Before Susana Baca became a Latin American icon, she was a young girl in Chorrillos, Peru, a district in Lima, watching her mom command every room she entered with her dance. Where Baca’s mother moved, people stopped what they were doing to make circles around her, enchanted by her every step and sway. Through her mom, she learned what it took to captivate audiences. Through her, she fell in love with music.
“Since I was a little girl, there was something very special between music and me,” the three-time Latin Grammy winner and ethnomusicologist tells Refinery29 Somos.
But music didn’t always feel reachable. While Baca’s mother knew her daughter was incredibly talented, she was fearful of her devoting her life to a nontraditional career path. “[My mother] witnessed talented artists die in poverty. She was afraid I would die of hunger because you can’t live off of [making] music,” Baca remembers. “Great musicians back in the day were taxi drivers, butchers, superintendents, anything they could do by day so they could be musicians by night.”
Baca’s mother wanted her to have a stable career and enjoy music on the side. Taking her mother’s advice, Baca studied education and worked as a teacher for several years, singing and dancing when she could fit it in her schedule. But she quickly learned that those few hours dedicated to the arts weren’t feeding her appetite. She ended up merging her background in education with her passion for music. After taking a few singing and music classes, she decided to teach the craft. “It was difficult to live off music, so I taught dance classes to have some income. As time went on, music kept occupying more space,” she says.
But her students weren’t the only ones learning. Throughout her musical journey, Baca says that music ended up becoming one of her greatest teachers. In studying the intersection of music and race, the singer began to understand that the discrimination she experienced throughout her life was directly related to the color of her skin. Through her readings, she learned the history that led to these realities and how her ancestors fought back through song—including the style of Afro-Peruvian music she would later be known for popularizing.
My music belongs to a movement for human rights.
“What have Afro-Peruvians done on this land? Fought in wars and died for our independence. I wanted to know why this happened,” she says. To do this, she became a student of African studies, learning about African enslavement in Spain, Portugal, and then Latin America. “People like me were enslaved because others felt superior. That has made me so strong and has given me a passion to learn and study,” she continues.
Through música criolla, an Afro-Peruvian genre that includes components of waltz, pregón, festejo, marinera, tondero, and landó, Baca has spent her career reviving a musical style originated by enslaved Africans who were brought to Peru by Spanish settlers during the 16th century. Enslaved people were banned from performing their own music, so they got innovative and made musical instruments from old packing crates that could be disguised as seats. This evolved into the cajon, a wooden box that became an important instrument in Afro-Peruvian music, as well as other key instruments like the cajita and quijada. Baca uses these centuries-old musical styles to tell the stories of Black life, then and now. “My music belongs to a movement for human rights,” she says proudly.
Finding success in the music industry through folk genres and pro-Black lyrics wasn’t easy. Baca, who has been making music since the 1980s, remembers promoting her shows herself during her early years because the media refused to cover it. “I had to create an audience for myself outside of the country,” Baca says. And she did. In 2001, she received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album for her album Canto. A year later, she won a Latin Grammy for Best Folk Album for her album Lamento Negro. That’s when her country started to finally pay attention to the genius in their own backyard. “They almost fell back. They didn’t know one of their own citizens would win a Grammy,” Baca, who is writing an autobiography, says. “There are people who are recently finding out about my talent and who I am as an artist.”
Art influences society, and for the past five decades Baca’s music has translated experiences, instilled values, and helped to change opinions. She has become a voice and advocate for the Afro-Peruvian community and the revival of Afro-Peruvian music—and her impact is undeniable. In 2009, Peru became the first Latin American country to issue an official public apology to its Afro-descendants for centuries of "abuse, exclusion, and discrimination.”
I am singing what my soul has had kept inside all this time.
With Palabras Urgentes, Baca’s 16th studio album, she continues to create songs that make listeners reflect. The project is an act of protest, and it’s her favorite one to date. Produced by Michael League from Snarky Puppy, Palabras Urgentes is a collection of songs Baca has been wanting to sing for some time, urgent words from her alma. “I wanted to sing about women like Juana Azurduy de Padilla, who was a South American guerrilla leader who fought for independence from Spanish rule in the early 19th century,” she says. “It is about women who are finally being named and recognized—women who were leaders that fought for their lands.” Among the women mentioned on the album are Afro-Peruvian Catalina Buendía de Pecho, who helped stop the Chilean army from invading Peru in 1883, and Indigenous leader Micaela Bastidas, a heroine and wife of Túpac Amaru II.
Baca describes her sound on the project as "a hug," filled with lots of love, and sometimes a “grito,” made of fury. There are songs like “Cambalache,” which critiques Peru’s current political climate and the politicians who have thrive off corruption. There are poems like Alejandro Romualdo’s “Color de rosa,” a plea to not paint the country “color de rosa” but rather the color of fury, anger, and hope, because that’s how he feels about his homeland. And there’s “Sorongo,” a pro-Black anthem originally from Puerto Rico’s Tite Curet Alonso that includes new verses from Afro-Peruvian artist Nicomedes Santa Cruz and performances from children. As Baca says, Palabras Urgentes is an album to reflect on. “I am singing what my soul has had kept inside all this time.”
In 2020, after winning Best Folk Album for A Capella at the Latin Grammys, Baca dedicated the win to young people building a better Peru for everyone. Similarly, Palabras Urgentes is for younger generations to learn and feel held. “A lot of people have written to me about the songs I gathered for this album and tell me that it brought tears to their eyes. They tell me the project is a comforting gift of light that brings salvation to its listeners,” she says. This is why, at the age of 77, Baca continues to make music. It saves her and her audience. “That’s what music is to me, and I will keep creating it until my last breath.”