Wednesday, June 27, 2007

To the beat of the eternal boys

Click here for the Spanish version titled "Al son de los chamacos eternos," published in today's El Diario / La Prensa, Wednesday, June 27, 2007.

To the beat of the eternal boys

"What I want is grown man rap." I don't mean to put words in Carlito Rodriguez's mouth (writer, producer and ex-Editor-In-Chief at The Source), but something to that effect is what I heard from his lips last year during a panel discussion at the Schomburg Center with other writers like Cornel West, Imani Perry, Greg Tate, Akiba Solomon and Mark Hill.

I may not be able to cite verbatim all that he said so eloquently, but one phrase got stuck in my head: "grown man." Emphasis on psychology rather than chronology. Synonym of experience, maturity, introspection.

That night, thirty-something Rodriguez's words had a big impact on me. Partly, it was because of their courage and honesty; if you work in an entertainment industry obsessed with youth, to brandish your maturity is to make yourself vulnerable. Partly, his words also impacted me because they addressed some vague questions that had been circling my brain for a while: How to speak about maturity in music without forsaking play, pleasure and shamelessness? How to start talking about all those aspects of the obligatory commercial hip-hop and reggaeton aesthetic that are much more understandable in a teenager than in men pushing (and past) thirty?

Rodriguez and many of his generation (which is also mine) grew up to the beat of hip-hop and reggaeton. But the music—at least its most commercial expression—refuses to grow up with us.

But that's actually not the problem. Music can stay perpetually immature. Music doesn't have to grow up. But people do. And it's distressing to see adults hiding their existential pain behind the buckwild youth mask. It's distressing to see adults get old but not mature.

I derive a lot of inspiration from folks like Rodríguez who, like myself, are committed to maturing and aging gracefully. Or at least trying.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My first 10 columns in El Diario / La Prensa

It just dawned on me that today was published my tenth weekly El Diario / La Prensa column, titled Reggaetónica (just like this blog but with an accent). Here's the list with links for easy access.

"Nina, la feminista bandolera"

"¿A ella le gusta agresivo?"

"50 Cent y su 'Parque de diversiones'"

"Los sueños incumplidos del reggaetón"

"El futuro del reggaetón"

"Reggaetón en el salón"

"Educación hip-hopera"

"La otra cara del hip-hop"

"Las Nikes macheteras"

"¿Porqué 'Reggaetónica'?"

Nina, the feminist bandolera

(Click here for the Spanish version titled "Nina, la feminista bandolera" published in today's El Diario/La Prensa, Wednesday, June 20.)

Nina, the feminist bandolera

In last week’s column, I was wondering about the pleasures many women are deriving from reggaeton’s sexual aggressiveness.

Nina La Bandolera, one of my favorite reggaetonic bloggers, gives us a few clues in “The Death of Reggaeton”: “We LOVE when a man wants us and doesnt croon at us but comes at us full-force, cockdiesel and aggressive as all hell. Maybe not in the office or at school, but thats what music is for. We can safely experience that.”

Obviously, Nina likes the agresivo approach. But hold up! She’s not into agressiveness 24-7. She’s not into algarete agressiveness. What’s appropriate on the dance-floor, is not necessarily appropriate at school or at work.

According to Nina, music and dance are spaces for pleasure and play where masculine aggressiveness is an aphrodisiac, where women celebrate that aggressiveness as part of sexual fantasy. In that case, aggressiveness is a consensual performance, an improvised theater piece that can only take place in a “safe space” and in a context of mutual respect.

“Of course we dont want to be seen as mere objects,” writes Nina. One thing is to celebrate yourself as a “sexual creature,” and another is to be reduced to a mere sexual object.

Our society frequently has demanded that women behave “decently” and “with decorum” as pre-conditions for being respected. Pues no, argues Nina. Respect should not be dependent on how lascivious on the dance-floor or promiscuous in bed a woman is.

Nina is in illustrious company in making those arguments; author Joan Morgan who popularized the term “hip-hop feminism” is the most prominent example. She proposed a “feminism brave enough to fuck with the grays,” brave enough to explore internal contradictions, brave enough to acknowledge how women in general (and each of us as individuals) are often complicit with patriarchy partly because we are unwilling to give up its benefits.

And, speaking about feminism, Nina can certainly be considered part of what Jillian M. Báez describes as “reggaeton feminism” in an article titled “‘En mi imperio’: Competing Discourses of Agency in Ivy Queen’s Reggaeton” published last year in the Center for Puerto Rican Studies Journal.

I hope Nina will forgive me if, like many other women, she doesn’t like being called a feminist. I’m using the label, among other reasons, because I find it to be useful shorthand. But in the end, the label has much less importance than the ideas. And at the level of ideas, I see in Nina a desire to grapple with gender dynamics in all their complexity, a desire not to blame but to transform. I see in her a playful, much-needed reggaetonic feminism.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Does she like it "agresivo"?

(Click here for the Spanish version titled "¿A ella le gusta agresivo?" published in El Diario/La Prensa last Wednesday, June 13.)

Does she like it "agresivo"?

Last Saturday, June 9, I was at the Bling Blineo concert sponsored by radio station La Kalle. There, before a not-quite-full house, performed Jowell & Randy, Tito El Bambino, Héctor El Father, El Torito, Victor Manuelle, Wisín y Yandel, Don Omar, and others.

Sitting with a friend in the nosebleed seats but thanks to the giant screen focused on the artists on stage, I had a great time enjoying the music, criticizing all of the many things that just begged to be criticized, and observing the reactions of the audience around us.

One little detail caught both of our attentions. As usual, the reggaeton headliners had dancers with them almost at every moment. What was not usual was the humble role played by the female dancers compared to the starring role played by the male dancers. In many occasions, the women onstage danced along the margins of the main action while the male dancers, often shirtless, would gather tightly around the singers/rappers, suggestively humping the air to the sounds of the fiery howls coming from the women in the audience.

That strong display of macho beauty and erotic energy from the stage, accompanied by so many songs aimed to make the females hot, left me thinking, among other things, in the pleasures that women are deriving from this musical genre. (I'll leave the male social/sexual bonding aspects of this all for another time.)

Reggaeton is often criticized for its sexism and/or sexual agressiveness. What is fascinating is that it is precisely its agressiveness that atracts many women. "A ella le gusta agresivo/Que la calienten con dembow… Dale más látigo" (She likes it agressive/She likes to be made hot to the sounds of dembow... Give her more of that whip), as Jowell & Randy sang that night.

Now I can't stop thinking about all that attracts women to these sado-masochistic images and fantasies. And, as I've asked myself plenty of times before, I wonder if (and how) sexual explicitness can be untangled from sexism; I wonder if (and how) we can participate in power games on the dancefloor or in bed, but, once the game is over, to be able to leave those dynamics behind.

I think it's possible. I'm just not quite sure how.

(For Nina la Bandolera's insightful blog post that touches on similar topics. Click here.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

50 Cent and His “Amusement Park”

Click here for the Spanish original published in El Diario/La Prensa on June 6, 2007.

50 Cent and His “Amusement Park”

A few weeks ago, Fifty Cent’s video “Amusement Park” premiered. (No sense in providing a description of the video like I did in the Spanish print version, since I can post the video below.)

If you’re in no mood to watch the whole video, here’s the summary: Gorgeous video models writhe and shake as Fifty promises sweet pleasures to you, the listener (if you’re a woman), and all your (girl)friends.

The day the video premiered on BET’s 106 & Park, Fifty was the show’s special guest. Host Rocsi asked if he worried about being accused of disrespecting women, considering the recent and feverish national debates regarding sexism and hip-hop.

Fifty looked at Rocsi, innocence and surprise engraved on his face, and explained that the video was not an insult to women. On the contrary!, he said. It was a compliment: women are just more beautiful than men.

Ugh! Why do so many only see the world through the narrow tunnel of their own desires (and social indoctrination)? Fifty, in that regard, is certainly no exception.

The irony is that, in the video, Fifty’s naked chest is pre-packaged as eye candy just as much as the models are. Fifty is neither more nor less beautiful than them. The only difference is that they are many, interchangeable, individually expendable; while Fifty, though just as luscious, is the single, virile epicenter: irreplaceable.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

50 Cent y su "Parque de diversiones"

Here is a slightly longer version than the one that appeared in El Diario last Wednesday, 6-6-07. I'll post the English translation soon.

50 Cent y su "Parque de diversiones"
Raquel Z. Rivera

Hace un par de semanas se estrenó el video musical titulado "Amusement Park" (Parque de diversiones) de uno de los más populares chicos malos del hip-hop comercial: Fifty Cent. A continuación un resumen de los primeros segundos del video:

Luces de neón parpadean al son de una melodía juguetona y sexy, con un leve eco de música de circo. Retumba la percusión digital y aparece una rápida sucesión de hembrunos caramelitos visuales semi-desnudos.

Una voluminosa chica sonríe recostada en el piso con su pelo arrubiado y peinado estilo años veinte; otra baila muy seductora con la espalda pegada a un espejo; otra de preciosos ojos gatunos está de rodillas en la arena y empinando verticalmente su escultural nalgaje; otra monta un caballito de carrusel vestida en traje de baño; otra maneja un "carrito loco" con camisa de brillo dorado y piernas abiertas.

La cámara por fin se detiene sobre una joven de piernas esbeltas coronadas por un minúsculo pantaloncito rojo. Su torso gira ágilmente sobre el eje de sus caderas, soltando destellos de piel caoba y larga cabellera serpentina.

Ya una vez comienza el clásico patrón percusivo del hip-hop, aparece por un segundo el protagonista, el único varón del video: piel perfecta de reluciente color ébano y media sonrisa de nene malo. Con sensual convicción declara su nombre: "Fifty." Y la muchacha del pantalón rojo cae de rodillas, postrada en rendición frente al deseo que inspira la mera mención del apelativo del artista.

El resto del video sigue la misma línea: las modelos se contonean mientras Fifty promete dulces placeres, para ti (si eres mujer) y todas tus amigas.

El día que se estrenó el video, Fifty era el invitado especial del popular programa 106 & Park del canal televisivo BET. Rocsi (Raquel Díaz), una de las conductoras del programa, le preguntó si no le preocupaba que lo acusaran de faltarle el respeto a las mujeres, luego del debate nacional que se ha formado sobre el sexismo en la música hip-hop.

Fifty la miró sorprendido, con cara de inocente, y explicó que el video no era un insulto sino un cumplido para las mujeres: las féminas sencillamente son más bellas que los hombres; a todo el mundo (incluso a las mujeres heterosexuales) les gusta mirar a mujeres bellas; es por eso que en nuestra sociedad se vende de todo a través de las caras y cuerpos de las mujeres. Todo lo anterior no tiene nada de malo, según Fifty.

¡Qué fastidio!, pensé yo. Lo que es ver todo a través del estrecho túnel del deseo propio y la indoctrinación social. Lo peor es que, igual que Fifty, tantos otros y otras piensan lo mismo. Mis propios estudiantes universitarios me han dejado boquiabierta al manifestar ideas parecidas.

Lo irónico es que el musculoso torso desnudo de Fifty es tan caramelo visual como los cuerpos femeninos del video. Fifty no es ni más ni menos hermoso que las modelos. La diferencia es que ellas son muchas, intercambiables, sustituibles. Él, aunque igual de suculento, es el único macho epicentro.

Los sueños incumplidos del reggaetón

Click here for my El Diario/La Prensa column published 5-30-07 titled "Los sueños incumplidos del reggaetón" (Reggaetón's unrealized dreams).