Dawn: Hip-Hop Theater Takes Us from Brooklyn to Havana

It’s not often that we get to listen to the voices of the artists, activists and young professionals that represent the idealism, thirst for social justice and contradictions of the hip-hop generations. TV, radio, magazines and newspapers are usually saturated by hip-hop’s most predictable and cliché products. That is why I enthusiastically recommend folks go see the play Till the Break of Dawn, written and directed by two time Obie award winner Danny Hoch.

The action takes place over the course of Summer 2001 and focuses on a group of young New Yorkers that travel to Cuba to participate in Havana’s hip-hop festival. Most of them are Latinos, the organizer Gibran (Jaymes Jorsling) is African American and the man in charge of financing the trip is Adam (Matthew-Lee Erlbach), the Jewish owner of a small record label that promotes politically engaged rappers. Their diverse ethnicities, races, educational backgrounds and political stances provide great opportunities for the playwright to explore some of the complexity of young urban voices.

(Image by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

The rest of the traveling crew includes foul-mouthed and ill-tempered Big Miff (Dominic Colón) and schoolteachers Rebeca (Maribel Lizardo) and Robert (Johnny Sánchez), a couple that is constantly at each other’s throats and fighting over matters ranging from the most trivial to the profoundly philosophical. Then there’s Nancy (pattydukes) a Dominican art curator and her boyfriend Hector (Flaco Navaja), a Boricua web designer who is equally passionate about revolutionary ideals and smoking weed.

Once in Cuba, the group meets characters that challenge their political naivete and fiery arrogance, schooling them about the constantly shifting terrain between idealism and reality. Among the characters they meet in Cuba are Dana (Gwendolen Hardwick), an ex-Black Panther and U.S. political exile who lives in Cuba, and Felito (Luis Vega) a young Cuban who is perpetually quoting U.S.-made commercials and rap lyrics.

This play is charged as much with humor as with political and social commentary. It provides enjoyment and insights for spectators coming from any angle. But I will put on my educator’s hat now and stress that the play is, in particular, a must-see for young hip-hop fans, their parents and teachers. It provides a rare opportunity at entertainment as well as tons of food for thought, written in a language and style that will appeal to young folks because it will strike them as their own.

The play opened September 13 and will run until October 21 at the Abrons Arts Center (212-352-3101) in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 466 Grand Street (corner of Pitt Street).

Teatro Hip-Hop: Till the Break of Dawn

Haga click aquí para mi columna de El Diario / La Prensa de hoy, miércoles 26 de septiembre.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Who said ‘bitch’?

According to Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, if a white man calls a black woman a “bitch” it’s worse than if a black man insulted the same woman using the same word.

A brief recount of some of the coach’s court statements last Monday:

Thomas said he never called ex-Knicks vice president of marketing Anucha Browne Sanders a “bitch”.

He also said it is not right for any man to call a woman a bitch. But, for him, “bitch” directed at Sanders by a white man like former Knicks executive Frank Murphy would be much worse than the same insult from the mouth of a black man like basketball star Stephon Marbury.

On Tuesday, the New York Daily News criticized Thomas’ “double standard”.

Initially, as I read the article, it seemed to me that Thomas was being a coward by trying to deflect the accusations against himself and Marbury and, to top it off, using the loaded language of racial community and solidarity. I had just been reading Mark Anthony Neal’s excellent book New Black Man the day before and Thomas seemed to be making the classic “race trumps gender” argument that Neal criticizes.

But when I started reading the comments to the Daily News article posted on the Internet, I was puzzled that quite a few readers were accusing Thomas of having said that a black man has the right to insult a black woman, but not a white man. Something similar was erroneously reported on CNN and the New York Post.

That was NOT what Thomas said!

What exactly did the coach say? I found a partial transcription in Newsday and, though his statements are still highly questionable, they are not as scandalous as many are making them seem. Thomas did not pull the race factor out of a hat, but brought it up when he was asked about Murphy insulting Sanders. He brought it up to emphasize that he would not have tolerated such insults from Marbury OR Murphy… but especially from Murphy. Sure, that may be Thomas' manipulative tactic of eliciting sympathy toward himself for being a respectable black man who cares in particular about “his” people.

But if we’re going to criticize Thomas, let it be for what he said, not for what we misunderstood he said.

It seems to me that many media outlets and readers are much too eager to have examples to say: “See... black people are obsessed with race! Black people are even more racist than white people!”

Huh? Race IS still a big factor in this country… and definitely not because black people are imagining it. Is it really that shocking that, in a racist society, a black man would admit to having a more emotional response to insults directed against one of “his”—particularly when “his” is the group at the bottom of the racial hierarchy?

I’m not defending Thomas’ statements. More than anything, his words seem like the perfect example of what Mark Anthony Neal describes as African American men failing to own up to their privilege as males.

All I’m saying is lets stick to what he actually said.

Also, lets keep in mind these ridiculous scandals about who called who a “bitch” next time someone wants to attack rappers and reggaetoneros, as if they were the ones who came up with these dogly insults against women.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

¿Quién dijo 'perra'?

Haga click aquí para mi columna de hoy, 19 de septiembre de 2007, en El Diario / La Prensa. La columna se titula "¿Quién dijo 'perra'?" y consiste de mis reflexiones sobre las declaraciones del lunes del entrenador de los Knicks, Isiah Thomas, en el caso en corte donde la ex-ejecutiva de la NBA, Anucha Browne Sanders, lo ha demandado por acoso sexual.

Reggaetón en 'Nuestra América'

Haga click aquí para mi columna de El Diario / La Prensa del 12 de septiembre de 2007, titulada "Reggaetón en 'Nuestra América'".

Monday, September 10, 2007

Illegal Tender: Hispanixploitation?

(Haga click aquí para la versión en español, publicada en El Diario / La Prensa.)

In a short film review, the New York Times says Illegal Tender (released August 24) is the typical urban action movie, but with a new twist the paper dubs “Hispanixploitation.” The term is, of course, indebted to the “blaxploitation” films that first became popular in the 1970s and that have specialized in sensationalizing the African American “underworld.”

According to the Times, the same traffic in stereotypes (but with a Latino twist) is now available through this movie written and directed by Franc. Reyes, produced by John Singleton, and starring Wanda de Jesús, Manny Pérez and Tego Calderón. Now “Latinoness” is the lucrative seasoning for the crime and sex fantasies that have historically fueled much of the film industry.

Not that the formula is new. Scarface (1983) is definitely the most prominent example, but there are many others. What makes Illegal Tender different is that it was made with ample resource$, written and directed by a Puerto Rican, with Latino characters and actors, and uses as a commercial hook the growing global success of Latino urban music and culture. Neither is it common that in this movie the action goes way beyond ghetto borders and its protagonists move just as easily in university circles and in moneyed Connecticut suburbs. (A welcome change, according to me.)

Illegal Tender did not debut as a box office hit and it has not received great acclaim among critics. says the acting is weak and the plot is ridiculous; the Times describes the dialogues as “telenovela style.” (I have to agree on all counts.) So it remains to be seen if other directors, producers and film studios will follow this approach that at the same time shatters and perpetuates stereotypes. I’ll be happy if next time someone comes up with an equally Hispanixploitative film it at least has good plot, acting and dialogue.

And Tego? Tego did a good job. I say bring him back on.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Reggaeton and censorship, Dominican Republic

(Si prefieres leer en español, ve a mi columna de hoy, 29 de agosto, en El Diario / La Prensa titulada "La censura en calzoncillos" haciendo click aquí.)

There's a saying in Spanish about hypocritical folks preaching morality in their underwear. Well, here we have them at it once again.

For the last week, Spanish-language headlines have been reporting on the newest attempts to censor reggaeton in the Dominican Republic. (See El País, El Diario, Hoy.)

My reaction has been: O.k. here we go with the same sterile debate. Again.

The dissemination of reggaeton songs that "promote the consumption and traffic of drugs" has been described as "criminal actions" by none other than the president of the National Department of Drug Control (Dirección Nacional de Control de Drogas), Rafael Radhamés Ramírez Ferreira, and the Attorney General, Radhamés Jiménez Peña. Both have made it clear that their intent is NOT to prohibit reggaeton as a whole, but just certain songs.

And how do they propose to "control," "regulate," or identify these certain songs? The officials have said they still don't have the answer and are studying the facts to then determine how to proceed. Meanwhile, they ask radio stations and even artists to collaborate with them by not promoting music that is "harmful" to young people.

Newspaper El País reported that Jiménez Peña described the “rhythm of Puerto Rican origin” as “‘propaganda’ turned music that threatens the buenas costumbres and morality of Dominicans.”

What a flashback! That was exactly what was heard so many times in Puerto Rico around 1995. Back then, the genre known as "underground" was accused of being a foreign genre, based on U.S. rap and Jamaican reggae, that was corrupting the Island's youth and musical traditions.

A decade later, underground's baby boy, now known as reggaeton, is described by many as native to Puerto Rico and is accused of corrupting Dominicans.

It's always someone else's fault. Right? Adults blame youth. Dominicans blame Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans blame the U.S. and Jamaican ghettoes where rap and reggae where born.

Folks: If young people live gangster realities and/or purchase gangster fantasies... we are all at fault—particularly those hypocritical, corrupt, gangsterish governments that love to preach morality (and censorship) in their underwear.

Reggaetón y censura en República Dominicana

Vienen diciendo los titulares desde la semana pasada: ¡Quieren censurar al reggaetón en República Dominicana! Mi reacción—al igual que la de muchos otros—ha sido: O.k., aquí vamos con el mismo debate estéril. De nuevo.

Para leer el resto de mi columna de hoy, 29 de agosto, en El Diario / La Prensa titulada "La censura en calzoncillos" haz click aquí.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Rapeando contra la brutalidad policiaca

La canción más reciente que escuché sobre el tema (y proveniente de Puerto Rico) es de Siloé Andino (autor del excelente "Lamento del graffitero" inspirada en el clásico "Lamento borincano" de Rafael Hernández). Esta nueva canción se titula "¿Quién?" y está disponible para bajarla gratis de su página de myspace. Me gusta mucho lo sencillo, cotidiano y a la vez impactante de cómo Siloé construye sus versos. Eso de hablarle directamente al difunto Miguel Cáceres le rompe el corazón a uno.

Quién te vela, quién te cuida
Quién protege, quién te guía
Quién bendice tu entrada, quién bendice tu salida
Quién gobierna tu existencia
Quién socorre a tu familia
Dime quién

Caminar por la calle no es seguro en estos días
Si no es un criminal, te dispara un policía
Si no corres con la suerte de grabarlo en un video
Creo que lamentablemente, tu caso es uno feo
Si te toca algún cobarde de esos que matan sin pena
Será cosa de minutos en lo que se cuadra la escena
La historia se repite como dice Rafa Bracero
Y las imágenes terribles recorren al mundo entero
A las once de la noche cuando empieza el noticiero
Dirán todos que el occiso fue quien disparó primero


Haga click aquí para acceder a mi columna del pasado miércoles 22 de agosto en El Diario / La Prensa.

La columna está basada en mis últimos dos blogs en inglés e inspirada por las intervenciones musicales en contra de la brutalidad y la corrupción policiaca de Welmo,
Julio Voltio

y Calle 13.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Voltio, Calle 13: New songs on police brutality in PR

Download Julio Voltio's "En lo claro" by clicking here.

An excerpt:

Por ser rapero me catalogan como tecato
Maleante, narcotraficante
Marihuanero, pistolero
Delicuente habitual, criminal arrogante
Pero pa'lante
Por lo más finito es que se parte la soga
Déjame decirte que ya yo pasé la etapa
De las pistolitas, de las gangas
De la loquera y las drogas[...]
Oye Toledo
Brega sin miedo
¿Tú quieres limpiar la calle?
Limpia tu casa primero

Listen to Calle 13's "Tributo a la policía" by clicking here.

An excerpt:

A ti te dedico to' lo que dice mi libreta
A ti mismo, al que mató a mi hermano Christopher, puñeta
El mismo que le partió las muñecas
El mismo que allá adentro va a tener que cuadrar con los Ñeta
También mataron a Arnaldo Darío y a Santiago Mari Pesquera
Carlos Enrique, por estar agarraos a una misma bandera[...]
Pero esto no se trata de hacerle daño a un ser humano
Ni de cómo te gustaría verle la boca llena de gusanos
Se trata de que hay que estar sicológicamente mal de la mente
Pa' matar gente sin razón como en el Medio Oriente
Con los fóquin gringos

Click here for today's Primera Hora article on Calle 13 & collaborators distributing the song yesterday at a traffic light near the General Police headquarters in Hato Rey.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Police Brutality in PR: RIP Miguel Cáceres

I've been a bit disconnected from the news. I've been in Miami and concentrating on family time.

Then I got a myspace bulletin with MC Welmo's song "No!!!" (Click here to listen.) It's an angry commentary on the racist and classist nature of police brutality in Puerto Rico. It mentioned incidents I had heard of in the last few months: Villa Cañona in Loíza and San José in Rio Piedras. But Welmo, in this song, was ranting about a recent murder: a man with the last name Cáceres who had been shot while unnarmed and face-down on the floor.

"No!!!" by Welmo:

Se soltaron las bestias en uniforme
Corre por tu vida pa que el cuerpo no te deformen
Bajan las macanas sobre pieles negras
Marrón la sangre que inunda la tierra
Vienen con los ojos demoniacos, armadura y chalecos
Y su cura romper bocas y huesos
Dígame Toledo quién fue el que dió la orden
Dime porqué empujan cuando estoy al borde del precipicio
A Cáceres lo ejecutaron en el piso y por la espalda

[The beasts in uniform are on the loose
Run for your life so they won't maim your body
Billy clubs come down on black skin
Brown is the blood that floods the earth
They come with demon eyes, armor and vests
And their aim is to break mouths and bones
Tell me, Toledo, who gave the order
Tell me why they push when I'm standing
On the border of the precipice
Cáceres was executed on the floor and from the back]

I didn't even get to hear verse 2 and I was googling "Cáceres" and "police brutality." Below is the enraging homevideo that aired on TV of Miguel Cáceres' murder last Saturday in Humacao, Puerto Rico.

More on Cáceres' murder in El Nuevo Día and BBC News.

Today, Wednesday August 15th, there will be a protest at 5p.m. in front of the Police General Headquarters in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico.

R.I.P. Miguel Cáceres. And much strength to his community and his family.

Props to Welmo on a quick artistic response that serves to educate and collectively vent the intense anger and pain this murder has generated.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Puerto Rico: More Than Reggaeton?

(If you would rather read in Spanish, haz click aquí para leer la versión de este blog que se publicó como mi columna de hoy 15 de agosto de 2007 en el periódico nuyorquino El Diario / La Prensa.)

A few days ago, an Associated Press article came out with the subtitle “Puerto Rico es mucho más que reggaetón” (Puerto Rico is much more than reggaeton).

"Puerto Rico is a country in great need of new things and it’s very important that new artists come out and demonstrate they do something that is not reggaeton,” said Kany García, a twenty-five year old Puerto Rican pop singer-songwriter who is currently promoting her debut album with Sony-BMG.

Kany García’s comment reminded me of an article by the renowned Puerto Rican writer Juan Antonio Ramos, published a few months ago in the island newspaper El Nuevo Día.

In the article, titled "Puerto Rico: ¿reguetón?", Ramos responds to comments made by a “blond Mexican singer” who he never mentions by name. The singer in question explained during an interview aired on Puerto Rican TV that her decision to include a reggaeton song in her latest album was an homage to Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. “It is very clear that reggaeton belongs to you Puerto Ricans. It was born here. To say reggaeton is to say Puerto Rico,” said the singer (in Spanish, of course).

Juan Antonio Ramos begins his analysis of the singer’s comments by marveling at how much the perception and reception of reggaeton has changed: “Five or seven years ago, such a statement would have been interpreted not only as an unfortunate mistake, but as a monumental insult to the dignity of the Puerto Rican people.”

“Reggaeton’s success has been such that it no longer has any enemies,” writes Ramos, clearly annoyed by what he perceives as a generalized unwillingness to challenge reggaeton publicly anymore. “It would not be exaggerated to say that to condemn reggaeton has become a sacrilege. It’s almost equivalent to being a bad Puerto Rican,” Ramos adds.

Kany García’s and Juan Antonio Ramos’ observations have left me wondering about the whys and hows of reggaeton’s speedy trajectory from the margins and toward the center. Previously persecuted and severely marginalized, reggaeton is currently enthroned in the commercial Boricua music scene as the hen that lays the golden eggs.

It is fascinating that a genre whose primary musical lineage arrived to Puerto Rico not long ago from Jamaica, Panama and the United States (and is still tied to musical innovations in these places), is today seen by many as unquestionably “belonging to Puerto Ricans,” “born in Puerto Rico” and synonymous with the “Puerto Rican nation.” And I’m extremely intrigued that while critics like Kany García and Juan Antonio Ramos perceive reggaeton as a force that has monopolized the Puerto Rican music scene, many reggaetoneros claim that they are still marginalized (socially and musically) in the Island.

So which is it? Is reggaeton still the victim of marginalization in Puerto Rico? Or is reggaeton the “dominant culture” and music of modern day Puerto Rico that is now marginalizing other cultural expressions?

My gut tells me both are true at the same time. But my thoughts are still half-baked and need a lot of work. More soon.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Socaton: post-reggaeton?

(For those who prefer to read in Spanish: Haga click aquí para acceder directamente a la página de El Diario / La Prensa con la versión en español publicada como mi columna de hoy, 8 de agosto de 2007.)

Casa de Leones' “No te veo” has been one of the summer's reggaeton hits. Initially a Jowell and Randy song, the new version features Jowell, Randy, Guelo Star, Maximan and J-King. Last time I checked, it had made it to #1 on the Billboard Latin Rhythm Charts and to #4 in the Latin Charts. The album debuted at #3 in the U.S. National Sales Charts.

I first heard it on MUN2. I liked its playful visual aesthetics and, especially, the ocean view from above the Old San Juan stone wall (where I've witnessed so many sundowns). I was intrigued that the song, produced by DJ Blass, didn't have the usual dembow percussive pattern that has given reggaeton one of its most distinctive qualities. I was even more intrigued that one of the singers at one point raps: “Ma, no te vas/ baila la soca.” (Ma, you're not leaving/ dance that soca.") I wondered: Why the mention of that other Caribbean genre that is soca? Is it just that it rhymes easily with "tu boca y mi boca" or is it an explicit statement about the song attempting to go beyond the usual reggaeton frontiers?

In search of a better informed ear than mine, I asked DJ and ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall. He responded via his blog: "Although 'No Te Veo' will no doubt be heard as reggaeton by most listeners (and promoted as such by Los Leones), the underlying track differs from most reggaeton productions in some significant ways. For one, it’s much faster: whereas typical reggaeton tracks tend to hover around 90-100 beats per minute, 'No Te Veo' clocks in at around 120 bpm, which makes it sound and feel closer to house, techno, soca, and other club/dance music (especially with the thumping kick drum on every beat). The other significant departure is the role of the snare drum. Rather than tracing out the standard 'dembow' pattern (boom-ch-boom-chick), the snare drum here plays something closer to a 3:2 clave, emphasizing the upbeats in the second half of the measure rather than repeating that classic Caribbean polyrhythm that reggaeton shares with dancehall and many other regional dance styles."

Wayne posted the above and other thoughts regarding the song in his blog and got fascinating feedback from his readers. I'm particularly intrigued by the sonic connections they've been drawing to continental African pop and its circulation and re-circulation in the African diaspora in the Americas.

So the bottom line is that "No te veo" is not the typical reggaeton. But, as Wayne explained to me, neither is it the typical soca either. And it remains to be seen if other artists will end up patterning their music after this song.

Should we be calling this song "reggaeton" considering it breaks with some of the most basic musical conventions that have become associated with the genre? In a previous post titled "(post-)reggaeton," Wayne expressed hesitance to call anything post-reggaeton. I agree. Considering the shifting trends and "omnivorous" (great adjective, Wayne) qualities of reggaeton, it seems best (particularly for music and cultural critics) to avoid imposing definitions on the genre.

If the core artists and audiences say this is reggaeton, then I'm not about to say otherwise. On this, it's better to just listen and dance.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Looking for La Hill

Some weeks ago, I had the fortune of meeting Natasha Alford, a Harvard senior writing her thesis about reggaeton and women artists. She brought to my attention a reggaetonera I hadn’t heard of before—La Hill—who put out an album titled Boricua de Cora in 2004. I’m very intrigued by La Hill but haven’t been successful in getting substantial information on her through the Internet. Neither has Natasha. Does anyone have any leads?

La Hill’s forte might not be a masterful flow or an intricate wordplay... but she’s coming at this from an aggressive social commentary angle (at least in the song below, “Paso a paso”... I heard snippets of the other songs on ITunes and “Paso a paso” seems not to be the rule). All of that makes me wonder even more about her, how she got to record a reggaeton album, and what’s up with her nowadays.

y al sexo masculino que se guillan de machitos
abusando, oye, del sexo femenino
dándole a mujeres como una pandereta
por eso Lorena Bobbitt te picó la maceta
y a los cuellos rojos que son unos racistas
obligando a sus hijos que se casen con blanquitas
materialistas con mentes homicidas
si fuera por ellos nos quemarían todas vivas
pa’ los machistas con un grado de egoísta
que en las producciones no quiere que canten damitas
oye mijo, mira, avanza apúntame en la lista
mejor que tú me sale el style y la rima
no es que yo me guille de tremenda raperita
pero hablo la verdad y eso a ti te pica

—rough translation—

and for the men abusing women
beating ladies like panderetas [tambourines]
that’s why Lorena Bobbitt cut off your dick
and for those racist rednecks
forcing their sons to marry whitegirls
materialists with homicidal minds
if it was up to them, they’d burn us all alive
and for the machos with a degree in egoism
who don’t want women to sing in albums
listen, man, put me down on that list
my rhymes and style are much better than yours
I’m not claiming to be the greatest raperita
I’m just speaking the truth and that stings you

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

In defense of KET

If he is convicted of the charges against him, Alain Ket Maridueña could face up to 20 years in prison and huge financial penalties. All for allegedly painting several recent images on subway cars—something Maridueña says he has not done in over a decade.

There is no reason to doubt Maridueña’s word: the evidence against him is circumstantial and highly suspect; meanwhile, his professional and human caliber make him a pillar of urban arts on a global scale.

During the 1980s, the adolescent raised in Miami and New York gained international notoriety as an exponent of the emergent and controversial art form known as graffiti. Two decades later, the 37-year-old editor, hip-hop historian, activist and artist faces more than a dozen counts of felony criminal mischief and possession of graffiti tools.

In the words of another hip-hop historian, Jeff Chang, the case against Maridueña appears to be a classic case of payback: “In 2005, KET had curated Marc Ecko's block party, an event that paid tribute to graffiti pioneers and introduced the company's graf-styled video game. Mayor Bloomberg--who came into office talking tough about graffiti and street art--tried to revoke the event's permit, but after a heavily publicized court battle, the City was forced to reinstate the permit and the event was a huge success.[…] KET's central role as an unapologetic spokesperson, scholar, historian, and activist has made him a target of Bloomberg and NYPD.”

The flimsy evidence and the excessive charges against Maridueña have generated a huge wave of solidarity in the art world. Tonight, August 1st, The Hip-Hop Theater Festival will host a silent art auction and benefit for his legal defense at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena titled THE WALLS BELONG TO US. It will feature sculptures, paintings and silk-screens by over a hundred world-renowned artists such as Martha Cooper, FUTURA 2000, Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink, Jamel Shabazz, Joe Conzo, COCO 144, MARE 139 and KEL 139. The auction close date is August 5th. For more info visit

If Maridueña deserves to be criminalized for “promoting” graffiti, then what will be next? Charging the administrators and curators of last year’s graffiti exhibit at Brooklyn Museum? Or is it that only artists get scapegoated?

For more information about Maridueña’s case, visit:

En defensa de KET

Haga click aquí para acceder directamente a la página de El Diario / La Prensa con mi columna de hoy, 1 de agosto de 2007.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Filth and romance; wackness and sappiness

(Haga click aquí para la versión en español.)

I wish there was a word like "porquería" in English. It's the term I used when I first wrote this column/blog post in Spanish. If there was such a word, I would have a handy term that could mean at once filth, trash, crude, low-quality and wack. But there isn't.

In honor of David's heartfelt description of Calle 13 as profoundly "wack," I'm tempted to settle for wack as a synonym for "porquería." It was actually David's visceral dislike of Calle 13 (in general) and the song "Mala suerte con el 13" (in particular) that inspired me to explore the whys of my equally visceral appreciation of the same song. (For my initial post and David comments, click here.)

But tempted as I am to use the word "wack," I'll stick to the original term in Spanish.

"Porquería" is usually a word we use to describe something we don't like. It's, of course, a totally subjective word. What is filthy, low-quality or wack for some, is not so for others.

For example, listening to "Mala suerte con el 13" triggered in me an intense music-inspired joy. For me, that collaboration between Calle 13 and La Mala provides a much-needed relief from the usual romantic/erotic formulas in urban music, particularly in Latino urban music. But for others, the song produces absolutely no joy and is, in a nutshell, a "porquería."

"Calle 13 is wack as hell," says David, a hip-hop and reggaeton connoisseur whose value judgments I treasure. "I never wanna hear another rap song about scat again in my life. That was too much."

The same song was described in the blog La Onda Tropical as a lost opportunity: its "misplaced profanity gives a rancid taste to what could have been an intimate hiphop song with a great guest rapera."

The song is stuffed with profanity. No doubt. But the profanity, in my opinion, takes nothing away from the intimacy and sensibility of the song. I'm sincerely surprised that the writer of La Onda Tropical thinks it does.

La Mala said in an interview with Ernesto Lechner published in the Chicago Tribune: "I loved turning this grotesque song into a parody of the typical flirty duet between a man and a woman."

In a commercial musical scene overrun by romantic clichés, maybe the grotesque inspires La Mala more than sappiness. It certainly does for me. In a music scene where painful gender power dynamics are usually presented in romantic wrapping paper with a pretty bow, it's refreshing to hear that song where the male is not waxing eloquent on why he's irresistible and the female caressing his ego with her perpetual "sí, papi."

"Porquería" are the usual power games between men and women, be it in music or outside of it. "Porquería" is that cheap, hypocritical romantic-ness... the one from the songs and the one we live day-to-day. Calle 13's crudeness is nothing compared to that huge and tragic "porquería." At least for me. La Mala might agree.

Porquerías y cursilerías

Haga click aquí para acceder a mi columna en El Diario / La Prensa, publicada el pasado miércoles 25 de julio (Día de Santiago Apóstol, de la invasión de Estados Unidos a Puerto Rico en 1898, de la instauración del Estado Libre Asociado en 1952 y de los asesinatos del Cerro Maravilla en 1978). La columna se titula "Porquerías y cursilerías."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

So we can disrespect each other

(For the version in Spanish in today's El Diario / La Prensa, click here.)

So we can disrespect each other

So many things captivated me about last Friday’s concert at Manhattan’s Nokia Theater featuring Calle 13 and Spanish hip-hop artist La Mala Rodríguez.

The music was great and the audience was hyped. Of the many details I could elaborate on, I feel compelled to write just about a tiny part of the show: the only song that Calle 13 and La Mala interpreted together titled “Mala suerte con el 13” (Bad Luck with 13).

It’s the most (simultaneously) tender, romantic and dirty song I ever heard. It actually put into lyrics a vague feeling I had been having during the whole show: that the contradictions and opposing forces onstage were somehow conveying a delicious sense of balance.

La Mala herself is the embodiment of several seemingly opposing forces: skilled rhyme-sayer with a gorgeous singing voice who comes across as hard, sometimes even violent, and at the same time intensely loving. Thin, with usually delicate gestures, dressed in angel-white, she is also (in her own words) “una patá por la boca” (a kick to the mouth). The same woman who asked all of us in the audience to hug the people around us and refused to keep singing until most of us shyly complied.

Calle 13 is also the synthesis of multiple and disparate forces: Residente is grimy, highly politicized, sometimes sweet, hardly ever serious. His counterpart onstage is his adolescent sister PG13: half nymph, half elf, always strong; sometimes fluttering her arms like wings, sometimes joining her brother in stressing the crudest words in his rhymes.

But back to the song at hand, where La Mala and Residente exchange verses that manage to be tender, philosophical and filthy all at once.

The hook says it (almost) all: “Vamos a faltarnos el respeto, usando el alfabeto completo” (Lets disrespect each other, using the whole alphabet.”

Below, a few gems from the song:

La Mala:

Quiero un hombre sin complejo [I want a man without an inferiority complex]
Que tenga buenos reflejos [With good reflexes]
Pa' ver como se hace viejo [To see how he gets old]
Miro el horóscopo pa' ver qué me depara [I check the horoscope, to see what awaits me]
Cuando me pongo perra, tú, nada me para [When I get like a bitch in heat, nothing can stop me]
Llévame pa' la cueva[...] [Take me to the cave]
De los pelos arrastrá [Drag me by the hair]
No me dejes ni hablar [Don’t even let me speak]
Si tengo la oportunidad [If I get the chance]
De agarrarte como quiero la presión [To check your blood pressure]
(¿La presión?) [(¿Blood presure?)]
Se te va a disparar [...] [It’s going to shoot up]
Me sabe mejor lo que no me das [What you don’t give me tastes better]
Que lo que me das, ay papá [Than what you do give me, ay papá]
¿Qué es lo que tú tienes pa’ mi? [What do you have for me?]
Tengo que gritar, yo estoy en libertad [I have to scream, I’m free to do so]
Vamos a ponernos a llorar[...] [Lets start to cry]


Oye, flaca [Listen, slim]
Este sudaca quiere tener sexo con caca [This southener wants to have sex with shit]
Kinki, peludo como Chubaca [Kinky, hairy like Chewbacca]
Quiere tener sexo puerco, sucio, como de inodoro [He wants to have sex, dirty like a toilet]
Oríname en el pecho [Piss on my chest]
Te lo juro que yo te enamoro, mi tesoro [I swear I’ll make you fall in love, my treasure]
(Escúpeme en la boca) [(Spit in my mouth)]
Mientras me agarras las tetillas [While you grab my nipples]
Con solo verte las rodillas yo me lubrico [I get lubricated just looking at your knees]
(Ay, que la tienes muy pequeño chico) [(Yours is too small, man)]
Pero eso lo sabes tú na' más y ahora todo Puerto Rico[...] [But only you know that, and now, all of Puerto Rico]
Yo te quiero decir cosas bonitas mamita [I want to tell you pretty things, mamita]
Pero no me sale [But they don’t come out]
Es que yo fui criao por los animales [It’s just that I was raised by animals]
Sin modales [With no manners]
(Mamando teta de orangutanes) [(Sucking orangutans’ tits)]

In an interview with Ernesto Lechner for The Chicago Tribune, La Mala said: “Things can get really boring if you lose your sense of humor. I loved turning this grotesque song into a parody of the typical flirty duet between a man and a woman.” Also in an interview with Lechner, Residente described his initial idea for the song as “a duet between a guy who's weak and inadequate, and a woman who's a sexual psychopath and has all the power in the world.”

Frances Negrón-Muntaner, author of a forthcoming essay on Calle 13 titled “Poesía de porquería” (Poetry of Filth) describes the song as “a mockery of macho stereotypes” that proposes “the body as nourishment, a source of pleasure and knowledge.” I agree. And I’m impressed with the way humor, romance, raw desire and scatology are all present in this song at the same time, balancing each other out in a splendid juggler’s “malamarismo” (La Mala’s latest album is titled Malamarismo).

These judgements are all, of course, highly subjective. One blogger objects to the “misplaced profanity” that “gives a rancid taste to what could have been an intimate hiphop song with a great guest rapera (La Mala Rodriguez)”.

I, on the other hand, welcome the song for pushing (from the realm of rough play) the limits of decorum and social criticism, an opinion shared by Lechner and also by reviewer Joey Guerra.

So if its going to be like La Mala and Residente are proposing, I say we can definitely “disrespect each other,” since, in reality, we’d be doing exactly the opposite.

Para faltarnos el respeto

(Haga click aquí para la versión que aparece en mi columna de hoy 18 de julio de 2007 en El Diario / La Prensa.)

Para faltarnos el respeto

Fueron muchas las cosas que me cautivaron del concierto de Calle 13 y la rapera española La Mala Rodríguez el pasado viernes en el Nokia Theater de Manhattan.

La música estaba buenísima; la audiencia encandilada. De tantos detalles que pudiera mencionar, sólo me detendré en la única pieza que Calle 13 y La Mala interpretaron juntos titulada “Mala suerte con el 13.”

Es la canción más tierna, romántica y sucia que he escuchado en mi vida. De hecho, concretizó en palabras una noción vaga que me había acompañado durante la presentación: de las contradicciones y los extremos presentes en el escenario emanaba un delicioso balance.

En La Mala misma se balanceaban varias fuerzas: rapera y cantante que se proyecta títera, violenta y a la vez amorosa. Delgada, de ademanes usualmente delicados, vestida de blanco-angelito, es también (en sus propias palabras) “una patá por la boca.” La misma que en un aparte de sus canciones nos pidió que abrazáramos a las personas a nuestro alrededor.

En Calle 13 igual habían múltiples fuerzas opuestas que se balanceaban unas a otras: Residente es soez, sumamente politizado, a veces dulce, casi nunca serio. Su contraparte en el escenario es su hermana adolescente, PG13: media ninfa, media duende, siempre bien fuerte; a veces agitando las alas, a veces rematando con groserías lo que su hermano mayor declara.

Pero volvamos a la canción que nos compete, donde La Mala y Residente intercambian versos que son tiernos, filosóficos, y a la vez puercos. El estribillo lo dice todo: “Vamos a faltarnos el respeto, usando el alfabeto completo.”

Y aquí un poquito de los versos:

La Mala:

Quiero un hombre sin complejo
Que tenga buenos reflejos
Pa' ver como se hace viejo
Miro el horóscopo pa' ver qué me depara
Cuando me pongo perra, tú, nada me para
[...] Llévame pa' la cueva
De los pelos arrastrá
No me dejes ni hablar
Si tengo la oportunidad
De agarrarte como quiero la presión
(¿La presión?)
Se te va a disparar [...]
Me sabe mejor lo que no me das
Que lo que me das, ay papá
¿Qué es lo que tú tienes pa’ mi?
Tengo que gritar, yo estoy en libertad
Vamos a ponernos a llorar[...]


Este sudaca quiere tener sexo con caca
Kinki, peludo como Chubaca.
Quiere tener sexo puerco, sucio, como de inodoro
Oríname en el pecho
Te lo juro que yo te enamoro, mi tesoro
(Escúpeme en la boca)
Mientras me agarras las tetillas
Con solo verte las rodillas yo me lubrico
(Ay, que la tienes muy pequeño chico)
Pero eso lo sabes tú na' más y ahora todo Puerto Rico
[...] Yo te quiero decir cosas bonitas mamita
Pero no me sale
Es que yo fui criao por los animales
Sin modales
(Mamando teta de orangutanes)

Frances Negrón-Muntaner, autora de un ensayo sobre Calle 13 titulado “Poesía de porquería” describe la canción como “una burla de estereotipos machistas” que propone al “cuerpo como nutriente, fuente de placer y conocimiento.” Concuerdo.

Me impresiona que el humor, la burla, el romance y el deseo crudo estén todos ahí presentes, balancéandose en espléndido “malamarismo.”

Así sí podemos “faltarnos el respeto” ya que, en realidad, estaríamos haciendo justo lo opuesto.