What follows is the paper I presented on 3-19 at Duke University's symposium Dislocated Performances: Reimagining Latino Hip-Hop in the 21st Century.
Art, Spirit and Justice
Abstract: “Liberation Mythologies” is my working term to explore the intersections between Latino hip-hop (and reggaeton) artistic practice, spiritual belief and grassroots activism. Taking my cue from Robin D.G. Kelley, I focus on the “dreams of freedom” at the root of myth-making. And taking another cue from Joseph Campbell and Robert Segal, I look at myths not as stories or beliefs that are (necessarily) untrue but as tropes that poetically attempt to explain or get us closer to the unexplainable, and most importantly, as tropes that give individuals and communities the strength to keep crafting and pursuing their dreams of freedom. I will focus on one example: the integration into hip-hop and reggaeton of Afro-Caribbean roots music and spiritual practices.
The moment I received the invitation to this symposium and read the description, I was happy for many reasons. The most obvious, of course, is the amazing folks that I get to share the mic with. Another of those reasons is that the invitation presented a great opportunity to talk about my most recent work on what I am tentatively calling “liberation mythologies”.
Until recently, my work on hip-hop and reggaeton had been primarily concerned with exploring the porous boundaries between blackness and latinidad, as well as connecting those porous border zones with social justice activism. Those topics are still of great interest to me, but I have become increasingly engaged in looking at the spiritual dimension of political action—and most specifically in looking at the use of spirit-based myth-making as a component of political action. I focus on Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices like espiritismo, santería, voudoun and palo; but keep in mind that with this idea of “liberation mythologies” I’m trying to develop a way to understand any other spiritual or religious practice that is invested in social justice activism.
I will begin by explaining how I started developing my thoughts around “liberation mythologies” as I was writing not about hip-hop or reggaeton but about Caribbean roots music like Puerto Rican bomba, Dominican palos and Haitian-Dominican rara or gagá. Supposedly, I was taking a breather from focusing on heavily commercialized genres like hip-hop and reggaeton. But, ironically, writing about spirituality, myth-making and activism in Caribbean roots music, I wound up having to talk about hip-hop and reggaeton anyway. Why? Because the dominant sounds in the contemporary social justice movement soundtrack tend to be at opposite ends of the traditional/contemporary music spectrum, particularly for the younger generations of activists. So at rallies, fundraisers, workshops and cultural events organized by folks in this social justice network there tends to be a lot of roots music on the one hand, and hip-hop on the other. Another reason why I couldn’t escape writing about hip-hop and reggaeton, even in this newer work focused on roots music, is all the collaborations and fusions happening, as this next example shows.
It’s a collaboration of the reggaeton/hip-hop group Del Patio with roots music group Ilú Ayé. I don’t know that Del Patio is involved in the social justice movement, but Ilú Ayé definitely is. The song has many references to Dominican religious practices such as the palos music that precedes the recognizably reggaeton-ey part of the song, and also it mentions specific loas or deities of the Afro-Dominican santería pantheon.
About a year ago, as I was writing a paper on Puerto Rican bomba and Dominican palos musicians in New York City, I kept noticing at least three powerful characters or references that kept popping up in the music: maroons or cimarrones who escaped slavery, the so-called kongos of Central Africa who have a reputation for rebelliousness in Afro-Caribbean lore, and references to Haiti and Haitians. All of these are tropes that point to a centuries long history of resistance and liberation struggles in the Caribbean. I was writing about bomba and palos, but some of these same tropes show up in hip-hop and reggaeton as well. One example is Sietenueve’s song “Cimarrón”, which is another good example of the incorporation of roots music into hip-hop since it starts with batá drums:
Here is an excerpt and translation of the lyrics:
Me hice libre por la fuerza / sin el miedo del cañon / como un salvaje en el monte siguiendo a mi corazón / por mi raza por mi sangre por la fe de mi tambor / con una marca en la espalda reflejo de mi color / yo me llamo Libertad, mi apellido es Cimarrón / y es que tengo a mis ancestors dándome direcciones, limpiándome los caminos, aguantando los azotes
I became free by force / without fearing the cannon / wild in the woods, following my heart […] my name is Freedom, my last name is Maroon / my ancestors are giving me directions, clearing the roads for me, putting up with the lash of the whip
This is a great example of how the maroon is invoked as a heroic figure from the past that is connected by ancestry to artists of the present.* Something very similar happens with the tropes of the kongos and Haitians. They symbolize struggle and freedom and are the “ancestors” clearing the path for those fighting for justice in the present.
Sietenueve’s “Cimarrón” track is part of the recent Puerto Rican Freedom Album, a 2 CD compilation that aims to raise funds for the Puerto Rican political prisoners presently in US jails. A great number of the tracks on the Freedom Album are either hip-hop or roots music (bomba, guaguancó, palo, batá) and they provide great examples of these symbols or tropes of liberation that I have referred to. There are three songs in that album that just by looking at the titles one can tell that they are heavily invested in the kongo theme: Alma Moyó’s “Antonio Kongo”, Angel Rodríguez’s “Kongo Bendito” and Ilú Ayé’s “Meta pa Siete Rayos – Tiñosa”.
So as I was looking into the presence of these tropes of the maroon, the kongo and Haiti in roots music and also in hip-hop and reggaeton, I kept thinking about how these tropes are intricately connected, and how they share many basic assumptions and impulses. There was a larger picture that I was trying to understand.
Putting a slight spin on “liberation theology,” I started thinking about “liberation mythology” as a potential guiding concept.** Taking my cue from the work on mythologies of Joseph Campbell (1991) and Robert Segal (2004), I look at myths not as stories or beliefs that are (necessarily) untrue but as tropes that poetically attempt to explain or get us closer to the unexplainable. The myth may or may not be true; my aim is not to determine if it is or if it isn’t true, but to explore the “dreams of freedom” at the root of myth-making. I am interested in these myths as strategic tools deployed by musicians & activists to give individuals and communities the strength to keep crafting and pursuing their dreams of freedom. According to the way I’m developing the concept, what makes “liberation myths” different from just plain “myths” is that their purpose is to describe and understand the world but more importantly to change it—change, in turn, is defined in terms of personal and collective liberation from oppression, injustice, sadness and/or fear. In other words, the goal of this myth-making is redemption—individual and collective. This concept of “liberation myths” is quite similar to Robin D.G. Kelley’s (2002) notion of “freedom dreams” and the black radical imagination but one key distinction is that I focus on spirituality and religiosity in the process of freedom dreaming or myth-making so that the “mythology” part in “liberation mythology” serves a similar purpose as “theology” in “liberation theology.”***
Now, if we were to take literally these claims of collective kongo, maroon or Haitian heritage, we would have to take them to task for being distortions of history. Obviously not all of us have kongo, maroon or Haitian heritage. Furthermore, as Kristina Wirtz (2007) has pointed out, the reconstruction of "roots" in Afro-diasporic music is often closer to a "divination of the past"—more a poetic than a historical interpretation.
Lets take as an example the way a young New York-based Dominican bomba drummer, activist and educator argues that the Haitian “roots” of bomba serve as a bridge between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans.
"My spirit called me to bomba, early. I had access to [Dominican] palos and I loved it, but then something happened with bomba where it was a new beginning. I always felt like it was mine and it’s strange cause I’m Dominican. But its like my spirit is like “no, this is a big part of who you are.” So when I started hearing about the Haitian roots [of bomba] I got really excited. I’m like “oh, the point of connection was like three generations ago with my Haitian ancestors and your Haitian ancestors and they’re on both islands!” Lets celebrate that. It’s important to get rooted in those spaces where the cultures overlap, the times overlap, descendancies overlap."
Notice the reference to “ancestors” and “roots”. Notice also the invocation of ancestry as a way to bridge the gap between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans through “our” common Haitian roots—a “myth” with the liberatory political purpose of building a sense of unity among Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Haitians.
Here is where Kelley’s ideas in Freedom Dreams are crucial. Kelley’s recollections of being a “junior Afrocentrist” as an undergraduate, provide much insight into the issues at stake in weaving “liberation mythologies” or, in his words, “freedom dreams” that are invested in looking backward into history to claim something necessary in order to go forward.
"We looked back in search of a better future. We wanted to find a refuge where ‘black people’ exercised power, possessed essential knowledge, educated the West, built monuments, slept under the stars on the banks of the Nile, and never had to worry about the police or poverty or arrogant white people questioning our intelligence. Of course, this meant conveniently ignoring slave labor, class hierarchies, and women’s oppression, and it meant projecting backwards in time a twentieth-century conception of race, but to simply criticize us for myth making or essentialism misses the point of our reading. We dreamed the ancient world as a place of freedom, a picture to imagine what we desired and what was possible." (29)
Kelley’s work shed a lot of light on my own mixed feelings regarding these liberation mythologies. On the one hand, I was (and I am) inspired by their beauty and power. On the other hand, I can’t help but be turned off by the idealization of the past and the essentialized assumptions about who our ancestors are. But through Kelley’s work I have been better able to understand the beauty and potential of liberation mythologies.
I am still wary of their reductiveness and essentialisms, though. But is it possible to celebrate the sacredness and power of these liberation mythologies, without necessarily taking them literally? Can we spread, for example, the myth of the shared Haitian roots of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans without literally believing that we all share Haitian ancestry? I think so.
Ivor Miller's work on "spiritual ethnicity" (2004) explores the poetic/mythical dimension of what is often also an obsessive and literalist "summoning of the past" (Verges 2003). Miller writes:
"Although creolization is often used to describe the creation of something new, implying the loss of ties to an original homeland, in fact African-derived ritual traditions have maintained a centeredness in mythical Africa. That is, in spite of enrichment through cultural contact, many African-derived practices have maintained their conceptual rootedness in African spirituality.[…] African-derived identities in the Americas flourish because of—not in spite of—their origins in mythic history.” (202)
The pull of those beliefs is not just due to the strength of inherited cultural traditions. Oftentimes it is political beliefs and activism that leads people to “reclaim” African-derived spiritual traditions they may not have grown up with or paid much attention to when they were growing up—the case for many of the young musicians I focus on. According to Miller:
"In a context in which African histories and philosophies rarely form part of educational curricula, participating in African-derived religions is a method of maintaining historical counternarratives in which the present generation has direct links to an African past.[…] Since epics of the descendants of Africans have not been included in official histories, many historical narratives are maintained within families and ritual lineages. Conserving cultural inheritance is a form of historical survival.” (Miller 2004, 215)
It is of great importance to acknowledge the spiritual or, to quote Robin D.G. Kelley (2002), the “surreal” elements in these liberation mythologies. Past and present are not altogether separate realms: such a presupposition makes no sense in a context of Afrodiasporic beliefs and practices where the living have just as much impact on our present lives as the dead. The heroes and heroines of the Haitian revolution and the maroons who escaped plantation economies to establish manieles and palenques are not just protagonists of myths. They are believed to be powerful ancestors whose help is indispensable to heal, subvert modern-day injustices and escape modern-day captivity.
So, considering the lofty and powerful impulses holding up these "liberation mythologies", I'm more inclined to explore the "freedom dreams" that feed these mythologies and the liberatory practices inspired by these mythologies rather than stay stuck on arguments regarding literalist vs. poetic interpretations of mythical truth.
* Two more examples of the cimarrón trope: (1) hip-hop/ reggaeton artist La Sista’s song “Anacaona” who rhymes "Aquí está tu cimarrona / versión africana, yo soy tu Anacaona" (2) bomba group Bataklán’s “El cimarrón”: "Ahora sí, trabaja no / A fuerza yo no trabaja / Yo me va de cimarrón." Bataklán has a strong hip-hop/reggaeton connection, most notably through their collaborations with Tego Calderón and the fact that one of Bataklán’s lead singers is reggaeton artist Abrante.
** Though both “liberation theology” and “liberation mythology” are concerned with the connections between spirituality and social justice, the history of “liberation theology” as a concept is so firmly grounded in Christian traditions that (though in theory what I’m talking about is a type of liberation theology) in practice for me to use “liberation theology” would create more confusion.
*** Kelley has one chapter called “Keeping It Surreal” that deals with the surreal or mythological aspects of freedom dreaming, but his book doesn’t just focus on the surreal.