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