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9 Black Latinx music acts who increased visibility in the mainstream

For Black Music Month, we look at 9 Black Latinx music acts who showed society that Latinx artists come in more shades than the white-passing ones mainstream highlights.

Celia Cruz, Cardi B, and N.O.R.E. Getty

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

As industry politics give prominence to one version of what it means to be Spanish-speaking and gifted, it is imperative not to omit Black Latinx talent from the mainstream conversation. Black musicians foundationally sparked nearly every musical genre American consumers listen to. This position stretches over the globally lucrative Latin music scene, whose national revenue growth, according to RIAA reports, has annually eclipsed other markets.

Profitability from assorted artists, programs, and genres is incontestable. As legitimate concerns regarding Latinx representation circulate during Black Music Month, preceding televised viewpoints like, “Can’t you just wait a while?” Black Latinx performers need not be delayed any longer. They are the originators of the composition practitioners reap the benefits of today. If you love Latinx culture — love the multiracial identities of all the talent pushing it forward. Black Latinxs requesting to see themselves on platforms is not divisive.

Thus, racial dimensions, while nuanced, need to become more inclusive on and off-screen. This Black Music Month, REVOLT recognizes nine Black Latinx music acts who made strides approaching grander visibility worldwide. Against historical exclusion — language or geographic barriers — they remained steadfast facing commercial impediments. There is much to be respected about those who elected not to assimilate.

1. Maxwell

Alongside transcendental soundscapes, Maxwell is globally recognized as an architect of the neo-soul movement. The Haitian-Boricua multi-instrumentalist who soared to prominence in the mid-90s was born to an immigrant mother and migrant father. Homegrown in Brooklyn, the singer was pivotal in offering an elevated perspective of the diaspora’s stateside presence by way of the Caribbean.

Reared in a Baptist church, Maxwell began singing in his youth but did not become serious about composing until 17. Nevertheless, his classic debut album, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, charted within the top 40 — and became indicative of numeric positions holding no weight as it pertains to cultural relevance. The platinum-selling body of work aggrandized itself with songs like, “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” and “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.” After, the vocalist broke into the film world when the “Mellosmoothe” rendition of the last single appeared on the Love Jones soundtrack.

Maxwell’s subsequent LPs, Embyra and Now, continued the soloist’s tradition of blending groove and funk against jazz components. New nostalgic victories, including the tracks “Lifetime” and “This Woman’s Work” continued the luminary’s sentiment, “...if it doesn’t lend itself to your history, how is it going to extend to your future?” Following a hiatus, the musician’s outcome was his first-ever No. 1 record, and two Grammys alongside, BLACKsummers’night. And the faultless sonnets from the LP’s, “Pretty Wings - uncut,” held fans over until Maxwell’s return seven years later. Enlisting no guest features, the resulting 12-track poetic blackSUMMERS’night stood true to form with R&B that will endure unendingly.

2. Celia Cruz

Years after the passing of Celia Cruz, her legacy as the Queen of Salsa is undisputed. The Havana native planned to become a literature teacher ahead of winning a local talent show singing a bolero number. However, Cruz’s composition was better served in verses alongside the orchestra La Sonora Matancera. Beside the ensemble, she became the first-ever Black front person and toured much of the world.

While on a 1960 tour stop in Mexico, the collective disavowed Fidel Castro’s regime. The star and her soon-to-be husband, Pedro Knight, established American citizenship and joined New York City’s thriving Latinx music circuit. Subsequently, they were barred from returning to Cuba. Alongside Tito Puente, Cruz recorded both as a soloist and the sole woman in the iconic Fania All Stars. Her powerful voice is waxed on more than 75 records, making her one of the most celebrated artists of all-time.

Before her departure, she, an award-winning Smithsonian Lifetime Achievement and National Medal of the Arts recipient, inspired many of the artistic trends we see today. A sight to behold, the diva ensured the world saw her confidence through her vibrant fashion and deliberate language. For illustration, her signature shout “¡Azúcar!” exists in “...remembrance of enslaved Africans who worked on Cuban sugar plantations,” according to testimonials from The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Cruz’s vibration is timeless. The vocalist was awarded a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

3. Ozuna

Ozuna, a Dominican-Puerto Rican singer and conscientious father, managed to become one of the most prominent acts in the world while avoiding profane lyrics. Next to his record-breaking movimiento music — formerly referenced under the genre urbano — the artist centers his Blackness intentionally. As a result, he became appreciated internationally as “el negrito de los ojos claros” — the Black guy with light eyes. In an industry troubled by colorism, what Ozuna enlarges to the culture is immeasurable.

In 2020, his fourth solo studio album, ENOC (an acronym for “El Negrito Ojos Claro”), solidified his fourth No. 1 on the designated Top Latin Albums chart. In pop spaces, his latest bilingual breakthrough, “Del Mar,” was propped up beside Doja Cat and Sia. His ability to assist a billion streams upward on Spotify with collaborations such as “Taki Taki” demonstrates Latinx talent is a part of the general market and not separate from it. While Black Latinxs’ notables are repeatedly arranged behind production roles, like Saga WhiteBlack — or listed on underground circuits bills such as Negro Leo — Ozuna remains arena amplified.

Despite humble beginnings, the Box Score publication confirmed Ozuna “grossed an average of $882,437 per night on tour,” ahead of the pandemic. In previous years, the star was certified as the most-watched artist on YouTube and the artist with the most videos to reach one billion views on YouTube by Guinness World Records. More than maintaining his range during a live production, the musician preserved his modesty between multiple charitable causes. Above all, Ozuna is chosen.

4. N.O.R.E.

One of the largest unsung heroes in securing reggaeton near rap broadcasting is MC and “Drink Champs” co-host N.O.R.E. From his ‘90s introduction under the alias, Noreaga — originating from the former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega — his appreciation for his Latinidad was forward-facing. The New York native’s Spanglish rhetoric represents the migrant children who navigate the strife of concrete constructs.

This continuation of Caribbean survival is often invalidated by Spanish-language programming, yet was an unmistakable segway to promote Latinx genres universally. From the lyricist’s boom-bap raps beside Capone, under the tandem Capone-N-Noreaga, to his 1998 self-titled 19-track solo LP, N.O.R.E., the rapper understood his assignment. The specified platinum-selling debut enlisted purists including Nas, Big Pun, Jadakiss, Busta Rhymes, and Styles P.

In the 2000s, N.O.R.E. veered toward bilingual hits. The Afro-Boricua’s full-length project N.O.R.E. Y La Familia... Ya Tú Sabes linked reggaeton mainstays with cross-genre heavyweights like preceding island-based compilations Boricua Guerrero: First Combat, and Mas Flow, Vol. 1. Because of this innovative mainstream energy, hip hop enthusiasts heard Diddy playthrough before Daddy Yankee on N.O.R.E.’s album sequencing. The principal collaboration, “Oye Mi Canto,” achieved international success. Following, the rapper professed on the earworm “Reggaeton Latino”: “They say they got my name right next to the veterans/ They say I introduced reggaeton to Americans.” Presently, N.O.R.E. serves as the co-founder and co-host of the hit show “Drink Champs” beside DJ EFN on REVOLT.

5. ChocQuibTown

The Afro-Colombian hip hop trio ChocQuibTown weaves alternative notes against pop sounds while being directed by their frontwoman, Goyo. Together, the singer-rapper; her brother, Slow; and husband, Tostao, are a refreshing reminder to a bleach-smeared landscape of its roots. Embracing Afro-diasporic music elements, the crew has seldom shied away from politics since budding from Cali, Colombia in 2000.

In their earlier days, the Latin Grammy-awarded song “De Donde Vengo Yo” (Where I Come From) accentuated the nuances of ChocQuibTown’s bordering communities. Likewise, Goyo and Slow, honoring their hometown, Condoto — and Tostao repping Quibdó — intuitively detail the Pacific coast beautifully with folkloric-touched tracks. Still, following a couple of decades of work, ChocQuibTown is creating much-needed discourse outside the studio concerning Black lives. All they embody is invaluable to the movimiento uproar.

The cross-genre collective addresses barriers in proximity to Black Latinx representation and social justice hurdles. These viewpoints include but are not limited to popular telenovelas, widespread police brutality, institutional racism — on social or commercial media platforms. Farther, the band sonically extends historically excluded segments on singles like “Que Me Baile” with Becky G. Overall, ChocQuibTown’s audiovisuals, including the hit “Pa Olvidarte” beside Zion & Lennox, Farruko, and Manuel Turizo; brighten Black Latinx representation for multi-million viewership globally.

6. Tego Calderon

No matter your nation of origin, the proper response to the Latinx proverb: “Pa’ que se lo gozen” (So that they enjoy it) is “Tego Calderón, pa’ que retozen.” The dread-swinging pioneer, Calderón, is one of the most important faces in reggaeton. Period. Before the rapper was filmed acting near franchises including Fast & Furious, his substantive teachings on beats were journeying throughout the Caribbean.

More than put on for his Afro-Latinx identifications, Calderón expresses his adoration of Black Latinas in an industry that can steadily be misogynist toward optics. The former Escuela Libre de Música of Puerto Rico student moved to the mainland, where he completed his education in Miami. Here, the rhymer was exposed to mainstream hip hop, citing the gangster rap collective N.W.A. as substantial. Upon returning to la isla del encanto, Calderón immersed himself in the dancehall mixes of Ninja Man, Buju Banton, and Super Cat.

These encouraging figures enriched the final production of his classic Latin Grammy-nominated debut, El Abayarde. Smashes like “Guasa, Guasa” and “Dominicana” spread like wildfire, asserting his prominence — ahead of the Mas Flow bop “Métele Sazón” beside Noriega and Luny Tunes. Throughout eight projects, the hit-maker has been commended for articulating the limitations of American colonization and corruption, as well as buzzing perreo workings.

7. La Lupe

A woman committed to reviving the understanding of what stardom in Latin America and the Caribbean harmonized was La Lupe. The celebrated Queen of Latin Soul was told, “A Black Latina could never make it as a famous singer,” according to Juan A. Moreno-Velázquez’s book, Demystifying a Diva: The Truth Behind the Myth of La Lupe. Yet, much like one of Lupe’s idols, Celia Cruz, she finished her schooling in teaching instruction before educating the masses through the strength of her raspy tone.

The spirited “Qué Te Pedí,” feminist soloist, did not assemble her art with respectability politics as its focal point. Upon making her rounds in the nightlife scene of Havana, famous faces began to lengthen Lupe’s audiences, including Ernest Hemingway and Marlon Brando. Well-known for unapologetically using her sexuality, she would regularly tear off her clothes while singing on stage in an era when women endured even gruffer retribution for governing themselves. “I think people like me because I do what they’d like to but can’t get free enough to do,” she famously affirmed to Look.

Upon taking her expertise to New York City, the Fania-endorsed artist entertained through genres including merengue, boogaloo, bomba and plena. Between a slew of over 20 records, her renowned numbers include “La Tirana,” “Fever,” and “Puro Teatro.” Following various life trials, Lupe became a born-again Christian and returned to music — this time around singing gospel songs. In remembrance, a street in the Bronx was named after her, La Lupe Way, where she was laid to rest.

8. Sech

The church has been a foundational pillar for establishing many of Spanish-language radio’s romantico songbirds. In this fashion, the on-the-rise tenor Sech was groomed by two parental pastors in Río Abajo, a township of Panama City. The sweet-toned vocalist first honed his craft through poetry, which evolved into the songwriting on his 2014 debut single, “Yo Sin Ti.” But, again, Sech’s genius stems from the birthplace of universalized reggae en español.

Consistent follow-up tracks on a couple of tapes made waves in Panama and surrounding the Caribbean before he caught the attention of DJ Dimelo Flow. Together, their 2019 breakup production, “Otro Trago,” assisted by Darell, venerated Sech as an international player. The soulful singer-songwriter spent time developing his palette between New York, Miami, and Panama — and chiefly pens feel-good melodies. Moreover, the multifariousness between his R&B-meets-reggaeton cuts on the acclaimed LP Sueños is invigorated by Sech’s musical influences such as Boyz II Men and Tego Calderón.

To add, camaraderie exists among ongoing Latin Pop formats in a way other genres rarely witness. For instance, an album single similar to the 1 of 1 hit “Relación can swiftly become five Spanish-speaking artists collaborating on a remix — such as Daddy Yankee, J Balvin, Rosalía, Farruko garnering over 300 million views on YouTube — in Sech’s “Relación (Remix)” music video. His 2021 album, 42, is an 11-track ode against whitewashing. Its title was motivated by the Black distinction of baseball figures like Mariano Rivera and Jackie Robinson. Beyond his multi-instrumental skill, Sech merits his image to be positioned near other leading artists who lack it. As viewers can attest, melanin is often relegated to the peripheral views of the mainstream.

9. Cardi B

Before becoming the first female rapper to record an RIAA diamond-certified single, Cardi B had followers laughing at her confessionals across social media. The artist’s independent introduction, “Cheap Ass Weave,” brought listeners the viral-buzzing humor she was celebrated for ahead of releasing consecutive mixtapes, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 and Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 2. With her spotlight on the popular TV series “Love and Hip Hop: New York,” and her visual premieres including “Foreva” and “Lick” with now-husband Offset, Cardi B’s star power shifted incontestably.

Climbing atop her stripper past, the Bronx-born artist was transparent with fans about challenging life chapters — including lifting herself from an abusive relationship and working toward foundational studio sessions. At the start of 2017, the multi-hyphenate signed a major deal with Atlantic Records and then released her now 10-times platinum hit, “Bodak Yellow.” Its respective chart-crowning album, Invasion of Privacy, was the first of its kind for a woman rapper, with all 13 tracks being certified gold or higher. Multi-platinum hits such as the bilingual No. 1 song ”I Like It,” featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin, reverenced her on Spanish-language radio.

The debut LP established Cardi B as the first solo female artist to win a Grammy award for Best Rap Album — even garnering applause from her category competitor, the late Nipsey Hussle. As a collaborator, the No. 1 tracks, “Girls Like You” beside Maroon 5 and “WAP” with Megan Thee Stallion, extended international acclaim. With no features, Cardi B returned this year with a global smash, “Up.” In a brief span, the Trinidadian-Dominican entrepreneur’s influence is among the most powerful in the world. From her growing family, continued clothing collaborations, movie enrichments, sneaker endorsements, Guinness World Records, and cross-genre sales, Cardi B is a self-made woman.

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