Musicians have a special place in the movement to draw visibility to Afro-Latinidad – whether it be through art or activism – and New York City’s Afro-Latino Festival offers a much-needed space for artists to uplift some of the most marginalized members of the Latino community. Speaking with performers like Princess Nokia, Maluca, and Los Rakas at the 4th edition of the celebration this past weekend, we were compelled by the different ways they live their Afro-Latinidad, and especially by the way they challenge normative perceptions of both blackness and Latino identity. Here’s what the artists on this year’s Afro-Latino Festival lineup had to say about being black and brown in an industry that can both pigeonhole and empower them.

Interviews by Music Editor Isabelia Herrera and photos by Photo Editor Itzel Alejandra Martinez.

1

DJ Bembona

What does Afro-Latinidad mean to you?
Afro-Latinidad to me means powerfully embracing your heritage, your blackness most importantly, and not neglecting it and supporting one another.

Why did you decide to perform at Afro-Latino Fest this year?
[Afro-Latino Fest organizers] Mai-Elka [Prado] and Amilcar [Priestly] are from Brooklyn – they’re Panamanian like me – and I felt very inspired by what they’re doing. I just felt like this is where I fit in. And I wanted to represent Puerto Rico and Panama, negrura, Latinidad, todo eso.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latino performer in the context of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement?
That’s a good question. For me it means bringing the message to a higher level. Artists can touch lives. I’ve used my mixes as a way of creating a political statement. Out of all media, music is the one that can touch the most.

Tell us about the challenges of repping your Afro-Latinidad but staying true to your art. Do you feel like the label pigeonholes you or empowers you – or both?
It doesn’t hold me at all. Once I started as a DJ, I just said, “Fuck it, I don’t care what you guys think. This is who I am; this is who I’m always going to be. If you don’t like it, pa’ la calle.” So, it has never held me back.

2

Los Rakas

What does Afro-Latinidad mean to you?
Raka Dun: It means culture, our culture. Something we love.

Why did you decide to perform at Afro-Latino Fest this year?
Raka Rich: They hit us up. And we feel proud of that, because we do represent that. That’s all we talk about, is [being] Afro-Latino.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latino performer in the context of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement?
Raka Dun: We’re black before we’re Latino. Because when the cops see me, they don’t see, “Oh, he’s Latino.” They see a black person. We have the same struggle.

Raka Rich: We just gotta put it together though.

Tell us about the challenges of repping your Afro-Latinidad but staying true to your art. Do you feel like the label pigeonholes you or empowers you – or both?
Raka Rich: I don’t think it could pigeonhole you. I think just being black pigeonholes you, period. That’s just what the reality of what this entertainment business is.

Raka Dun: You know, the name Rakas came from something negative, and we tried to make it something positive. And we have made it sound positive. Being black in the Latin industry – it can hurt you. We just rep everything we are. We are never going to say, “Don’t say that because that might…” No, we Rakas, we rebels. We’re going to rep what we are to the fullest.

3

Nina Sky

What does Afro-Latinidad mean to you?
What it means to us is celebrating the diversity that exists in the Latin community.

Why did you decide to perform at Afro-Latino Fest this year?
They asked us and it seemed like it was going to be an amazing festival with lots of other amazing artists. We’re sharing the stage with Tito Puente Jr., our girl Maluca, Los Rakas are performing tomorrow, Princess Nokia – all a diverse range of artists that represent what being Afro-Latino is. And we are excited to be part of it.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latino performer in the context of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement?
I think being an artist and being given the platform to speak up when things like this go on in the world – it’s really important. I think that we’re put in a position that we can acknowledge these things and speak to our fans so hopefully they understand the importance of what’s going on in the world. I think that’s what it means; it’s just being given another voice and another platform to speak to our fans [about] what’s really important, what’s going on in the world outside of music and outside of entertainment.

Tell us about the challenges of repping your Afro-Latinidad but staying true to your art. Do you feel like the label pigeonholes you or empowers you – or both?
We talk about how we’ve been around and been doing music for a long time. In 2004, we felt like it was a little bit harder for people to embrace who we were being Latinos, because we don’t necessarily express ourselves physically or represent what people think [it means to be Latino]. We don’t speak Spanish fluently; we don’t [represent] what you see in the mainstream when you think about a Latina woman. It’s not what you see in Nina Sky, but in 2016 we think that people celebrate it and people embrace it and it’s a different time.

That’s why we were so excited to be here. Celebrating the diversity that exists.

4

Maluca

What does Afro-Latinidad mean to you?
Afro-Latinidad means to integrate the parts of myself that I’ve been compartmentalizing over the years of being ashamed for being “too black.” “But you’re Dominican, why are you so black? Are you black?” Really, it’s a powerful space to hold.

Why did you decide to perform at Afro-Latino Fest this year?
For the obvious reasons of me myself being an Afro-Latina [and] because the other artists are so amazing. This was an event that I had to do.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latino performer in the context of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement?
It means a lot of things. It’s a very emotional space I’m in right now, and I feel like it’s very crucial – it’s urgent that all Afro-Latinos – everybody, everybody needs to speak up and come out of the fucking closet, OK? And say something – be a part of the movement.

Tell us about the challenges of repping your Afro-Latinidad but staying true to your art. Do you feel like the label pigeonholes you or empowers you – or both?
I feel very empowered. I feel like if someone doesn’t want to fuck with me because I identify as Afro-Latina, then bye. You know, my sound and my look and everything that I do, it’s such a mashup of stuff. It’s not just for anyone, any one thing, right? That’s the point of what I wanted to do: “Wait, you’re Dominican, so you’re not doing reggaeton? All the way? Or you’re not doing electronic music all the way? What is this?”

I go to other countries and hear English music all over the radio, but here in America, we don’t hear a Polish rapper on Hot 97. I was like, “OK, I’m going to do this in Spanglish.” And you’d be surprised – I’ve been to Vienna and I’m like, “OK, this is my music. You sing along with me.” You know what I mean? It’s great.

5

Dj Jigue

What does Afro-Latinidad mean to you?
I always summarize Afro-Latinidad – and I would like to incorporate there the Caribbean also as diaspora – [as] the entire result of mother Africa giving birth to a lot of cultures, many good energies, many people all around the world. We are that, we’re part of that, of that heritage.

Why did you decide to perform at Afro-Latino Fest this year?
I think it’s important for me on a personal level as an artist and as a Cuban to be able to come here and contribute and share the music that is being made in Cuba, the contemporary music of young people in Cuba. But also to show our Afro-Cuban roots, which is of course all the heritage we have from the African slaves who arrived in Cuba and since then mixed with the Spaniards, the Chinese, and the French. Cuban music is a result of that.

It was very important for me to be able to contribute to a festival where there’s people from many places, but where there’s only a single word or a single idea that is uniting everyone, and it’s that Afro-Latino culture.

Tell us about the challenges of repping your Afro-Latinidad but staying true to your art. Do you feel like the label pigeonholes you or empowers you or both?
I think all African descendants and Latin America as well – even though, for example, people think that in Argentina there are no black people, that in Uruguay there are no black people – there is an African presence throughout Latin America. That’s why I say African descendants. We have a huge responsibility in today’s world and it’s to say, “Yes we are here, and we are an essential part of the cultural formation of this Caribbean and Latin American context where we left an important legacy.” And it is a challenge especially for new generations – to teach the new generation the challenge we have to maintain this cultural heritage.

6

Princess Nokia

What does Afro-Latinidad mean to you?
Afro-Latino is a really great word to describe anyone that is a descendant of the African diaspora in Latin America, whether it would be South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, or the United States. I think it is a really great term that people wanted to start reclaiming, when people couldn’t deny that they were black…When you say “I’m Afro-Latino,” you’re making a statement by telling people that I don’t just identify as a Spanish person or as a Latino person, I’m an Afro-Latino person. I’m a black Latino.

Why did you decide to perform at Afro-Latino Fest this year?
I believe in being a part of any festival that has a really great message or organization behind it. It’s all about empowering black people of the Latino race. I felt that as a black indigenous activist and Afro-Latino musician – one of the first and the last wave of underground musicians to really identify as an Afro-Latino – I felt it was really important to me.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latino performer in the context of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement?
On and off stage, I have a lot room to create art and awareness and environments that allow me to integrate an entire spectrum of blackness at all costs. It’s like Nina Simone said, you cannot be an artist if you do not reflect your time. In my work, I have always tried to reflect the time. As an Afro-Latino person, I’m obliged to address #BlackLivesMatter because I cannot live the life that I’ve lived without being involved and being touched by this genocide and this holocaust that exists. So I’m creating awareness on all fronts, for the brown people that don’t want to talk about it and don’t think it’s an issue, and for the black people that think we are too light skinned to be included.

I march in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter because I truly believe that white supremacy is the biggest war on America as we speak…I’m always trying to address white supremacy and kick it in the ass. I don’t try to be overly righteous. I’m a conscious woman whether anybody likes it or not.

Tell us about the challenges of repping your Afro-Latinidad but staying true to your art. Do you feel like the label pigeonholes you or empowers you or both?
I feel the label gave me everything that I could possibly have gotten in the music. If I wanted to say I was just Latina, any black organization that I’ve been associated with would’ve never endorsed me…When it comes down to it, I don’t care about pigeonholed, I never wanted to be pigeonholed as a Latino, I never wanted to be like: “Hola, cómo estas? Yo estoy con Pepsi.”

I spent a long time when I first started making music [thinking] about what people where going to think of the label or the aesthetic, or what could fit where, and I was really unhappy. If you worry about those things, you’re going to be really unhappy, and you’re never going to have a proper demographic. When you just don’t give a fuck, people surmise. People surmise it from the lyrics and from the content, and from the way I look and dress.

It don’t pigeonhole me; it don’t bother me. I use it, I use it a lot. I use it to build bridges to allow Latino people to embrace and stop negating their African roots.

7

Que Bajo

What does Afro-Latinidad mean to you?
Geko Jones: Afro-Latinidad means the intersection of all the history of the African slave trade, miscegenation, and all the indigenous people that were in the Americas and the Europeans. It means to me a great tradition musically. It means to me a lot of cultural vibrancy and a great deal of underrepresented contributions to what Latin culture is overall. I believe that it’s something that has been swept under the rug for far too long and that’s something that we are trying to [change] with this festival.

Why did you decide to perform at Afro-Latino Fest this year?
Geko Jones: Que Bajo, for a long time, represented a cross-section of Afro-Latin music. I specialize in Afro-Colombian stuff more than anything else, but I’m also a big fan of Angolan music and different parts of Africa, and trying to withdraw the connections from the motherland to Latin America and trying to trace those migrant routes. That’s a lot of the work that I do anyways.

Riobamba: I think that we’re nothing without history and context unless we start talking about these things even as cultural promoters or DJs. You have to bring in the bigger context. Otherwise, that’s when appropriation or decontextualization or really dangerous things happen. To see an opportunity like Afro-Latino Festival – it’s compensating artists, putting them on the proper platform. It’s just putting on the spotlight that’s been so overdue.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latino performer in the context of today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement?
Geko Jones: I have to say that this is the first year that it feels scary. I feel scared to write articles about friends that are queer or Afro-Latin right now. It just feels like putting a bullseye on peoples’ backs. I’ve always approached it with a lot of pride, and it’s not that that part has changed, but there’s this fear factor now, so this year it’s a little different.

I was supposed to write a piece for Univision [about a Que Bajo party]. And I realized how scary it was to say, “Hey, we are going to be here. Here’s our location…” I’m usually super supportive and I feel very guarded right now.

Chiquita Brujita: Being the brujita in the community and then Que Bajo recently I think that there’s a deep spiritual connection in the music and the dance and the spaces that we are creating. Both on our dancefloor and this very public space. My energy contribution to the team is really to have the faith that counteracts that fear and knowing that these spaces become all the more important in the context of all of the violence and all of the prosecution that’s happening against black people in this country, against Afro-Latinas in this country, against people of color, against immigrants, against queer folk.

We shed tears over the beauty and energy that goes into producing a dance party for 700+ people on a monthly basis, and you wake up and there’s this slaughter. It’s the opposite of what needs to happen and so the more that we are able to organize as a community without corporate sponsors and completely by ourselves for ourselves, I think that that’s the kind of counteraction that we need to be doing to the violence that’s happening.

Tell us about the challenges of repping your Afro-Latinidad but staying true to your art. Do you feel like the label pigeonholes you or empowers you – or both?
Geko Jones: It’s interesting. I get to do the museum gig; I don’t really get to the club as much. I do feel like it pigeonholes me. I do feel like [people think] “Oh, that’s Latin or that’s Afro-Latin.” It pushes me into a category [when] most people are just listening to trap or hip-hop whatever’s going on.

8

Carolina Oliveros from Bulla En El Barrio

What does Afro-Latinidad mean to you?
Where we come from, what we are, what we represent. The missions we have in society. What we can share, the essence. Our core.

Why did you decide to perform at Afro-Latino Fest this year?
It seems to me like one of the [most] important festivals when we talk about sharing. This is an important space to show the work we have been doing with Bulla [En El Barrio].

Tell us about the challenges of repping your Afro-Latinidad but staying true to your art. Do you feel like the label pigeonholes you or empowers you or both?
Yes and no. For me, Afro-Latinidad is something that you’re born with. It’s not like, “I want to show who I am.” Obviously the work one does frames your identity in society. But it is not a question of being pigeonholed. It’s about – this is a role, it’s a role in society – same as Africans, Indians, Spaniards.