Rican-structing History: Raquel Z. Rivera

While it is an accepted fact that Hip Hop culture was produced by both African Americans and Latinos, the historical record hasn’t always reflected this. Inside the stories of Hip Hop’s pioneers are the visible ways that Blacks and Latinos influenced each other and developed artistic expressions that spoke to their environments. After years of […]

While it is an accepted fact that Hip Hop culture

was produced by both African Americans and Latinos, the historical record hasn’t

always reflected this. Inside the stories of Hip Hop’s pioneers are the visible

ways that Blacks and Latinos influenced each other and developed artistic expressions

that spoke to their environments. After years of research, author and scholar

Raquel Z. Rivera, Ph.D. has dug deep into the Hip Hop soul and pulled out the

experience of Puerto Ricans, providing the first truly accurate look at the

Boricua impact on Hip Hop.

While "New York Ricans from the Hip Hop

Zone" is published as an academic text, it reads like an emotional and

vividly detailed account of Latinos within Hip Hop culture. Challenging the

accepted roles of Puerto Ricans and Latinos, Rivera deconstructs the "Butta

Pecan Mami" trends, concepts of Blackness, and overall acceptance of Latino

Hip Hop artists. Featuring interviews with Angie Martinez, Fat Joe, La Bruja,

in addition to the wealth of historical information presented, this book is

an essential jewel in the quest for Hip Hop understanding.

We spoke to Rivera about her book and her views

on the role of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in hip hop.

AllHipHop.com: To start off, what motivated you to write this book? Was this

a personal thing for you?

It all started while I was living in Puerto Rico.

It frustrated me that, even though rap music was very popular in the island,

it wasn’t being taken seriously: not by the media and not in academia. So I

started documenting the youth cultural scene over there and also exploring the

prejudices that surrounded rap music (which accounted for it not being taken

seriously). This was in 1992 to 1994. I was writing for newspapers and at the

same time writing academic papers and my masters thesis on the subject. In the

process, I realized just how much New York Puerto Ricans had been involved in

the development of hip hop artforms.

One of the reasons why rap music was criticized

in Puerto Rico was because it was supposedly a "foreign" music genre

that had nothing to do with Puerto Rican culture. So when I realized that Puerto

Ricans in New York had been instrumental in making hip hop artforms what they

are, I wanted to counter those critics arguments by explaining how rap music

and breaking, especially, had been shaped by Puerto Ricans from the beginning.

I moved to New York in 1994 and I did pretty

much what I had done in Puerto Rico: write for magazines and newspapers, and

at the same time write academic papers and my doctoral dissertation on the subject.

Those writings eventually became the book.

This book is very personal. It’s about documenting

a fragment of Puerto Rican history, which is my history. Plus, since I’m the

one documenting it, it’s a history filtered through me, so my thoughts and feelings

inevitably become involved… especially because I feel passionately about the

subject. Dance and music are central to my life. There is such potential for

joy, self-knowledge, community building and activism in them. And it upset me

so much that hip hop kept being denied its place within the history of Puerto

Rican culture. The book also came from a frustration of Puerto Rican experiences

not being properly explored in historical accounts of hip hop.

AllHipHop.com: Aside from your book, there isn’t much written documentation

of the Puerto Rican contribution to Hip Hop. How did you go about building research

for this project?

First I looked at what had been written: Juan

Flores, Mandalit del Barco, Nancy Guevara, Steve Hager, David Toop, Tricia Rose,

Robert Farris Thompson, Nelson George. Some of these writers don’t focus specifically

on Puerto Ricans, but still made important observations about them. But the

most important source of information was the artists and fans who lived it and

live it. So I did a whole lot of observing and listening: interviews, informal

conversations, going to clubs, parties, panel discussions, reading magazines,

watching TV. It was so much fun. Everything I did was part of my research. Even

talking to my friends was part of the research.

AllHipHop.com: Why do you feel that this core element of Hip Hop history has

been surpressed? What does that say about Black America’s racial politics?

For many reasons. One of them is that hip hop’s

early history is a very New York-based, regional history. So when hip hop culture

went beyond New York borders, the experiences and participation of Puerto Ricans

were almost impossible to understand in other contexts. The African American

dimension of hip hop could be understood throughout the United States. But Puerto

Ricans were concentrated in New York. Back then, outside New York, few people

understood or cared what a Puerto Rican was. That’s why by the late 1980s, many

people were saying that hip hop (reduced to just rap music) was a "Black

thing, you wouldn’t understand".

Another reason, related to the first, is that

the blackness of Puerto Ricans has not been properly understood. Puerto Rican

culture is as "African" as that of African Americans, but it’s the

Spanish dimension of our heritage that gets emphasized. Part of the problem

is a lack of understanding on the part of African Americans. But Puerto Rican

internalized racism is the other part of the problem.

Often hip hop history has been written with a

commercial bias. The assumption is that because few Puerto Ricans have become

top-selling rap artists, then they must not be that important in hip hop.

AllHipHop.com: Given the visible presence of Latinos in Graf art and B-boy/B-girl

culture, why does it seem that Latinos haven’t been as accepted as MC’s?

MCing became so associated with African Americans

in people’s minds during the 1980s, that Latinos seemed like wannabees. But

it was and still is a matter of perception. Its not the best artist who sells

the most; its most often the one that is packaged the best or fits consumer

expectations. But we also have to take into account that, to begin with, even

in the 1970s in New York, Latinos were more present in graf and dancing, than

in DJing and MCing. And that may have had to do with a sense of "cultural

property" surrounding the musical dimension of hip hop, that might not

have been as strong in graf and b-boying/b-girling. From the beginning. DJing

and MCing were identified more with African Americans and Jamaicans than with

Puerto Ricans. And as hip hop traveled out of New York, the spaces for Puerto

Ricans as DJs and MCs became even less.

AllHipHop.com: Many academics and so-called "Hip

Hop" scholars trace Hip Hop to a "blues impulse" in African American

culture. Your book cites and emphasizes the Afro-Caribbean roots of Hip Hop.

Why is this aspect either totally ignored or just a small footnote or commentary?

Because the connections between the different

groups that make up the African Diaspora are not sufficiently understood. Hip

hop has to be traced back to the blues and, even earlier, to expressions like

calinda and knocking and kicking in the southern United States. But isn’t it

striking and beautiful that similar music and dances exist all throughout the

African Diaspora in the Americas? There is calinda in Trinidad, calinda in Puerto

Rico, calembe in Jamaica and calenda in Haiti. Knocking and kicking is an African-derived

martial arts form in the southern U.S.; well, so are Trinidadian calinda and

Puerto Rican cocobal. If you have African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans,

and other Caribbean young people creating hip hop together in New York in the

1970s… Why just trace hip hop back to the southern United States?

AllHipHop.com: How did Rap’s Black Nationalist

phase impact Latinos within the Hip Hop community? Your book seems to hint at

both positive and negative effects, could you expound on that some?

On the positive side, Latinos of the African

Diaspora (like Puerto Ricans) could identify with the uplifting and celebrating

of blackness, applying it to themselves and their communities. Even other Latinos,

like Chicanos on the West Coast, were inspired by the impulse to celebrate a

non-white culture and heritage. The problem was that, because Black Nationalism

largely defined blackness just in terms of African Americans, a lot of Latinos

felt totally alienated and disconnected with the blackness that was being celebrated.

AllHipHop.com: Do you think this "step-child"

status drove some Latinos away from Hip Hop to urban music genres like Freestyle

and House?

Absolutely. A lot of Latinos felt like hip hop

wasn’t their own. And, through freestyle and house they were trying to create

their own.

AllHipHop.com: It seems like many of Hip Hop’s

Latino artists aren’t very comfortable either speaking Spanish or fully representing

their heritage. Is that a result of industry pressure or a personal disconnect

from their ethnicity?

It depends on the artist. For some artists its

pressure from the industry, for others its a disconnection from their ethnicity.

But there are other reasons why artists don’t want to rhyme in Spanish. One

is that, in rhyming in English, many Latino artists do represent their heritage

and that is how they want to do it. There is a Puerto Rican English, just like

there is a Chicano and a Cuban English. I think it’s very important to embrace

the English spoken in Latino communities as part of our heritages. Our definition

of our heritage has to include the realities and experiences of our parents

and grandparents, but also the urban U.S.-based realities of the newer generations.


As Latinos become the largest ethnic minority in the US do you see a rise of

more authentic Latino Hip Hop artists, or more of the same kind of cultural

tokenizing we’ve seen?

Population numbers don’t guarantee anything as

far as the market goes. Latinos of African and indigenous ancestry are the majority

in this country and we don’t see them properly represented as artists and on

Spanish-language TV. So the same thing can happen in hip hop.

AllHipHop.com: On a final note, who do you feel should read this book? Is it

just for academics and scholars or will the Hip Hop masses benefit from it?

Everyone should read this book. Granted, it’s

a historical text, so some people might find it heavy and difficult. It’s a

book about hip hop, but it’s also a book that challenges the way that we see

race, ethnicity and tradition. My intention is that teachers can read it and

pass the information on to their young students. Or other writers can use it

to write more books and articles that will appeal to a wider audience. Or filmmakers

will be inspired to do documentaries that will reach even more people.