J Balvin is the new face of an old tradition: Black erasure in music

An Op-Ed piece by Dash Harris Machado for The Washington Post.

J Balvin has been named the Afro-Latino Artist of the Year. If you are confused by that sentence, you haven’t been paying attention to anti-Blackness. The White Colombian artist was given the “honor” on Dec. 26 by a New Jersey nonprofit, the African Entertainment Awards, established to “celebrate and uplift African entertainment.”

J Balvin accepted the award, first clarifying that he wasn’t Afro-Latino but still thanking the organization for recognizing his “place in the contribution of the Afrobeat music and movement.” After a swift backlash, he deleted his social media post without another word.

Typical. This episode was yet another symptom of the ongoing gatekeeping that erases and excludes Black creators — and J Balvin, one of world’s most famous reggaeton performers, has built his success on that erasure and exclusion.

For years now, Afro-Colombians have been calling out Balvin for his flagrant appropriation and constant dodging of meaningful accountability. In October, he halfway apologized for a music video that featured him walking Black women on leashes. In September, he told an interviewer that he decided he had a path in reggaeton when he saw another White person, “Latino, like him,” perform. He did not feel “represented” before, because the genre and its creators and artists were predominantly Black. Nowadays, one can hardly tell that it has Black roots since many of the most famous performers are White, such as Balvin —Rosalía, Maluma, Karol G.

Reggaeton’s roots are Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Panamanian, but many of its biggest current stars have built careers cosplaying Blackness. White performers don Black Cool to cut out actual Black people. This isn’t new. From the days of “blue-eyed soul” performers such as Elvis Presley copying Black music, this practice was and is also common in Latin America. The fraudulent “Conga King” Desi Arnaz became a star performing Black music outlawed by his own father in his native Cuba. Carmen Miranda, the daughter of Portuguese immigrants who settled in Brazil thanks to the government’s “whitening campaigns,” appropriated the dress, headwraps jewelry and musical style of Black women from Salvador da Bahia to become one of the most famous and highest-paid performers of the 1940s. The economic factor in Black erasure is important as we call in the material realities. It robs those who create the art from harvesting its fruits.

Reggaeton has been marketed under the umbrella term “Latin” music, but like Black art at-large, Afro-descended music and creation cannot be separated from ancestral knowledge and material experiences. White Latinos do not live these experiences. They create the marginalization that births them.

Genres such as reggaeton, champeta, samba, zamacueca, son and rumba were mocked, marginalized and criminalized by the White ruling classes throughout Latin America. But then came the White performers, record executives and producers that whitewashed, repackaged and sold them for profit. Balvin chooses to actively ignore this history and the contemporary ramifications for his own enrichment. When he is not receiving undeserved awards, he is boycotting them — as he did earlier this year when he attacked the Latin Grammys. “The Grammys don’t value us, but they need us,” he posted. Ironic considering he uses and profits from Blackness while devaluing it, erasing it and placing himself in it.

Black music in Latin America is deeply tied to spirituality, divinity, labor, lived experiences and fellowship. The lives of Afro-descendants is in the very framework of our musical creations. These are the lives led by the underclasses, where culture is created.

Arnaz became famous for appropriating the comparsa tradition of Santiago de Cuba. The comparsas were how Black Cubans and Haitians marked the start of the sugar cane harvesting season. This musical tradition that became the signature of carnival, along with the African drums that were outlawed by Arnaz’s father, who called them “obscene.” Arnaz watched the drumming traditions in the homes of Afro-Cubans get pushed underground by his politically powerful family. The White power system that created the material inequities, violence and labor exploitation endured by Afro-descendants who developed the music in order to express their pain and struggle is then used to advance White Latin Americans — once all the original significance is removed.

The price of creative expression is paid in blood by Black people — and the rewards keep flowing to the Balvins.

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