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The new 'canción protesta': Musical activism in the Trump era

Latinx musicians in the U.S. continue a legacy of music as resistance that responds to injustice.
14 Mar 2017 – 04:12 PM EDT
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Latin America has a long and proud tradition of protest music, from Puerto Rican plena music that commented on politics starting in the early 19th century, to the New Latin American Song movement decrying dictators in the 1970’s and even anti-fascist Mexican Punk in the 90’s.

Now, Latinx artists in the U.S. continue a legacy of music as resistance that responds to injustices faced by the community at large, not just immigrants. Chicano Batman's bilingual cover of 'This Land is Your Land' in a Johnnie Walker ad aired during the Super Bowl made a strong impact. New releases by musicians from New York to California to New Mexico have protest music roots. This Thursday, the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin will feature three Latinx acts, Residente, Panteón Rococó and Ozomatli, in a free show titled the All Latino Resist Concert.

We chatted with several Latinx artists with new releases about how they wield music as a weapon to deliver a message in 2017. In the words of singer-songwriter Ani Cordero: “ Tu lucha es mi lucha. [Your struggle is my struggle]. To have liberation for one, we have to have liberation for all. That’s all there is to it. We all have to rise together.”


Born and Bred in Dance and Protest

Pioneer alt-rockers Ozomatli quite literally got their start during the 90’s protests in Los Angeles, “really chaged times” according to Ulises Bella, the band’s saxophonist/clarinetist and founding member.

Bella says that Ozomatli became the “house band” for any social justice organization that needed fundraising “...because not only is it a band that gives a sh** about the world, but we were playing music everybody likes to dance to!” In many ways, he feels, Ozo followed traditions such as Bob Marley’s in which the message and the dancing were not at all incompatible.

Over two decades Ozomatli has supported social justice movements both national and international, including gay rights, most notably with the anthem ‘Gay Vatos in Love’.

Over the years, there were times when it seemed they were not “f*cking making a dent” according to Bella, he also declares that music has a positive effect, like “a medicine”. Ozo has never given up and continues to participate frequently in social justice concerts, including the upcoming United Together Tour with Squirrel Nut Zippers, an American fusion band from North Carolina that combines Delta blues, swing and Gypsy Jazz. And of course, the All Latino Resist at SXSW.

Ozomatli’s intentional use of the Spanish language in their music is itself becoming part of the resistance and the band’s new album, From Mexico to Jamaica Non-Stop , coming out in May, contains mostly songs in Spanish, a first for the band.

“Even for us mexicanos, peruanos, whatever, Spanish is not our original language. But I can talk to a chileno, a cubano, even though it’s the colonizer’s language, we share it and we have made it our own. We can all connect through the music. I don’t care what country you’re from there are, there are certain songs you are always going to hear at the party,” says Bella.

Ani Cordero:

Your Struggle is My Struggle

Ani Cordero, singer/songwriter and drummer from Puerto Rico and Brooklyn is one of the founding members of alt-cumbia band Pistolera. She later formed her own band, Cordero, and as a soloist, has now released two albums decidedly marked by protest songs.

In her 2015 album Recordar, Cordero covered iconic Latin American songs that spanned from the 70s to the 90s. Cordero says she was motivated by her concern that in a post 9/11 era, as a country “... we were trading our civil liberties for the promise of safety or economic prosperity”. Using music to respond to these issues, she says, became a successful platform for having discussions about problems which had occurred in previous administrations, adding, “It is not like the current [Trump] administration is doing anything entirely new. It’s just ramping it up to them in a level that I couldn't have even anticipated, so it's just making it all feel more urgent,” she says.

But like many Latinx artists, the message in her music is not limited to immigration issues. She strives to be inclusive to English speakers, and the materials in her website, videos and music are accompanied by translations. On her most recent record, Querido Mundo, released last month, Cordero has a song titled ‘Me Tumba’, which explicitly addresses police brutality and support of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Cordero emphasizes, however, that the new album includes several love songs too: “Yes, there's a lot of things to protest but we also have to feel the sun shining, and spend time with our families and friends, and find joy so that we just don't get completely overwhelmed. Yes, there's all these difficult situations in the world but there’s still love too” she says.


Way More than “Shake it, Baby!”

Kilko Paz, one of New Mexican band Baracutanga’s members, has social consciousness in his DNA; as a child, Paz spent years in exile away from his homeland of Bolivia with his mother, renowned sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui.

He moved to Albuquerque as a young engineer, and in an effort to find a community, started a Brazilian percussion band with friends. That band, Baracutanga, says Paz, evolved into a Latin American fusion band with touches of rock and electronica.

Paz describes Baracutanga’s music as celebrating diversity from its very beginnings, in particular the Hispanic and Native American roots of the state. Some of their songs also touch on environmental themes, such as ‘Sangre a Pachamama’ which is an ode to Mother Earth and to protecting natural resources. Another song, ‘Deja de Matar’ addresses police brutality directly.

Baracutanga’s recently released song and video, ‘Son de la Condenada’, the story of a woman migrating from the south and as he puts it, “The American Dream becomes the American Nightmare”.

‘Son de la Condenada’ emphasizes how important it is for leaders to watch their words, says Paz, because they carry enormous weight and can cause much damage. He also feels it’s important for each person to use what they have on hand to protest, adding that Baracutanga has something to say, and it’s a lot more than just “Hey, shake it baby!”

Las Cafeteras:

Stories to Empower and Shine a Light

Daniel French, vocalist, MC, keyboard and jarana player of Las Cafeteras, the highly lauded Los Angeles band founded by first-generation Chicanxs who met while taking Mexican folk dance and music classes at a cultural center in East L.A. French describes their music as “stories that try to shine a light on something that we feel isn't getting the shine it deserves”.

French hopes that Las Cafetera’s art will have an empowering effect that will serve as a catalyst for their audience: “It can send people off to go do something, whatever they were inspired to do. Our stories are excluded from the mainstream narrative, our history, our contributions are, and thus our pride in ourselves and where we come from” he says, “These stories [in Las Cafeteras’ songs] have become a resource, a a point of information and, sometimes history and knowledge for people to stand up and be proud,” he says.

In April, Las Cafeteras will release their new album Tastes Like L.A, and their single ‘If I Was President’ is designed, says French, to ignite people’s imagination so they can visualize a better world for the future.

French also speaks of a more intentional structuring of Las Cafeteras shows to include non-Latinx artists, “to try to build bridges on stage”. French points out that initial reactions to their live shows have not always been positive, but that the band has a strategy for winning people over: “There’s a way we start off with the ‘honey’. We're not going to start off and hit you over the head with something,” he says. “We're going just like start off dancing and get people connected to each other, like, let's move our bodies a little bit, literally. Let's dance, get into a groove, and then let's like find that momentum to get somewhere else.”