Monday, April 30, 2007

Airing tonight: my interview on María Hinojosa's show "La Plaza"

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of being interviewed by award-winning journalist María Hinojosa. The focus of our dialogue was my writings on hip-hop and reggaeton.

The show is called "La Plaza: Conversaciones con María Hinojosa" and will air tonight at 9pm on PBS' Spanish-language V-me. (Cable: Time Warner NY 812; Cablevision 199; Comcast in NJ 242)(Digital: 13-3)(For channel information outside NY/NJ, click here.)

For more information about the show, click here.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Reggaeton in Education and Activism?

If you google "hip-hop education," you get approximately 14,600 items. The first one, very appropriately, is the H2Ed website, an organization whose mission is "to serve educators and those committed to reaching youth through Hip-Hop culture [...] under the premise that Hip-Hop, the most influential cultural force today, has the power to educate, inform and empower today's youth."

If you google "hip-hop activism," you get approximately 44,700 items. Says Jeff Chang: "'Hip-hop activism' is a term [...] meant to show that hip-hop culture could both reflect a social critique and become a unifying force to enact change. The idea of hip-hop activism has since been embraced by young organizers, thinkers, cultural workers and activists to describe their generation's emerging work for social justice. It describes a broad range of social change practices, including youth organizing, cultural work, arts education, popular education, intercultural exchanges, youth development, and celebrity projects and events."

But type in "reggaeton activism" in google and you get... nothing.

Type in "reggaeton education" and you get 48 items—none of them referring to integrating reggaeton into classrooms and/or promoting education through reggaeton.

Considering the HUGE activist and educator networks related to hip-hop, I'm trying to connect with folks who are doing parallel work in terms of reggaeton.

Any leads?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Again, the Machetero Nikes

Dear Danny,

You’re right. In my first blog about the Machetero Air Force Ones, I didn’t comment on my reaction to the sneakers beyond saying it was painful to see Filiberto’s face on them. I didn’t elaborate because I didn’t want to rant.

But then you wrote that email clearly stating your position and wanting to know mine. You asked: “Why was it so painful to look at those sneakers?” I’ll answer by allowing myself to go into the rant I initially thought I should avoid. So here goes. Take it with a grain of salt: Like everyone else, I’m a walking tangle of contradictions.

When I first saw Filiberto on those sneakers, I had to pause for a few seconds. My skin prickled and I felt a mix of anxiety and pain at the mouth of my stomach.

Looking at the sneakers: I was faced with the image of that awe-inspiring man known as Filiberto, with all his flaws and his merits, who died a tragic death in the midst of tragic circumstances. He was a man I only saw from a distance, most often on TV and newspapers. I saw him in person only once, during his 1989 trial at the Old San Juan Federal Court. He irradiated dignity, composure and eloquence as he presented his own legal defense (he refused a layer). Later that same night, I saw his shadow flashing a light from his prison cell window—a greeting to the crowd of his supporters gathered on the street below. Filiberto was a myth of our times, a man whose death I cried over not knowing exactly why. It was not precisely that I was a Filiberto devotee, though I certainly admired his strength and his standing by his principles. When he died, I felt as if my uncle or a close friend of my family had passed.

Still looking at the sneakers: I was shocked at seeing Filiberto’s face emblazoned on those ridiculously expensive sneakers made by folks who get paid dirt. Those Nikes, among many other consumer items, represent "cool" in our society. Those sneakers are even tied into people's identities and sense of worth. Nikes are one of the many items for sale that inspire folks to trample others on the way to the store shelves, one of those items that people are willing to stand in line overnight for. Frankly, I despise those sneakers and what they represent.

I intend no disrespect to fashion buffs and sneaker connoisseurs. This is certainly not a judgment of Nike fans. The artist himself says he chose the Air Force Ones to grapple with his own attraction to the shoe. But it just so happens that I do not find sneakers appealing at all. It also just so happens that I’m fashion illiterate.

My visceral reaction to the Machetero Air Force Ones is partly related to politics, partly related to personal history and partly just a matter of taste.

Once upon a time, I was a teenager in Puerto Rico. Like most other teenagers around me, I was obsessed with designer labels and being cool. I was ashamed of my struggling single mom and what she couldn't get for me.

I never got into sneakers. I don't get "sneaker culture." But I understand a reasonable facsimile in the designer labels (Esprit, Jordache, Benetton) I lusted after in my teens.

My reaction to the Machetero AF1s has much to do with the anger I feel over all the time and energy I spent on a useless attempt to make myself happy by buying items that I thought would make me cool. Now I'm a grown woman who is in a different place but remembers wasting so much effort on looking for happiness where happiness is impossible to find. And, sometimes, I feel like screaming... PLEASE LETS JUST STOP WASTING OUR TIME BUYING ALL THIS USELESS SHIT.

At the most basic level, the pain I felt over Luciano’s Nikes has to do with my shock over seeing Filiberto's face on what I consider to be one of the ultimate examples of overpriced, overrated, ugly merchandise.

But, then again, my sense of style matters little in the larger picture. The fact is many people in the know revere Nikes, not only for their beauty, but also for practical reasons. AF1s fans say they are amazingly comfortable. And, after all, most of us wear something on our feet most of the time. So, since we do have to buy footwear, and since many will buy AF1s as their footwear of choice, then why not wear AF1s that have symbols of social-consciousness or national pride, like the Filiberto Uptowns?

I’m not saying yes or no, wrong or right. I’m just venting on my initial reaction to them.

The implications of the Machetero AF1s go way beyond the specific evils of the Nike empire or the peculiarities of Filiberto Ojeda Rios as a man and as a symbol of Puerto Rican nationalism. For me, these Nikes represent the crossroads where our consumerist obsessions, politics and fashion meet.

Fashion and politics. Social justice and consumption. We all walk (and stumble over) the line.

As Bryan Vargas wrote in a blog comment, Miguel Luciano has long been exploring these issues in his work. For example, take the image below titled Exterminio de Nuestros Indios (Extermination of Our Indians), acrylic on paper, 2005.

Though I have been a fan of Luciano’s work for a while, it was his Pure Plantainum project that blew my mind since it connected so closely with the issues that I write about in terms of youth culture and popular music.

But neither plantains nor bling can evoke for me the violent gut reaction that Filiberto’s face on the AF1s does. Except, that is, for this photo from the Pure Plantainum series:

Once the plátano bling is on the boy, Pure Plantainum stops stimulating my brain; it just stops my heart. There, for me, is the human face of the tragedy. Just like Filiberto’s face on the Machetero AF1s.

I’m grateful to Miguel Luciano for jabbing his finger into our open wounds—like a good artist should.

And I’m grateful to you, Danny, and to all the other folks who have emailed me or posted comments on this blog for making me question and fine-tune my ideas and strategies for action.

un abrazo,

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Reggaetónica: my weekly column in El Diario / La Prensa

This Reggaetonica blog will now have a Spanish-language print counterpart in my Wednesday column "Reggaetónica" in El Diario / La Prensa. My first column was published today and is titled "¿Porqué 'Reggatónica'?"

Friday, April 13, 2007

Meditations on sneakers and bling by Miguel Luciano

These Filiberto Ojeda Uptowns / Machetero Air Force Ones by New York visual artist Miguel Luciano come right after his Pure Plantainum series. Both projects have captured my interest because they touch on two of the top consumer items related to the hip-hop and reggaeton industrial machine: sneakers and bling.

The Filiberto Ojeda Uptowns / Machetero Air Force Ones are part of a show that opens at Bard College this coming Sunday, April 15. Also on Sunday, 2:30—4:30 pm, Miguel Luciano and other renowned New York Rican artists will talk about their work at The Newark Museum.

For me, it hurts to look at Filiberto—icon of armed struggle for Puerto Rican independence assasinated in 2005 by the F.B.I.—emblazoned all over these sneakers. I find this piece to be an insightful and deeply disturbing commentary on our consumption-obsessed lives, particularly painful in the context of Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States.

Below, is Luciano's statement on the piece:

The Filiberto Ojeda Uptowns / Machetero Air Force Ones are a customized pair of Nike sneakers that pay tribute to the assassinated leader of the Macheteros, a clandestine group of Puerto Rican nationalists who've campaigned for independence in Puerto Rico since the 1970's. Filiberto Ojeda was brutally assassinated by the F.B.I. on September 23, 2005 and has since been revered by many as the "Puerto Rican Che Guevara". A pair of Nike sneakers become an unlikely vehicle of veneration for the fallen leader that both complicate and question how nationalism and resistance are embodied within today's colonial consumerist society. Nevertheless, they engage alternative strategies towards reconstructing symbols of resistance from the objects of material desire, while questioning the commodification of Revolution. The Machetero Air Force Ones transform Nike's Swoosh logo into a ready-made Machete symbol, as the mantra of Nike's "goddess of victory" gives way to "hasta la victoria siempre".

"just do it".

Friday, April 06, 2007

Mini-chronicle of La Sista's Show at SOBs

The woman drips charisma. And skill. And charm. Unlike her bouncing-off-the-walls energetic label mates Tres Coronas who performed right before she did, La Sista—though also full of energy—was effortlessly powerful, grounded and contained.

Her set was well chosen. She opened with the laid-back and sandungueosa “Anacaona” (the single with the video set in her hometown of Loíza). Then she went into her hilarious “Acabones de la Letra,” where the rookie irreverently makes fun of simple-minded reggaeton lyricists. Then came the (unfortunately and uncharacteristically out-of-tune) “Fruity Loops,” followed by the reggaeton/bomba fusion “Calabó y Bamboo” with its contagious hook: “No u'a coge' más un mapo/ Ya yo encampané la escoba/ Mejor búscate a otra/Que te lave bien la ropa.” (“I'm not gonna grab a mop any more/I already packed away the broom/You'd better find another woman/To wash your clothes.”) (Click here to listen to the song.) Then she went into “Rulé Candela,” a hot reggaeton track based on a traditional bomba song. (The woman can SING!) “Machúcalo”—her bachataish ode to cheating men—came next, followed by an homage to her spiritual mother “Yemayá.” Last was my favorite, “This Is My Game,” heavy on the boasting, solid on the hip hop beats.

And a random observation: Considering the weird lack of sexiness and professionalism displayed by the booty-shaking “Machete girls” that accompanied Tres Coronas for all of one song, I was struck by the playful and refreshing sensuality of La Sista’s sidekick Nandi. Throughout La Sista’s set, Nandi was her skillfull right hand man in delivering rhymes and singing. La Sista, undoubtedly the boss, at one point started singing acapella commands to Nandi to move his “batea” as she watched appreciatingly and many in the audience sighed and overheated. What got my attention was that Nandi the sexpot, was also Nandi the fierce lyricsman and singer, and he was also Nandi the indispensable second-in-command—unlike the anonymous and utterly replaceable Machete girls. (No grand conclusions from any of this yet. Well, maybe just one preliminary conclusion: Regardless of how much clothes you’re wearing, carrying yourself in a dignified manner IS key to sexy. It also greatly helps if the folks you’re working with treat you in a dignified manner.)

As I’m looking forward to her next NY live show, La Sista I’m sure will keep the "topo yiyos sudando frío."

(La Sista and a fan. Photo by Marcos Miranda.)