So… I’m of Colombian descent (first generation American), and the whole Pablo Escobar-the-drug-lord thing has always been fascinating to me. That’s fascinating, as in I find it interesting; not that I’m a fan and want to visit his grave (a tourist destination, I’m told.)
Look, the guy may have played a Robin Hood-type role in the way he used his massive drug empire earnings to build schools, hospitals, and soccer parks in poor Medellin ‘hoods, but he still killed, or was responsible for the deaths of, a boat load of people. Moreover, his empire contributed to an era that was an embarrassment for the country my parents came from. Consider that it was the world’s murder capital with 25,100 violent deaths in 1991 and 27,100 in 1992. Today, its tourism is on the rise.
I realize there is more to the story about the ‘war on drugs’ policy and what role the United States played in this all. It seems like drugs, and the money that comes with them, make the world go round and aren’t going away. Still, it doesn’t make me a fan of Escobar.
A few years ago, I watched a documentary called Cocaine Cowboys, about the rise of cocaine and resulting crime epidemic that swept the American city of Miami, Florida in the 1970s and 1980s. Those interviewed in the film argued that Griselda Blanco, an infamous crime family matriarch, played a major role in the history of the drug trade in Miami and other cities across America. Per the film, it was the lawless and corrupt atmosphere, primarily from Blanco’s operations, that led to the gangsters being dubbed the “Cocaine Cowboys.”
I was blown away. A female drug lord was behind all this? (And by this, I mean the woman invented drive-by motorcycle assassinations and tried to KIDNAP JFK, JR.) Again, I wasn’t a fan in the way one “roots” for Tony Montana while watching Scarface, but I always thought her story would make a killer movie. Well, there’s now a telenovela (Spanish for soap opera.)
The pilot episode, which begins with Blanco awaiting trial in a prison cell, nearly scared me off. It seemed the acting was overdone and the writing was pretty bad. But by episode two, things got interesting, thankfully. The show transitions to Blanco’s hard knock life upbringing and suddenly, I’m no longer wondering how a woman become such a ruthless drug queen.
The acting by those who play a young Blanco and her posse in Medellin is great, and the dialogue is superb. Best part? The soap is available on Hulu Plus.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Spanish-language — or, if you prefer, Latin — hip-hop, lately. Perhaps it’s because I seeing gains by artists I can call friends, such as Los Rakas from Oakland, Calif. (Also this. The band led by Tony-winner Tray Anastasio, of Phish fame, covered Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux? Whaaaaa?)
A recent article in The New York Timesand a segment on NPR’s Alt.Latino also prompted me to reflect where the genre has been and where it’s going (as well as growing.)
The Times’ Jon Pareles interviewed René Pérez Joglar and Eduardo Cabra Martínez from Calle 13 in advance of their forthcoming album, Multi_Viral (March 1).
From its debut album in 2005, Calle 13 has spurned genres. It dabbled in the Puerto Rican hip-hop called reggaeton but refused to be bound by it. Since then the duo has constantly expanded its music, drawing on the folkloric, the electronic and the orchestral, mixing from a world of sources — discovered in the course of their ever-expanding tour circuit and lately, Mr. Cabra said, on YouTube.
Calle 13 has won 19 Latin Grammys, more than any other act, and it has rallied international audiences with songs that hold messages of solidarity, sympathy for the hard-working poor and demands for freedom and individuality, like the Andean-flavored “Latinoaméricano.” Calle 13 keeps its distance from party politics, but not from hot-button issues: Mr. Pérez strongly supports Puerto Rican independence, regularly describing the island as a colony of the United States.
“I think every musician has a responsibility when they are making music,” Mr. Pérez said. “Sometimes people are hard on you because you say things. But I prefer that, rather than to be an artist that does not say anything and that’s why people like you. It’s almost like you’re invisible. There is a lot of music going on that for me is invisible.”
Pareles also chatted with colleague Ben Ratliff about the band’s impact and political activism via their music in this Times’ “Popcast.” Listen here.
Over at Alt.Latino, hosts Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras invited Latin music blogger Juan Data, as well as a pioneer of Mexican hip-hop, rapper Bocafloja, to discuss how hip-hop trickled into Latin America, changing the music scene forever.
Though the number of Latin hip hop artists has increased, and the genre’s profile is somewhat raised, it’s important to support independent artists for several reasons. Mostly, because I’m sure the mainstream public can’t tell the difference between Latin hip-hop, reggaeton, bachata, and so on.
Supporting indie artists is also a way to find fresh, new music – a godsend since it’s not the same old reggaeton/urbano songs played one million times on the Spanish language radio stations.
I always tell folks to listen to Los Rakas, a duo out of Oakland, Calif., via Panama, that I’ve worked with in the past. The pair’s profile keeps rising and they have a dual album and some other exciting stuff on the horizon.
In the meantime, check out their song, “Hot,” currently playing in the video game, FIFA ’14. That’s big!
Last year, a Chicago-based DJ friend (Christian Vera of Soulphonetics) hipped me to an artist by the name of The Color Brown. Real name Ruben Borrero, Color Brown was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Chi-town.
“After coming to the U.S. from Puerto Rico, I had a newfound love for the Latino culture in general. Not only Puerto Ricans, but also Mexicans, Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Colombians, Venezuelans—just everybody that identifies themselves with this mix of cultures that have to go through the same struggles in this country, regardless of their country of origin. I also realized that white Americans often referred to us as “brown” people not as an offense, but as a way to categorize us. I guess “The Color Brown” is an attempt to re-conquer this word and this color that all Latinos share in common in one way or another. It is, in short, my tribute to the struggle of all those brown people in the United States.”
That’s what it’s all about, especially the part about loving the Latino culture as a whole.
The Color Brown has a new song, La Excepción (free download!). With a backing beat by J.Cole, the song is about working hard by any means necessary to make it, no exceptions. Listen to the track below.
*** Update, Feb. 27: After I posted this story, I was contacted by some reggae/hip hop artists from Chile! They’re called Sur Flow (Southern Flow) and their song, “Old School,” is on the raggamuffin tip! Good stuff that brings me back to college parties in the late 1990s.
Here are just a few Latin hip hop artists I recommend:
Choquibtown, Bomba Estereo, Ephniko, La Mala Rodriguez, Ana Tijoux, Chingo Bling.
MTV Iggy has a good list here. And these ladies below.
“If formulaic microgenre standards are getting to you and you like music that’s just a tad outside the norm, these global bass takes on the trap aesthetic could make your day. There’s no way your laptop is going to generate these bass notes, so be sure to plug in to something a little more powerful.”
—> He said he believed that the recent spate of activism on diversity was being propelled by two issues: a lack of state funding for public institutions that has led colleges to admit more out-of-state students, who tend to be more affluent and less diverse, and challenges to affirmative action laws in states like Michigan and California.
It seems Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (of ‘In the Heights‘ fame) is a Fordham fan. At the photo on the left, the Wesleyan alumnus wears a Fordham sweatshirt in a group photo. At right, he poses with two Fordham alumnae in their Fordham t-shirts. (The one on the right is Roz Baron, an alumna of Fordham College at Lincoln Center.)
Baron, a blogger, tells me the photo on the right was taken this past weekend (Feb. 23) at a special screening of West Side Story at the United Palace Theatre in Northern Manhattan (Washington Heights, of course!), where Miranda introduced the film and interviewed Oscar, Tony, Grammy, and Emmy-winning superstar, Rita Moreno. (She played the fiery Anita. Watch the great scene in which she performs “America” below.)