A white reggaeton artist was named 'Afro-Latino Artist of the Year' and that's a problem

By Lisa Deaderick

The decision to award reggaeton artist J Balvin as Afro-Latino Artist of the Year last month is a familiarly puzzling and frustrating story. The musical genre — created by Afro-Panamanians and initially known as "reggae en espanol" — is a popular and profitable style of music originating in Black Latin and Caribbean communities.

As was the case with jazz, rock and hip-hop before it, reggaeton has morphed from its association with Black artists who've had to struggle to break into the mainstream music industry to white artists raking in millions and becoming the face of reggaeton. J Balvin, a white Colombian singer/rapper who has explicitly stated that he's not Afro-Latino, is just the latest in a long history of erasing Black creators from their art.

"The Latin music industry borrows heavily from Afro-Latino cultural practices but privileges and prioritizes white Latino artists to perform them, and that's a historical pattern we've had," Petra Rivera-Rideau, author of "Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico," told Rolling Stone.

To discuss the larger issues of representation, erasure and Black identity in Latin America, I spoke with Zahira Kelly-Cabrera and Kim Haas. Kelly-Cabrera, also known as @Bad_Dominicana, is a writer, artist and socio-cultural critic whose analysis comes from a Black Latina feminist perspective. Haas, who is African American, is executive producer and host of "Afro-Latino Travels with Kim Haas," which celebrates people of African descent in Latin America. (These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. )

Q: In December, Colombian singer and rapper J Balvin was named Afro-Latino Artist of the Year by African Entertainment Awards USA, an organization that describes itself as supporting, celebrating and uplifting African entertainment. The backlash to the news of this award was swift because he's white Colombian and not Afro-Latino. I often hear and see race discussed from the understanding that all Latin people are a mixture of European, Black and Indigenous, canceling out any need to define race more concretely. Can you talk a bit about how race is generally understood and defined in Latin America?

Kelly-Cabrera: When we think of Latin America, every time I say that I'm a Black Latin American person, I tell people they're gonna have to redo their conception of the universe. Mostly because the current conception doesn't include the existence of me and almost 100 million Black people in Latin America. The conception is that Latin Americans are a mixture of mainly white and Indigenous, and every now and then they'll shout out some sort of Black. When you think about Latinos, you're thinking J. Lo or Selena, you're not thinking about Gina Torres or a dark-skinned Black woman who would look more like Viola Davis. It's just about an image that even Latin Americans would like to maintain, and the erasure is very intentional, very purposeful. It's easy to categorize J Balvin and say that he's probably mixed somewhere in his line, and that's good enough. Instead of saying that if we're looking for the bridge between Latin America and Africa, we should be looking for the descendants of Africans who are still in Latin America.

Q: Does there seem to be more of a disconnect in understanding that people can be both Black and Latino, the way we understand that there are Black folks who are culturally American, or British?

Kelly-Cabrera: Absolutely, because of the way "Latino" is constructed to be basically mestizo or white; non-Black, essentially. It's very difficult for people to process that you can be both Black and Latino. All of the Latinidad that you know and love comes from Black people. People have a hard time understanding that, in Latin America, there's people of different races, just like in the U.S. When you think Latin American, though, you're not thinking of Black people, ever. When you think of a country like Colombia, you're not thinking that it's 15 to 20% Black. That means there's a lot of Black people; they might be concentrated in places, but that's still a lot of people. They have the second largest (Black) population after Brazil, which has the second largest (Black) population after Nigeria.

It's very difficult for both Latin Americans and for people outside of Latin America to understand Blackness as Latin American. Every time I arrive in Miami airport, people refuse to speak to me in Spanish even though my name is Zahira Kelly-Cabrera and I'm obviously from the Dominican Republic. I get, "Oh, my bad, I thought you were, like, Jamaican or something else." I'm Black, therefore I'm not Latin American. In D.R., I'm automatically Latin American. In places like Cali, Colombia, everybody spoke to me in Spanish immediately. It's an assumption and they assumed that I was from the Black municipalities.

Haas: Absolutely because when I talk to Afro-Latinos, they've often said, "I'm both. I'm of African descent and I'm Latin American." Talking to many Afro-Latinos, they will often tell me that they feel like they're in this kind of no-man's-land where people will say, "Well, you're not Black" or "You're not Latino" and they're like, "No, we can be both, and we are both." This idea of what it means to be Latino includes Black because people of African descent make up a significant part of Latin America. When we think about a Latin American, I think we need to think about what that means.

Q: What would you hope the resulting understanding of Afro-Latinx identity and representation would be after this situation with J Balvin and his award?

Kelly-Cabrera: I would hope that people start thinking about where all of this music that they love, and that they're profiting off of and get so much joy from, that they understand where it comes from. That they understand where it came from and who has been marginalized, not just in music, but in every aspect. We have the least access to resources, that's really the bottom line. We're creating this in the midst of so much ... struggle. In Colombia, where J Balvin is from, Colombian activists are murdered nearly every week, fighting for their people, fighting against being displaced. There's a context to that.


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