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How West Indians helped establish El Movimiento and why we need more Black Latinx representation today

However uncomfortable — whatever the genre — we have a grander responsibility to vocalize accountability. It is time to address what belongs at the forefront. No more pretenses. 

Celia Cruz Getty Images

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.

Efforts to combat anti-Black racism have increased globally among corporations and specifically throughout mainstream music. Recently, in light of recorded police brutality, worldwide protests, and the richness of Black culture, music practitioners have seen executives who house major record labels open their wallets like never before. Some of the recent multi-million dollar efforts include, but are not limited to, Warner Music Group’s arrayed artistic and social justice charities and Universal Music Group’s newly formed Task Force for Meaningful Change (TFMC).

While prevailing donations are appreciated, these financial figures concerning the mentioned models are long overdue. Black musicians have instituted measures of profitable genres in multiple languages. Further, in preceding periods of prejudicial systems and segregation, Black performers were either inadequately credited, underpaid, or disregarded from the music they created. That is not to allude that contemporary systemic walls do not bar Black artistry across the diaspora.

A privileged example is Elvis Presley, who is widely recognized as the King of Rock and Roll. One of Presley’s lyrical crown jewels, “Hound Dog,” was first recorded by Big Mama Thornton, a Black songstress. This pattern of studio incidents echoing the before-mentioned cultural appropriation reaches across musical genres. Further, these same characteristics are not limited to erasure within English-language music.

Contrary to what frequently takes priority on-screen with Latinx musicians, white-passing Latinx composers are not responsible for founding reggaeton. The internationally acclaimed genre is derived from the marriage of several others. An overlooked history provided briefly: West Indian immigrants who came to Panama to assist the construction of the Panama Canal project introduced a few of their tuneful tools and traditions to locals — including dancehall. More than their rhythmic donations, the benefactions of such laborers from Barbados, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and nations related to American society should be mentioned.

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt authored the Spooner Act. In subsequent years, the congressionally approved effort aided — acquiring the right to obtain Canal de Panamá from the French Company — as they were retreating from the build following an estimated 20,000 craftsman deaths. The courage of over 100,000 West Indian immigrants sustained the renegotiated achievement.

All the while, these settling tradesmen and their families were withheld from fundamental rights, while experiencing the uncertainty of the Panamanian naturalization process, and being denied the possibility of American citizenship. By 1977, the Torrijos–Carter Treaty inaugurated political development with Panamanians regaining jurisdictional powers over the Canal Zone. Further integration along the Isthmus of Panama enabled the cultural influence of these historic West Indians to outstretch along the coast of the Caribbean Sea and into South America.

The widespread aftermath, reggae en español, was one of these upshots, utilizing the Diablo Rojo (red devil) buses of Panama City as the vehicles which drove the inspired sound to the volumes unheard of. These graffiti-splashed buses hosted competitions among separate carriers to decide who had the best riddims and commuters. Consequently, the audible guiders are a perreo-fueled precursor to the increased commercialization led by Puerto Rican nightlife and players. Above, what is deemed marketable, Caribbean Latinxs, notably, propelled the musical expansion toward the present-day movimiento, which all Spanish-speaking territories now relish.

Pathfinders like Renato, El General, and Nando Boom are highly regarded for getting the initial music in motion, and none of these artists are white. These pioneers’ songs unveiled what was happening among the people and were partly influenced by reggae, bomba, and hip hop. The latter being another aspect of Black culture that is profoundly Caribbean.

Additionally, it is vital to understand that the term “Latin” is not merely a niche, though often marked as such. Latinx consumers play a significant role in cultural currency. According to a Nielsen report, “By 2023, the buying power of the United States Latinx population is expected to top $1.9 trillion.” Preceding RIAA records show the industry’s Spanish-language (Latin) markets consecutively achieved an annual double-digit increase. While these concise totals do not highlight every big picture impact, they affect the Black Latinx experience in the mainstream.

According to a past Visual Capitalist Growing Diversity in America report, which logged the U.S. population by race and ethnicity, Latinos contributed to 18.5% of the increase and Black people represented 12.2% of growth. Even so, what often gets lost in translation is that identifying as Latinx indicates one’s ethnicity, as there are diverse races encompassed in the ethnic background.

Being Latinx does not mean you directly survive in the world as a person of color. Moreover, Blackness is not a monolith. Pew Research estimated over 130 million Black Latinxs reside throughout Latin America. Bearing these numerals in mind, the general market warrants more Black Latinx performers spotlighted and operating throughout media. As a reference, movimiento supporters can recognize that how Karol G navigates is unlike how Amara La Negra does. Both women are Latinx.

Overall, current Spanish-language chart-topping tracks come from various countries, and the dialects waxed onto those songs’ records are not all the same. For example, some Latinxs, like Brazilians, speak Portuguese. And although chart labels might lead audiences to assume otherwise — much like English-language artists — Latinx musicians also have separate genres. Enter: bomba, dembow, cumbia, salsa, merengue, trap en español, bachata, bossa nova, reggaeton, etc.

Still, as Rolling Stone noted, Billboard, specifically, reviews Latinx artists’ tracks on a “Latin songs chart, [which] lumps together a myriad of genres and languages under one ethnic umbrella.” English-speaking specialists are provided the opportunity to attribute their art by its name. Apparent connotations concerning race are not limited to Spanish-speaking stars. Retro composers have also leaped over institutionalized obstacles. The Black History website shows the magazine’s current R&B chart was previously published as “race records.”

With the acknowledgment of R&B-charting earworms, several of the world’s highest-selling female artists are Black women. Think of Rihanna, Whitney Houston, and Beyoncé’s international accolades. These aforementioned hit-makers’ work ethic speaks for itself. And beyond icons like the mixed-raced, part-Black, part-Venezuelan Mariah Carey, that level of success seldom transitions into Latinx realms. There is no shortage of Black Latina talent. However, these women, time after time, are provided minimal visibility, whether singing or rapping in English or Spanish.

Determinants include the aftermath of colonization, such as colorism and European beauty standards are thrust upon movimiento fan bases and broad syndication. These same sentiments stir overhead rap music formations. Global pop star victories such as those of the Trinidadian-Dominican rapper Cardi B are uncommon. Honorable mentions regarding Black Latinas whose lyrics orbit their male counterparts include BIA, Rico Nasty, Melii, and Nitty Scott. The punchline that reaches outside the ropes of genetic makeup is that women MCs are not afforded the luxury of being mediocre and then ascending to worldwide repute. The same cannot be said regarding men in hip hop structures.

Despite that, can more space be created in the mainstream for young artists like the before-mentioned women? Internationally, we have seen artists such as Jim Jones, Don Omar, Kid Cudi, and Swizz Beatz institute themselves as veterans. These men represent an essential spectrum of Latinidad. Moreover, without women like GloryLa Gata Gangster,” Rude Girl La Atrevida, and Ivy Queen, would European performers like Rosalía — who, by the way, is not Latinx — have the blueprints to achieve superstardom in Latinx markets?

Yes, we may applaud talent, but does that need to happen with the marginalized support of Latinas? Reggaeton, specifically, is rooted in resistance. Upholding eliminatory marketing rollouts — with recurring themes of who is palatable commercially — veers against the culture, gatekeepers insist they aim to protect. Moreover, being of an experience does not grant playmakers immunity for sustaining supremacy.

The current requests are simple. If you are in a position of power and pride yourself on leadership, please direct the masses toward the truth. Not advocating for the architects who fought for this music to exist is inauthentic. Across the industry, why do backers see plenty of those who study the gifts and less of those who embody them? However uncomfortable — whatever the genre — we have a grander responsibility to vocalize accountability. It is time to address what belongs at the forefront. No more pretenses.

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