Puerto Rican Hip-Hop Pioneer SieteNueve Talks Returning to NYC and Reviving La Marqueta

After a five-year break, Puerto Rican rapper SieteNueve returns to New York City to play at La Marqueta Retoña. SieteNueve is part of the first generation of underground, independent rappers in Puerto Rico. Many of his influences came straight from the birthplace of hip-hop, as a result of his cousins living in the city. Between Santurce and Carolina, he began rapping as a pre-teen after listening to Vico C.

SieteNueve first recorded in 1997 with the group Conciencia Poética and started his solo career two years later. His first solo album came out in 2003 and was titled El Pro-Greso. He later came out with Trabuco (2003), and his latest project is Antología (2012). In this last album, SieteNueve switched the hip-hop track for a live band format that will perform in New York City for the first time tonight.

His return to the city comes through an invite from long-time friend José “Fofito” Pérez, owner of the top indie venue in Puerto Rico, La Respuesta. Pérez was hired by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to revive La Marqueta through cultural events. Originally named the Park Avenue Retail Market, the space was opened in 1936 by Mayor La Guardia. After the first great migration of Puerto Ricans to New York City, the area became known as El Barrio and the market as La Marqueta.

We spoke to SieteNueve about how he feels about coming back to NYC, the hip-hop scene, and race relations in Puerto Rico. His answers are insightful, and fortunately for us, you can tell he isn’t signed to a label.

How were Puerto Ricans involved in the creation of hip-hop?
The hip-hop movement started with four fundamental arts: graffiti, break dancing, the DJ, and the MC. A majority of the best known graffiti artists and breakdancers, such as Rock Steady Crew and New York City Breakers, were Puerto Rican. Hip-hop originated in the South Bronx, from marginated areas and the Latino communities. Puerto Ricans were part of that. A lot of people don’t know that one of the most famous albums of the beginning of hip-hop – “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang – the percussion of that album was done by Tito Puente. If you look for the credits, you’ll find “special guest: Tito Puente.” You understand? We’ve been there since the beginning.

What do you think of the hip-hop scene on the island?
I’m part of the first underground generation of independent hip-hop. Of that generation, I think I was one of the first to launch an independent album. Now it’s easier for you to record, market yourself, and put your music on the forefront. It’s hard to compare [the industry] when we started and now because there’s no protocol for you to be able to make your music nowadays. Rap is very competitive. Before, for you to say that you were a rapper, you needed to demonstrate [it] on the street or [by] rapping wherever. Now, you don’t have to do that. Any loco says he’s a rapper, films a video at his house, uploads it on YouTube, and all of the sudden he has a bunch of views and he’s an artist. It’s a double-edged sword. But that doesn’t just happen in Puerto Rico; that’s happening all around the world.

“I’m part of the first underground generation of independent hip-hop.”

There’s a lot of talent in Puerto Rico, but there’s a need for spaces, exposure, stages, and platforms, because there are a lot of people doing stuff, but we don’t have places to carry our proposals through. They invite us to festivals, but there’s no venues that we can be at except La Respuesta, which has always been there. We need new platforms to get us to the media and that pushes us through to other music shows on the island. People that play folkloric music such as bomba and plena are going through the same thing. If it’s not popular music, it’s harder for us to create and play.

What inspired you to switch the track for a live band?
I had collaborated with Puerto Rican artists such as William Cepeda (I’m part of his Afro-Rican Jazz orchestra), Charlie Sepúlveda, and Danny Sánchez. They would invite me to rap or do spoken [word] with their groups and in that scope I stayed [because] improvisation in jazz is elementary and it basically gave me free space. The beat and tempo matched well with my rhymes and gave me a freedom you can’t have with a track. The magic of rapping live with a band is really different than [rapping on] a track. Without undervaluing the track (because it’s fundamental for rap foundations), I have rapped enough times on top of a track. I really liked the idea of creating live with a band.

How does it feel to be back in New York?
I’m always trying to escape New York because it has swallowed all of my family and friends. I’m supposed to be living here. My only sister lives in New York, my niece, my godmother, my uncle, my best friend, mi compadre — and I have refused to live here. New York for me is like the headquarters that I’m afraid of – I don’t want to live here, but I’m always here. I haven’t been here in five years because the last time I was here, I stayed for a month, and the city swallowed me up. But it’s a special place, because it’s the birthplace of hip-hop, and I’m a lover of hip-hop. Every time I come here, that vein fills up again.

“I haven’t been here in five years because the last time I was here, the city swallowed me up.”

What’s it like to come and play at La Marqueta?
For me it’s nostalgic, because it’s the heart of El Barrio and they’re revitalizing a space that was forgotten and has history. With the constant displacement, it’s important for us – the community – to rescue those spaces. La Marqueta Retoña is a victory, because that space is not taken over by rich people starting a business that will give us nothing in return. Instead, these people are rescuing that space and bringing artists from Puerto Rico and local artists.

The Puerto Rican Senate approved a bill Thursday declaring Spanish as the first official language of the country, making English the second language. What do you think of that?
That’s absurd. Are they going to make arroz, habichuela y chuleta the official food of Puerto Rico? They’ve always been playing with the official language issue but the language issue is a political issue. The ones in favor of English being the official language have an annexation/pro-statehood agenda. It’s not a real issue, because it’s good if we have many languages.

They lose time with that nonsense when they should be dealing with the drought and water problem. The country has no water. They [the PR government] are waiting for it to rain. If it doesn’t rain, the dams lose water because they don’t give them appropriate maintenance. If we have a drought next year, there are no plans.

Puerto Rico is going to host its first Congress of African Descent in November. Do you think there is consciousness of African descent in Puerto Rico and why is it important?
I think there’s consciousness, but it’s scarce. I think it’s really important for that issue to be brought to Puerto Rico because in Puerto Rico there are a lot of taboos with blackness. It’s not talked about enough and maybe it’s not understood what our African roots are in the country. In my household, my father is black and my mom is white, but my mom is a white Dominican from a poor part of the Dominican Republic. I’ve always carried those thoughts of race in my mind and actions because I’m Boricua, Dominicano, black, and white.

Blackness is much more than the color of your skin. A lot of people in Puerto Rico think that if you’re lighter, you’re Taíno, not black; if your hair is straight, it’s “pelo bueno,” if it’s curly hair it’s “pelo malo” and that is part of the ignorance of who we are. [People think] there are characteristics of what is black, and if you don’t fit all of those, you’re not black. But that’s ignorant and our culture is much more African than what people think. Our Spanish has an African vocabulary, the food we eat, the religion. What the black people that came from Africa contributed to Puerto Rico is impregnated in our culture, and it’s vital. It’s what [differentiates] us from others – how we dance, how we play the drums. La bomba, for example, is interesting, because it came from black Africans, but it doesn’t exist there anymore because all of those families came to Puerto Rico.

Now there’s a new movement of Diosas al Natural, which has been going on for a few years. I know about 15 of the creators, and it’s a movement that I like because I see women embracing their natural hair. They’re seeing that they look beautiful with their Afros. I like that it’s becoming fashionable, that the social consciousness revolves around accepting  yourself and liking yourself just the way you are. Our culture doesn’t show you a black woman with an Afro. They want you to look like Beyoncé.

“My role as a rapper will always be to be a spokesman for those who don’t have a voice.”

What do you think your role is as a rapper?
My role as a rapper will always be to be a spokesman for those who don’t have a voice. I’m the voice of the one who can’t [speak]. And I’m the cojones of the one who doesn’t have the cojones to say something. [laughs]

I dare to say what many don’t and I have to suffer the consequences of that. But at the same time, I feel that I can do a lot with what I say, and create some type of change. For me, my voice is my weapon, and it’s what has been most effective.