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Finding The Latino In Hip-Hop -- Artists Link With African Culture


24 February 2005
Copyright © 2005
PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS. All rights reserved.

TO MANY AN Afro-Latino artist, there's no need to list one ethnic heritage over another.

The two groups have a history of co-existence. From the Caribbean islands - Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic - to the South Bronx, N.Y., the cultural and political influences have been intermingling for centuries.

This Saturday, that relationship will be explored in the context of hip-hop culture - from break dancing to beat boxing, from rap to spoken word - during the Ninth Annual Arturo Schomburg Symposium sponsored by Taller Puertorriqueno.

The all-day event at Taller, "Hip Hop: From the African Roots to the Latino Diaspora," will include performances by spoken-word artists, dancers, rappers and MCs.

"There are traces in hip-hop that are definitely Latino," said Sandra Andino, director of education at Taller. "And that Latino flavor that we hear and see has a connection to traditional African cultural expressions."

Hip-hop's Latino roots

Taina Aisili, a spoken-word artist who has performed around the country with musicians, dance troupes and even puppets, is adamant about setting the record straight: Hip-hop would not have emerged out of 1970s South Bronx without the presence of the predominantly Puerto Rican community.

"This wasn't something that we just incorporated in our culture," said Aisili, who will perform poetry during the event. "It was something that we created. We were there at the beginning."

For example, one of the first well-known break dancers of the early '80s, Richie Colon, known on the street as Crazy Legs, was Puerto Rican.

Aisili's husband, Ephrain Aisili, who will accompany Taina's performance on the Nyabinghi drum, said many of the early MCs were Puerto Rican. He also pointed to legendary salsa musician Tito Puente's appearance on the Sugarhill Gang's landmark rap album "The Sugarhill Gang."

Ephrain Aisili also pointed out that in three hip-hop movies from the '80s - "Breakin'," "Beat Street" and "Wild Style" - the main characters are portrayed as Puerto Rican.

Back then, he added, it wasn't a big thing for Puerto Ricans to be part of the hip-hop scene. But somewhere along the way, the role of Puerto Ricans in the evolution of the culture has been diminished, said Ephrain Aisili, a music producer, and a music and education student at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Now Latino rap acts such as Fat Joe and Big Pun are considered novelties. Once upon a time, they weren't, hip-hop observers say.

El Suave and Mentirosa were two prominent Puerto Rican rappers who hit it big on the scene in the mid- to late '80s, said William Perkins, author of "Droppin' Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture" (Temple University Press).

"The Puerto-Rican part is not put in the [hip-hop] foreground at all," said Juan Flores, professor of Africana and Puerto Rico/Latino studies at Hunter College in New York City. "Its tendency is to be reduced to a strictly African-American tradition."

SUBHED HERE: Puerto Ricans' role has faded

Calling hip-hop "a shared urban culture," East Harlem author and journalist Raquel Rivera writes in the essay "Morenos and Butta Pecans: One Angle on Racial Politics" that "back in the 1980s most people in the U.S. did not know or care what a Latino was. There was no Ricky Martin, no J.Lo. Latinos were not yet 'hot.' Remember?

"The myth of hip-hop being African-American territory has served to weaken Puerto Ricans' perceived entitlement to it," she writes. "It has prevented young African Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean folks from fully understanding their shared blackness."

And that has led to tension among the nationalities and ethnicities, said Rivera, author of "From the Hip-Hop Zone" (Palgrave McMillan).

"We have a big problem thinking that these groups are really different," Rivera said in a recent phone interview. "Somehow we keep fighting among each other [over] who it belongs to, but the irony is that we're talking about groups that are part of the African diaspora."

The lack of knowledge regarding hip-hop's roots has resulted in "rappers who don't know what the origins and history of hip-hop," said Perkins, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Linguistics Lab.

Perkins, one of the symposium's speakers, plans to play music by Las Orichas, a Cuban rap group, as well as Brazilian hip-hop.

"Both Cuban and Brazilian raps are more message-oriented," dealing with such issues as child abuse, street children and government oppression, he said. Perkins calls it "conscious rap," something that's lacking in the U.S. rap scene.

He'll also talk about what's going on outside the East Coast, noting the strong Chicano influence in Texas and California. Perkins said he also will address the "cross fertilization of [Chicano rappers and] Native American rappers - who get no play, by the way."

Those who do have the floor want to make sure people walk away from Saturday's events with knowledge, and that they are empowered by the artists' creative expressions.

Danny Polanco, a Puerto-Rican graffiti and hip-hop artist known around town as Dan One, said the symposium will allow him to show the links between Africans and Latinos.

"We're making these connections. It's there. It's nothing new. People do not credit our ancestors, but I will. Honor Kemet," Polanco said, using the Nubian term for "Africa."

The spoken word is hip-hop and an African ancestral tradition, said Taina Aisili, who will read her poem "Ancestor's Call" while the dance troupe Nzinga 7 Arts Collective performs. "The spoken word is our prayer." *

They never left me

I was always looking for someone to explain

How I came to this existence

Namesake don't forsake me

Find me

I need you

But they never left us

They have always been there

I have always called out to them with my

Poetry prayers

  • "Ancestor's Call" by Taina Aisili

Symposium explores African influence on Latino life

Each year, in commemoration of Black History Month, Taller Puertorriqueno presents the Arturo Schomburg Symposium to discuss African influences on an aspect of Latino life.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, born near Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1874, was a noted scholar and bibliophile who accumulated a large collection of African and African-American letters, particularly concerning Africans in the Caribbean. The collection - which includes correspondence, manuscripts, prints, playbills and paintings - is now part of the New York Public Library system, housed in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

The center was originally the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints at the 135th Street Branch of the library. Schomburg was curator of the division for six years, until his death in 1938. The center subsequently was named after him.

During his life, Schomburg was involved in both the Puerto Rican and Cuban revolutionary movements, and also was a mentor to young scholars and writers during the Harlem Renaissance, according to the Web site

Regina Medina

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