A report by Siddartha Mitter for the Village Voice.
At 26, Amara La Negra, the Dominican-American singer, has a string of energetic tropical-funk hits in Spanish, fierce dance moves, a fashion line, hundreds of thousands of social media followers, and rising star power in her hometown of Miami and back in the Dominican Republic. But Amara is also Afro-Latina — a visibly, unapologetically Black woman making her career in worlds where colorism still runs rampant, among them the D.R. with its social hierarchy and the international Latin entertainment industry. With her dark skin, exuberant Afro, and in-your-face “La Negra” stage name, Amara is making a point.
“Change would be more Afro-Latinos in Hollywood, more on magazine covers,” Amara says. “It would be main roles in novelas, which we don’t yet have. They’ll cast you to be either a slave, a gangster, or a prostitute. They stereotype us.” Last year, a light-skinned beauty queen put on blackface and butt pads to parody Amara on Dominican TV. “We’re still a long way [from] seeing big change,” Amara says. “But we’re being more vocal.”
The Black experience is deeply woven into many styles of Latin music, from samba to salsa to reggaetón, but lately that presence has grown louder, prouder, and more specific. It manifests in new attention to the folk styles of the Black communities that have long struggled for recognition in many Latin American countries, and in a plethora of dance and electronic hybrids that circulate thanks to YouTube, SoundCloud, and the efforts of revivalists and crate-diggers. Genre labels — electro-cumbia, dembow, Brazilian funk, tropical bass — struggle to keep up with the diversity of sounds on offer.
Long kept to the margins, Afro-Latino music is on trend now in hip Latin American circles, says Geko Jones, the Brooklyn-based Colombian–Puerto Rican DJ whose “Que Bajo?” parties are heavy with music from across this landscape. A few years ago, he says, the fashionable scene in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, cared little for champeta, a sound with origins in the Black communities on the Caribbean coast. “Now, in the same clubs where people were ready to boo me off the stage, they’re saying this is the best music ever!”
In New York City, the flagship venue for the new cultural reassertion is the Afro-Latino Festival, which holds its fifth edition on July 7 and 8. A grassroots project led by Mai-Elka Prado Gil and Amilcar Priestley, a Panamanian couple in Brooklyn, it has ballooned since 2013 from an outdoor afternoon party to a two-day international summit gathering musicians, filmmakers, activists, scholars, and partygoers.
This year’s festival is billed as “A Tribute to Women of the Diaspora,” and the concert, at Restoration Plaza in Bed-Stuy all afternoon and evening on July 8, has a women-centered program, featuring Amara La Negra, merengue singer Milly Quezada, Afro-Cuban singer Melvis Santa, Puerto Rican singer Calma Carmona, rapper Nitty Scott, and soca star Alison Hinds. It also features reggae elder Johnny Osbourne and New York acts such as Zuzuka Poderosa and DJ Val-Inc. Susana Baca, the great Afro-Peruvian singer and scholar whose brief tenure as culture minister in Peru in 2011 was a landmark for local Black recognition, will receive a lifetime achievement award and present her new book, a history of the Afro-Peruvian experience, at PowerHouse Arena in DUMBO the previous evening.
Music is just the audible part of the movement, however. A relatively new coinage — it came out of academia and activist circles in the 1990s — AfroLatinidad (and its Brazilian equivalent AfroLatinidade) is an overtly political concept that aims to link and empower marginalized communities. A program of panels and film screenings, held on July 7 at the Schomburg Center (an apt setting, as Arturo Schomburg, the historian and Harlem Renaissance figure, grew up in Puerto Rico and advocated for the island’s independence), will gather academics and activists from across the Afro-Latino world. “It’s about more than identity,” says Priestley. “It’s great to say you’re Afro-Latino, but then what? What does it mean from an economic, political, social perspective?”
“This is an eternal battle between us,” says Prado. “Sometimes it’s about dance and music, not just politics.” The couple — who met in Brooklyn but later discovered their families were friends in Panama — are a classic pairing of artist and activist energy. Priestley, an entertainment lawyer, grew up in New York; his father, George Priestley, was a scholar and activist who taught political science for forty years at Queens College and took part in congresses of Black Latin Americans going back to the 1970s. “I’ve seen people working in this movement for a really long time,” the younger Priestley says.
Prado, meanwhile, grew up in San Miguel, a working-class barrio in Panama’s capital, and found her artistic voice at a cultural center run by the local branch of the Nichiren Buddhist organization. She moved to Brooklyn at nineteen, interrupting law studies in Panama after long-awaited green cards came through for her mother and herself, permitting them to join their U.S.-based relatives. In New York, she says, her sense of self became more complex. “I knew I was Black, of course, but mainly I felt Panamanian. Then coming here, I realized there were so many other layers to my Black, female, Latina identity. I learned to navigate these layers. Creating the festival was another phase.” Her inspiration was DanceAfrica, the arts festival and community gathering in Fort Greene. “I came to the conclusion that we needed that kind of space, and just maybe I could create it.”
“As Afro-Latinos you’re trying to straddle different worlds,” says Jones, who has spun at past editions of the festival. “You’re still categorized as Black, and people at first sight don’t presume to identify you as Latino. This festival is positivity and joy, like, ‘Hey, we are here together, and there’s a lot of us. We didn’t know.’ It’s been an awakening.”
The festival is a labor of love. “We’ve gotten burned every year,” Priestley says. Though a Kickstarter campaign helped this year, the organizers are still searching for the right model at a tenuous time for arts funding. “The struggle is to remain sustainable,” Prado says. “But the planning never stops. We’re already thinking about the lineup for next year.”
The political dedication behind the festival is part of its draw for the artists themselves. “We have to do specific events for us, otherwise we don’t get appreciated as much,” says Amara La Negra. “I’m honored to be part of a festival where we can stand together as a whole, and support each other, and tell the world: We too are Latinos, and we’re proud.”
The Afro-Latino Festival 2017 takes place July 7 at the Schomburg Center and July 8 at Restoration Plaza. Information and tickets at afrolatinofestnyc.com.