Latin Music Needs a Black Lives Matter Movement - Rolling Stone
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Latin Music Needs a Black Lives Matter Movement

The Conciencia Collective, whose members include artists such as Becky G and ChocQuibTown’s Goyo along with music industry insiders, aims to address longstanding inequities in the Latin music business

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 30: Chocquibtown members (L-R) Carlos "Tostao" Valencia, Gloria "Goyo" Martinez and Miguel "Slow" Martinez are seen during Univision's "Despierta America' on April 30, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Alberto E. Tamargo/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Gloria "Goyo" Martinez (center) performs with her Colombian hip-hop trio, ChocQuibTown, in 2019.

Alberto E. Tamargo/Sipa USA/AP Images)

Gloria “Goyo” Martínez, leading lady of the Latin Grammy-winning hip-hop trio ChocQuibTown, originally planned to spend the summer promoting the group’s new album, ChocQuibHouse. Instead, the singer-songwriter, 38, has spent the last two months at her home in Bogotá, organizing an international alliance of artists and music industry workers called the Conciencia Collective — the Latin music industry’s largest grassroots effort to combat anti-black racism.

On May 22nd, three days before George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Anderson Arboleda, a young black man in the Cauca region of Colombia, was fatally shot in the head by a police officer. Arboleda was escorting his younger brother to their mother’s house when the police stopped him for violating the quarantine order. “What happened to George Floyd also happens in Colombia,” Goyo says over the phone. “African-Americans are my siblings; we have similar stories. [European colonists] brought our ancestors by boat to the United States, Cuba, Brazil, and Colombia. But the reaction of many Latinos in Latin America is… ‘There is no racism in Latin America! We are all mixed!'”

In the months since Floyd’s death, people in the United States have flooded the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, denouncing disproportionate violence against black people by police and civilians alike, and a lack of recourse in the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, many Latinos have fumbled in their responses. The vast majority of people in Latin America identify as mestizo, or those with mixed European and Indigenous heritage; alongside white Latinos, they enjoy ample representation in government, media, and entertainment. On social media, hashtags like #LatinoLivesMatter circulated widely as a comeback to the BLM movement, erasing over 130 million black people living in Latin America today. 

Goyo says many Latinos from outside the United States encounter little racism until they come to this country. “[It’s not until] Latinos first experience discrimination as immigrants,” says Goyo, “that they understand the problem.”

She hails from Chóco, a Pacific coastal region in Colombia, where an estimated 82 percent of inhabitants are black — most of them descendents of enslaved Africans brought to Colombia by Spanish colonists. Yet many of Colombia’s wealthiest, most famous musicians skew white or light-skinned mestizo. Take, for example, Medellín exports like Juanes, Maluma, and J Balvin, or Barranquilla-born Lebanese-Colombian superstar Shakira.

Chocquibtown became an exception to this rule in 2010. While signed to Latin indie label Nacional Records, the group won their first Latin Grammy for their single “De Donde Vengo Yo” (“Where I’m From”), a lesson on the troubled history of Chóco: Despite its abundance of gold and coveted tropical scenery, the region remains the poorest in the nation, and it has been  vulnerable to attack by various paramilitary and criminal groups over the years. In 2011, ChocQuibTown scored their first major label deal, signing with Sony Music. Years later, they remain determined to represent their homeland with pride.

“We are a country where social leaders are killed for defending their lands and their families,” says Goyo. “People just don’t know this history. We have to educate them now, while they’re receptive.”

“[It’s not until] Latinos first experience discrimination as immigrants that they understand the problem.”

And so, one late night in June, the Conciencia Collective was born. Founded by an international network of over 100 artists, publicists, and writers, the Collective first digitally congregated over Whatsapp to discuss how to work in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Ultimately, says Goyo, the group decided to pool their efforts toward educating their fans via Instagram, as well as a YouTube video series called Conciencia Talk that features discussions between Latin artists on the subject of race, hosted by Latinx culture website We Are Mitú. Speakers have included stars such as Kali Uchis, Jessie Reyez, Rafa Pabön, Pabllo Vittar, and Lauren Jauregui — plus assorted professors, politicians, and journalists from across the Americas. 

“Education is so crucial for the Latino community,” says another participant, Becky Gomez, who’s recorded hits such as “Shower” and “Sin Pijama” under the moniker Becky G. “Even simply educating them on the differences between race and ethnicity… it means a lot.”

The Mexican-American pop star, 23, can recall a lifetime worth of microaggressions against her. But as a mestiza from Los Angeles, she’s come to feel that experiences that she once identified as racism are better understood as acts of xenophobia. “It depends on what room I’m in,” says Gomez. “If I’m speaking Spanish at the market with my grandma, and there’s a Karen [or, a racist white woman] present, she might say: ‘Hey, we speak English here in America! Go back to where you came from!’ That is something that I have experienced. But I have never left my house, fearing for my life while walking to school, because my skin is black. I am a light-skinned Latina… and can still have white privilege.”

Ángel M. Vera, a.k.a El Guru, founder and C.E.O. of music publication Rapetón, moderated a Conciencia Talk between Gomez and Kali Uchis in July, which tackled white privilege in the Latinx community. Despite never having advanced his education beyond a G.E.D., the Boston-based journalist first cut his teeth as a rapper in the projects of Carolína, Puerto Rico. Now, at 33 years old, he has dedicated his life to documenting the local hip-hop, reggaeton, and trap scene — which has made an enormous global breakthrough in recent years. As the host of La Formula, a Spanish-language radio show on Apple Music, Vera is a walking success story. Still, he senses hesitation from both the Latin music industry and its consumers to give black creators the same chances.

“In the urban genre, the majority of the most valuable, most well-known artists [are] Daddy Yankee, Wisin and Yandel, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin. They all have light skin,” says Vera, who has profiled each of them on Rapetón. “Someone who looks like Lunay could be a superstar without having the talent, that perhaps, many artists of color have.”

Though Vera enjoys a positive rapport with the aforementioned MCs, he’s found that he often receives racist comments from their fans online. “Latinos [treat] being black like it’s a joke,” says Vera. “I’m black. That’s what I am. But they’ll call me, like, ‘jodió negrito’ — fucking black guy — as if the color of my skin is annoying to them. It’s like we’re not included with them.

“When you have the platform those guys do,” adds Vera, “You have a responsibility to use it for good. Educate your fans.”

Longtime publicist Cristina Novo, one of the founding members of Conciencia Collective, believes that major shifts on the charts and the Latin Grammys begin with boosting diversity at record labels and the Recording Academy’s membership. Before she became an independent publicist for Latin hitmakers Ozuna, Nicky Jam, Tainy, and Anuel AA, Novo worked in the publicity departments at Motown and Republic Records. 

“If you’re gonna say you want better representation, make sure people are represented in the boardroom, too,” says Novo. “How can they speak on that when it’s a sea of white people with blue eyes, in those boardrooms?” 

During the music industry-wide Blackout Day — a day of reflection taken in honor of George Floyd — heavy-hitting labels like Sony, Warner, and Universal committed hundreds of millions of dollars towards various social justice initiatives. In response to a critique by Tyler, the Creator at the 2020 Grammys — who stated that the term “urban” is often used to marginalize black artists — Republic Records notably announced it would retire the use of that term to describe hip-hop, rap, and R&B music. The Recording Academy went on to remove the term from its anglophonic categories, replacing Best Urban Contemporary Album with Best Progressive R&B Album.

A group of Latinx journalists embraced the change in the English-language media, urging the Latin music industry — which still largely uses the term “urbano” — to follow suit. Yet members of the Conciencia Collective remain skeptical of these changes’ efficacy in fighting racism in the Latin music industry. For Goyo, updating the names of genres is largely cosmetic. “Genres are what people use to sell products,” she says. “To me, people are wasting time with that…. The industry should be concerned with human rights.”

Just months after the Latin Recording Academy added new hip-hop, rap, and reggaeton categories to its awards, CEO Gabriel Abaroa says he’s open to further examining the institution’s relationship to those genres. “The names used, including the term ‘urban,’ were reviewed and discussed at length and, at the time, there were no concerns about the terminology,” Abaroa says. “This may be because in Spanish and Portuguese, the connotation of urban is very different from English. In both languages, ‘urbano’ refers to anything that comes from the city — the word comes from the Latin ‘urbs.’ However, we are sensitive to the current times and we’ll regroup with our members to discuss any concerns and create solutions as needed, as soon as we finish our current extensive and challenging online awards process.”

The season two premiere of Consciencia Talk, taking place at 7 p.m. on Friday, August 21st on We Are Mitu’s YouTube channel, tackles blackness in Latin American film and television. Puerto Rican Hamilton star Anthony Ramos will be in conversation with Latin Grammy-winning Cuban salsa singer Aymée Nuviola (who played Celia Cruz in the 2015-2016 telenovela Celia), reggaeton scholar Katelina Eccleston, and renowned Dominican director Jessy Terrero. Future topics of discussion will include police brutality, Election 2020 and the Latin Grammys in mid-November. The Conciencia Collective hopes to expand its reach beyond the YouTube series, and eventually work towards securing grants and mentorship for young black Latinx artists, and other industry hopefuls who wish to pursue careers in Latin music. 

“My objective is to help our people [be] equal and respected as anyone else,” says Novo. “Don’t just use us when it’s convenient. Respect us enough to put us in positions where we can win, make money and survive.”

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