A new generation of Latinx artists are using spirituality to centre their Black and Indigenous roots
The bilingual prayers, written in English and Spanish on the back of kitsch prayer candles, may not have been written in either language had history turned out differently. Before the tall, scarlet candles were marketed to and aestheticised for the masses as a bite-sized form of Latin spirituality, Santería was an Afro-Cuban diasporic religion that thrived on collective energy; from the pounding rhythms of the toque de santo – a drum circle to summon holy spirits – to the communal songs of praise during healing rituals. But vilification by Christianity brought years of bloodshed. It’s a collective trauma that trickles down into every facet of Latinidad.
Latinxs have always known that no matter how we look or what part of the diaspora we trace our roots to, there is a healing power that lies within the murk of our mestizaje – and Latin American musicians have taken notes long before Ableton. It can be as simple as the kick of a drum, people dancing, or musical myths passed from generation to generation.
To be Latinx in 2020 is to truly reckon with the heavy blood we carry. The definition of Latinx identity has expanded as music made by Latinx folks continues to gain prominence in Western charts, whether under the reggaeton-rooted label of Latin Music – crawling every day toward its expiration date as we begin to define our terms outside of the Anglocentric mainstream gaze – or simply by music coming out of the diaspora.
“Latinx musicians have to reckon with their African roots, which have been so vilified since the start of colonisation and had to survive by being covert”
– La Bruja
These days, musicians are aiming to shake up this pre-packaged, neocolonial definition of Latinidad. Artists like Aymara avant-garde musician Elysia Crampton and Colombian-Canadian experimentalist Lido Pimienta are digging into folklore genres like cumbia and huayno, distorting and queering them up through a modern lens, all while acknowledging the long-overlooked appropriation of Black and Indigenous innovation in Latin American music. From imbuing Indigenous flutes into a dembow beat to sampling Yoruba prayers in experimental music, the future has brought forth the sounds of the past. Audiovisual Peruvian duo Dengue Dengue Dengue understand this truth, melding a keen interest in electronic music with traditional sounds to craft techno-futurist, psychedelic cumbia tapped deeply into the spirit of the Amazon.
“We joke about being connected to the Matrix,” says Felipe Salmon, one half of the duo, of their approach. “Our music becomes a way to grab ideas and connections from a deeper, multidimensional reality. If we connect with the audience, it kind of becomes a ceremony and I think this is something everybody needs – to be able to get in a dancing trance can be really healing.”
Dengue Dengue Dengue
This deeper connection to the spiritual doesn’t just apply to artists singing in Spanish, a conversation complicated by the neocolonial damage of artists from Spain being marketed as Latinx. Nuyorican rappers like Princess Nokia proudly proclaim their mestize identities and connections to the Latin American diaspora by honouring the intricacies therein, claiming the heavy burden of their Black, Indigenous and European blood in stride – all while singing English prayers to Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha of the sea, over a trap beat.
“I feel the way we are mixed in blood, our spiritual makeup is also mixed,” says legendary Nuyorican artist, Indigenous activist and syncretic practitioner Caridad de la Luz, better known as La Bruja. “It’s about creating a balance of all of them within yourself, and learning from it. [This balance] is a reckoning with these parts of yourself; it’s like shadow work. Latinx musicians have to reckon with their African roots, which have been so vilified since the start of colonisation and only survived by being covert.”
“We’re born into that baggage, that joy, the weight of society and what it means to be different from the norm – which is being a straight white male. My way of healing is to transform all my pain into song”
– Lisa-Kaindé Diaz, Ibeyi
This acknowledgment goes for any genre of Latin music, from Bad Bunny’s poetic open letter discussing reggaeton’s Black roots to the way French Afro-Cuban twin duo Ibeyi incorporate prayers to the orishas into their music. At the core of this at times messy process lies an earnest desire for balance, for acceptance of the colonial damage in order to learn, unlearn and ultimately heal these intergenerational wounds – specifically the long-raging pandemic of anti-Blackness that has blocked Afro-Latinxs from raising their voices. In a world which asks us to check boxes to indicate the communities to which we belong to, and amid an intense diasporic longing, we’ve been forced to look inward.
“As the Black Lives Matter movement gained global traction, I was taking a class by this amazing woman named Aditi Ahalya called ‘Rhythm, Race, Revolution’ and one of the most important things she showed me was the importance of unlearning how society taught us to see ourselves,” explains Ibeyi vocalist Lisa-Kaindé Diaz. “It takes a huge amount of work, but we can find ways to reverse centuries of pain that are built into our DNA. We’re not born onto a clean slate; we’re born into that baggage, that joy, the weight of society and what it means to be different from the norm – which is being a straight white male. My way of healing is to transform all my pain into song. Every time I write I return to that place of pain but I know that at the end of the song it’s already behind me.”
This lifelong process of decolonisation, in the context of music, becomes a sort of alchemical rapture. For centuries marginalised people, in and out of Latin America, have sought healing through syncretising their pain, be it the reclamation of a slur or the artistic reimagining of atrocious history. Colonial wounds start healing when one learns to look at their inner coloniser in the face and asks it to dance.
“To heal everyone, you first need to heal yourself,” says Dominican reggaetonera and novelist Rita Indiana, who just released Mandinga Times, her first album in a decade. “All of my work has, in some way, been a ceremony where I’ve healed myself or found a way to process what has hurt me. To put things out in the open like that and build something from them is to heal; there are those who say that healing is an individual process, but our colonial injuries must be healed collectively through education and setting a base for the next generation.”
This new generation of Latinx artists are taking cues from the past and honouring the sounds that came before. Whether they’ve been at this for years like Indiana and La Bruja, or are fresher faces like Ibeyi and Dengue Dengue Dengue, a new definition of Latinidad emerges with each warp of a traditional sound. Genres have never been made to be neatly packaged, and our images and spirit never have either.
As Latinxs continue to deconstruct and decolonise our identity and the whitewashed myths surrounding it, we must be grounded in the knowledge of the past and what that means to each one of us. Who are your ancestors? How do you connect with them? What truths are you claiming or hiding from? What languages would we be speaking or writing had history gone down differently?
“The Yoruba chants we sing have been carried from generation to generation through oral culture; this is a gift we have because slaves were brave enough and understood the importance of continuing to practice and share their songs through generations,” says Diaz. “When we sing those prayers, we are not singing them alone – there’s millions of women, millions of men, that sing them through us and that sang them before. We are their echo.”
Dengue Dengue Dengue releases Fiebre via NAAFI on 16 October