Johnny Ventura, Lido Pimienta & Jean Dawson
Amid Black Lives Matter Conversations, Black Latinx Artists Urge Non-Black Latinx To Do Better
"I am not free as long as one person of color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you," writer and poet Audre Lorde cautioned during her keynote speech addressing racism at a Connecticut women’s conference in 1981. Her message was clear: Racism cannot be dismantled until every person fights to eliminate it—that included women who, in world ruled by white males, faced oppression because of their gender, but benefited from whiteness.
Almost 40 years later, the late writer’s words are even more far-reaching.
As the U.S. faces trials brought forth by systemic, societal and cultural racism ignited by George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, the Latinx community, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, as described by Pew Research Center, are now turning inward to evaluate their own role in a conversation about race, privilege and anti-Blackness.
The Latinx community is extremely diverse, comprising indigenous, Black and white people (among others). Though it is often unified by the Spanish language, many members are now saying that the community must reckon with its own history of anti-Blackness. Being Black, no matter your cultural background, can more than likely mean experiencing heightened racism such as police brutality—a privilege light-skinned and white-passing Latinx don’t have to worry about.
As the music industry goes through its own discussion on systemic racism, music leaders are calling for change, in and out of the industry. But how? Latinx have to acknowledge a history of anti-Blackness, rooted by colonialism, to understand why this is a question in the first place, they say.
A history of anti-Blackness
Half Black and half Mexican, Jean Dawson grew up an anomaly to many. He was born in San Diego to a Black father and a Mexican mother, but raised in Tijuana after he and his mother moved there.
"I was in Mexico and people didn't know what I was," the singer/songwriter says over Zoom. "There was a whole lot of stuff."
Some Mexicans would call him "Kalimba," he recalls. Kalimba, an Afro-Mexican singer, was a part of an influentially successful pop group called OV7 in the ‘90s. He and his sister, M'balia Maricha, were two Afro-Mexicans in a predominately light-skinned Mexican group, and as scarce as hen’s teeth in the overall industry.
Dawson commuted to San Diego every day for school, something not so uncommon in a border town. He now lives in Los Angeles, though he says that life in the U.S. isn't much better than it was back home. "Police in the United States don't see me as a Mexican man. Even if they do, they see me as a threat," he says. "They see me as all these things rather than being a 24-year-old college-educated musician."
And he isn’t the only music artist with accounts of discrimination. In and out of the U.S., the latest Black Lives Movement protests have Black and Afro-Latinx artists sharing their own personal stories of racism.
In a livestreamed conversation with the newly formed Conciencia Collective, a Latinx group of music professionals addressing race issues, ChocQuibTown’s Goyo shared she’s been taken off a bus in Colombia because she was Black.
In an Instagram post, Legendary merengue and salsa musician Johnny Ventura recounted a trip to the U.S. that quickly became uncomfortable when an airport immigration officer wouldn’t believe he was staying at an upscale hotel in New York. The officer stopped asking where he was really staying only until after a Puerto Rican co-worker let him know who Ventura was.
Dawson and Goyo’s accounts solidify two facts: No matter who you are, if you’re Black, you’re a target. Also, there are undeniable microaggressions and discrimination towards Black Latinx in the culture.
Across Latin countries, whether in North, South America or the Caribbean, microaggressions show up in casual expressions. For example, there's the phrase "Hay que mejorar la raza" or "We have to better the race," while family members issue constant reminders to not get too much sun in order to keep skin as light as possible. Such microaggressions perpetuate anti-Black and anti-indigenous ideologies that go unquestioned.
"There [were] people in my family that when they met my father through my mother immediately were like, 'No, you can't be with him because he's Black,'" Dawson says.
Light skin, light eyes, light hair—the closer a Latinx person comes to whiteness can often equate to a higher perceived desirability within the culture.
Roughly 130 million people of African descent live in Latin America, according to a 2016 report by Princeton University’s Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America. Slavery by the Spanish and Portuguese plays a role in that number. Despite Black Latinx making up an estimated quarter of the population now, their Black identity continues to be belittled and erased through language and racial identifiers.
Dominican-American journalist Jennifer Mota noted that calling someone "Spanish" who may not be, as is sometimes done in Latin countries, is erasing their indigenous or Black identity, even if they speak Spanish.
"I am Spanish-speaking.... I was not born in Spain, nor were my parents," she wrote on her Instagram. "Spanish is both a language and a nationality, when you label someone Spanish & they are not, you are erasing their specific culture, nationality, and experience."
Colombian-Canadian singer/songwriter Lido Pimienta adds that doing so is erasing the fact that colonization ever happened.
“People call me Spanish, I'm not Spanish, I'm Colombian. I speak Spanish, because I was colonized by Spain,” she says.“[Being called] Spanish is this negation, that there was ever colonization.”
Beyond language, eurocentric beauty standards dominate media in many Latin countries. Travel to Mexico, Colombia or almost any other Spanish-speaking country and you’ll see street ads, television soap operas and other programming featuring light-skinned people.
"Whatever is closest or with more proximity to whiteness in sound, in look, in aesthetic. That's the person that we want, and that's the person that's going to get the platform." Pimienta says of the media and entertainment mindset in Colombia, where roughly 10 percent of the population is Black, and traces of the country's only Black president, Juan José Nieto Gil, have been erased from history, including in books and portraits.
The cover of her recently released album Miss Colombia dismantles these notions of white supremacy, targeting beauty pageants (which are highly regarded in the country), where only two Black women from the country have won a Miss Universe title. Pimienta protests that reality when she, a Black, indigenous Colombian, stands front and center wearing a crown.
The Black erasure and whitewashing that happens in Latin countries is blatant and is a result of colonization, University of Florida assistant professor Jillian Hernandez says.
"The Spanish basically [formed] a whole cast of different races, the exploitation of indigenous people and then of the enslaved Africans that were brought to Latin America," she says. "Because so many Latinx have light skin privilege, there has been the sort of ideology of white aspiration."
Even when it comes to music consumption, music with Black roots, like reggaeton, is minimized among some Latinx.
"Black Latinx music [is] often looked down upon as a lesser form of Latinx music, even though it's clearly super popular and clearly super lucrative," Hernandez continues. "Those are again the same hierarchies that we get from the same racist colonialism."
Hernandez adds those hierarchies can also show up at award shows and "urbano" artists can become pigeonholed. "What cultural forms [of music] are ... taken the most seriously or given the most awards?" she asks. Both the GRAMMYs and Latin GRAMMYs have been critiqued for their urban categories. The GRAMMYs have renamed their urban contemporary category and the Latin GRAMMYs have added a reggaeton category.
Hernandez says these ideologies start at home: "In many ways, we're trained in our families to be anti-Black and anti-indigenous." Johnny Ventura, a 80-year-old singer/musician from the Dominican Republic, has for decades represented Afro-Latinos through salsa and merengue music, both of which derive from Black music.
Off and on the stage, he’s made a point to celebrate Blackness. If Latinos, he believes, discriminate amongst themselves, they are enabling white Americans and Europeans that engage in racism.
For him, combating anti-Blackness meant teaching his children to love who they are. "In my home, the moment my kids were born, we called them 'Negrito lindo, negrito bello, negrito bello,'" he says. ("Negrito" is an endearing word deriving from "negro," or "Black" in Spanish.) Ventura took care to pair the word with "beautiful" when using it to refer to his kids.
He brought that same mentality to the stage: In Ventura's music, you’ll proudly hear him call himself negro often. "[I do it] justifiably to combat that," he says, referring to anti-Blackness.
In the U.S., where one-quarter of all U.S. Latinos self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America (according to a 2016 Pew Research study), Latinx are outlining ways to bring these conversations to light at home.
But in order to truly dismantle white supremacy in Latin culture, Latinx should not be seen as just one thing, Pimienta says.
"Every [Latin American] country has their thing that they can do, because it's not a monolith," she explains. "And there's not one way of being Black."
University of California San Diego Ethnic Studies assistant professorJosé Fusté agrees that people need to be careful about seeing all Latinos as the same. "I'm Puerto Rican. We don't deal with ICE. We don't have that situation. We need to be very real about our privilege when it comes to that, even though we're colonial subjects," he says.
While he says someone from Central America may not necessarily relate in every aspect to someone from Cuba, many non-white Latinx share being made the "other" in the U.S.
"We have common ground whether we like it or not. But we also have differences," he says. "I'll never know what it's like to be an Afro-Latino. It's my job to try to find out and understand it for myself and try to convey it to others. It's my responsibility."
Beyond holding conversations at home, educational programs like Ethnic Studies at colleges and universities can help dismantle racism, some argue. An option for those with educational resources or interest in education as Ethnic studies teaches the histories and stories of Black and people of color.
Black and Latinx artists are using music as a way to educate for without access to Ethnic Studies. ChocQuibTown’s "Somos los Prietos" and Myke Towers’ recently released "MICHAEL X" highlight their experience and share their support for struggles faced by Black people in and out of the U.S.
Dawson released a song called “Policia” or “Police," which he wrote before Floyd’s death but decided to release after to raise funds for inner-city children, the wrongfully incarcerated and trans people.
Ventura decided not to celebrate his 64th music anniversary this year after Floyd’s killing, which he took personally. "I usually celebrate, but this time I didn’t," he says. "Things that I thought stayed in the past haven’t and Floyd represents all Black people."
A Debt Is Due
The latest Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a wave of accountability that began with the police system and has swept through several corners of society, causing the music industry to experience its own wave of trials. Historically, the music industry has been complicit in systemic racism and erasure of Blackness. White gatekeepers, as Wesley Morris explains for The New York Times Magazine, have too many times determined a song to be "Too Black for certain white people." Or claimed genres for their own without acknowledging its Black roots.
The relationship between Black artists and the music industry is fueled by a historic dehumanization of Blackness that happens in the U.S. and Latin America.
There is a kind of obsession with Black culture, Fusté says. "There is a kind of love-hate relationship. There is an infatuation with it. There's an obsession with it at the same time that there's a dehumanization of it."
Blackface Minstrelsy happened in the U.S. but also other places like Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico, he notes.
Online movements #BlackOutTuesday and coalitions like the Black Music Action Coalition have called for the acknowledgment of the industry’s exploitation and called for support for Black artists and music professionals. A similar coalition was created in the U.K.
Companies like Swedish music electronics company Teenage Engineering, which makes products used by dance music producers, plan to begin sharing its revenue with some Black musicians in the U.S. as a way to acknowledge their part in making their products popular.
Sony Music Group, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group have announced donations aiming to support social justice organizations. Sony and Universal also announced inside initiatives to support their Black employees.
Republic Records, under Universal, has vowed to drop the industry term "urban" in its genres and every other facet of the label. (The "urban" genre has been used as an umbrella term that boxes in Black artists and music industry professionals.)
Leading Latin music publication Remezcla, meanwhile, is taking the same pledge to stop using the Spanish equivalent of urban, or "musica urbana."
"There's so much power in the media, how they frame this," Hernandez says. "If Remezcla says we're not going to see ‘musica urbana,’ that is changing the discourse."
She continues: “It's not going to save anyone's life, but it will change how histories of popular music and culture are written because it is a moment. When inspired by a social movement, a group of people decide, 'You know what? We're going to change the discourse about this particular genre of music.'"
Beyond language, several aspects of the music industry need to rethink who it champions and promotes. In 2018, Amara La Negra explained to a bewildered Breakfast Club how colorism exists in the Latin music industry.
"They’ll always pick the lighter [skin tone]. The ones that look like... [the] J.Los and Shakiras and stuff before they look at us," she said.
"The music industry is based a lot on stereotypes that at a marketing level that maybe are not opening doors for artists or for telling Black stories," Goyo said in a talk with Conciencia Collective. "We don’t see ourselves represented on T.V."
Prominent artists in Latin music genres are being asked to set an example, too. An Op-Ed by Katelina Eccleston published in Remezcla called “Why Urbano Artists' Scarce Comments On The #BLM Movement Are a Problem” called out the lack of response from some reggaetón and Latin trap artists who make music with Black and Afro-Caribbean roots. Eccleston referenced Bad Bunny in particular, an artist who is widely known for voicing his opinion on politics but was slow to speak up on #BlackLivesMatter. Bunny, who had been unplugging while Floyd’s death happened, eventually released a statement to TIME that called for educating friends and family on racism.
"Urbano artists—especially those who aren’t Black—have a duty to speak up on behalf of racial injustice outside of when it’s trendy. It’s not only a crucial means of compensating for the exploitation of Black aesthetics, but an element of solidarity of the advancement towards racial equality in the U.S., Latin America and as far as their influence reaches," Eccleston writes.
Pimienta says non-Latinx artists creating Black Latinx music should recognize their privilege if they perform Black music. "When you see it in culture, in music, in the music industry, and it's not questioned, we are, as an industry, perpetuating white supremacy."
Pimienta also argues that the industry needs to rethink branding Europeans as Latin. "When you have artists from Europe that break into the music scene, and they're branded as Latin, it is problematic."
How popular culture can be a vehicle for change
Already, Latinx in the music industry have started conversations on privilege and solidarity, with Conciencia Collective and journalists—including Mota and La Gata—holding livestream talks.
Fusté believes music and pop culture can lead the way on the necessary conversations that need to happen.
"We need to be honest about those things, and the music needs to reflect that. I think we're going there, honestly. I'm optimistic about it. Because I think, if anything, music is going to teach us that," he says. "There are people that will consume these videos, these talks. I think the artist can reach people directly in a way that's never happened before."
Goyo uses her platform to bring Ethnic Studies (she refers to it as Ethno-studies) to the world.
"Ethno-education is a powerful tool that goes from the university to other places to explain history," she said in her conversation with Conciencia Collective.
Meanwhile, the Latinx music industry is taking on race issues but also holding space for women and the LGBTQ community to talk about the intersections of race and other identities.
Goya and Pimienta have used their music to talk about their experiences being Black women. Pabllo Vittar, Lauren Jauregui, Tatiana Hazel and Urias joined the collective in a conversation about how gender and sexuality affect Black and Latinx of color.
Vittar says racism and homophobia affects Brazil; it's something the government doesn’t seek to improve and the media hardly shows.
"I always try to use my platform to show what’s happening in my country, what’s happening in cities with the Black Lives Matter movement,” he says in the conversation. “I want the media in Brazil to also show that there is also a lot of suffering from racism, homophobia and some many other things in Brazil."
While there is work that needs to be done in the industry, Pimienta says space for indigenous folk music and other music made by Black and indigenous artists—what she calls outsider music—that challenge identity norms is growing.
"I feel like we are now at this point where people are hungry for that. I feel like we've gone through the shiny and the perfectly packaged and the perfect ideals of womanhood…" she says. "I feel really good. I feel like finally I don't have to explain myself. That's where I'm trying to go."