Celia Cruz rose to fame in pre-revolution Havana when Cuban music was dominated by white men, and women were stigmatized for participating in the entertainment industry. The “Queen of Salsa” defied standards as a Black woman musician in the 1950s, performing pro-Black records at a time when fans who looked like her weren’t allowed in music venues to enjoy her shows. A Latin American legend, she remains the face of Black Latindad in music nearly two decades after her death to cancer in 2003 and is arguably the most influential woman across so-called Latin genres—period. But Cruz wasn’t the only artist celebrating Blackness in Latin American music de antes.
Since the 1940s, Black musicians across Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean have used their talents to celebrate, honor, and defend Black people and their African heritage. What’s more, they’ve used their lyrics and rhythms to teach many of us about ourselves, overcoming a long history and tradition of silence while giving the millions of Black descendants like me permission to write ourselves into the proverbial story.
If we consider how quietude meant survival for so many who came before us, Joe Arroyo’s “La Rebelíon,” a roaring salsa classic set in 1600s Colombia that rebukes violence against enslaved Africans, emerges as a musical masterpiece. The song re-lives an overlooked history of South America’s largest slave trading port in Cartagena and remains a timeless salsa and cultural anthem for the countless Afro-Caribes throughout South America and beyond. “En los años mil seiscientos, cuando el tirano mandó/ Las calles de Cartagena, aquella historia vivió/ Cuando aquí llegaban esos negreros, africanos en cadenas/ Besaban mi tierra, esclavitud perpetua,” sings Arroyo in the opening verse, which immediately lets listeners know this is a narrative about a group of enslaved people who’ve just arrived on Colombian soil.
Arroyo follows up in the second verse with, “Un matrimonio africano, esclavos de un español/ Él les daba muy mal trato y a su negra le pegó/ Y fue allí, se reveló el negro guapo/ Tomó venganza por su amor/ Y aún se escucha en la verja, No le pegue a mi negra.” He then introduces a married enslaved couple, whose young wife is being mistreated and physically abused by the Spanish captors. The heart of this particular record, which beautifully weaves percussion and piano, is in the depiction of a Black enslaved man who as a captive will endure physical abuse, labor, famine, humiliation, and death before he lets anyone—let alone a colonizer—put hands on the woman he loves.
But women also spoke for themselves. Artists like La Lupe and the recently deceased Elza Soares used music to reclaim their African roots. Where the “Queen of Latin Soul” employed guaguancó, an African-rooted sub-genre of Cuban rumba, to sing to her Orishas, Brazil’s bossa nova empress took to samba and reintroduced the drums of a sound whose global success eclipsed the genre's Black foundation.
Perhaps a consequence of gatekeeping in the Latin music industry and music industry at large, which continues to uphold European standards in beauty and mainstream culture, Cruz is too often the only Black Latinx artist mentioned in popular discussions around Afro-Latinx contributions in music and the performing arts. In truth, she is among a cadre of artists who share the same cultural pride and joy of being Afro-descendant. Get better acquainted with the likes of Johnny Ventura, Arsenio Rodríguez, Susana Baca, and Ruth Fernández, among many others. As Alexis Lozano of Orquesta Guayacán put it, “¡Que viva la negritude!”
Born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the late Cheo Feliciano is a lauded pioneer of the salsa genre. One of the more recognized faces of the FANIA All Stars, he joined the iconic late ‘60s music band (and one of the most successful Latin record labels of the time) after migrating to New York at 17. He would go on to perform some of the genre’s most popular songs, including “Anacaona,” about a warrior chief among the Indigneous Taino people of present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic. His performance of this record popularized her story and reinforced her legacy as a local hero and fallen soldier who ultimately refused Christopher Columbus and opposed the Spanish invaders. Salsa greats such as Rubén Blades, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Alex D'Castro, and Jerry Rivas are among some of the singers that have mentioned Feliciano as a major influence. Before his death, Feliciano told Jazzconclave.com the music he fell in love with and made him famous is rooted in Africa.
In the 1970s, Cartagena’s beloved Joe “El Joe” Arroyo was one of the greatest salsa singers and performers in Colombia and throughout all of Latin America. A man known to be proud of his African roots, Arroyo would go on to author one of the most iconic songs emblematic of Black love and resistance, “La Rebelión.” He opens with, “I want to tell you, my brother, a little piece of Black history,” and sings the story of a slave revolt that championed protecting Black women. Far before Twitter and hashtags, Arroyo had Latin America singing “No le pegue a la negra,” the famous refrain from the 1986 hit that translates to “don’t hit the Black woman.”
From a small town called San Pedrito in Santiago de Cuba, La Lupe, neé Lupe Victoria Yoli, emerged the “Queen of Latin Soul” in the time of FANIA. Often pitted against her colleague Celia Cruz, La Lupe mesmerized 1960s audiences with her explosive stage presence. La Lupe’s uninhibited performances are what set her apart from her contemporaries. An early practitioner of santería, a Yoruba-based faith also known as Regla de Ocha or Lucumí in Cuba and other parts of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, La Lupe approached the stage unlike any other in that she was often ruled by instinct and rapture, intoxicating fans from around the world with her signature raspy vocals and sexual abandon. Her catalog is chock full of songs that honored her Orishas, including odes to Chango and Yemeya, among many others. In songs like “La Salve de Plena,” La Lupe shares her affinity for the land of Quiskeya, or the Dominican Republic, and sings of plena, an Afro-Caribbean folkloric genre said to be influenced by the bomba styles of Puerto Rico.
A trailblazing boricua who shattered color and gender barriers in music, Ruth Fernández was a spirited vocalist known as the “soul” of Puerto Rican song. Hailing from Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, Fernández began singing professionally at age 14 and became one of the first successful Afro-Puerto Rican female singers at a time when segregation was still sustained by custom, prejudice, and money. At her famous 1973 Carnegie Hall performance, Fernández performed “Mi Ochún,” a Black woman’s prayer to have a baby. She explained to her audience how “a woman’s husband could just leave her if she couldn’t give him a child.”
Johnny Ventura, who passed away in August of 2021, forged his legacy in music as the father of contemporary merengue. “El Caballo Mayor,” as he was affectionately known in the Dominican Republic, was beloved for his frenetic tempos and playfully mischievous lyrics. The six-time Latin Grammy winner produced more than 100 albums in his lifetime, and plenty of his catalog points to Blackness and Black history. One such record, where Ventura sings in solidarity of his brothers and sisters across the Haiti-DR border, is the famous “El Pique” record. It’s a hip-swinging nod to the lived experiences and tribulations of Haitians on the island. Outside of music, Ventura was a respected politician and cultural ambassador, earning a degree in law school and later becoming mayor of his native Santo Domingo.
Arsenio Rodríguez was one of the most important pillars of Cuban music, and among some of his biggest contributions is the introduction of the conga drum to the ensembles of son, which had previously been disassociated from its African origins. Of Congolese ancestry, the prolific composer and band leader was born in Guira de Macurije in Cuba's western province, Matanzas. He would grow up to revolutionize Cuban music and lay the foundations of modern-day salsa by creating the conjunto that provided the congas’ deep tones and trumpet power in son. Another ensemble innovation was Rodriguez’s addition of guaguancó, an African-rooted sub-genre of Cuban rumba that combines percussion, voice, and dance. Rodriguez's famous “Oiga Mi Guanguancó” is a spiritual homage to his ancestors.
Singer and activist Elza Soares rose from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to samba stardom in the 1960s. She was one of the few Black women singers to achieve her level of stardom in Brazil at the time. She was compared to Eartha Kitt in looks, and her husky vocals are reminiscent of Louis Armstrong’s. She appeared in feature films and on television in the ‘70s. Her sophomore album, A Bossa Negra (1961), reclaimed the African roots of a sound whose global success stripped away samba’s drums. She overcame a life and career of hardships having faced down racism, sexism, and classism in Brazilian society. Her recent death was officially announced in a statement shared on Instagram. “She sang until the end,” it read. She was 91 and passed away of natural causes at her home in Rio.
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
A wildly popular rumba group throughout Cuba, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas’ story starts in the kitchen when a group of Cuban youth got together to play Arsenio Rodríguez’s songs with “bottles and dishes” at a bar in a barrio of Matanzas, where the pulse of Black Cuba resonates. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas are a part of the rich fabric of African music in Cuba whose work includes honoring the legend of Abakúa. In “Abakúa Makonica,” which very loosely translates to “the sound of Abakúa,” Los Muñequitos de Matanzas reference the all-male and ancient fraternity with roots in present-day Nigeria.
The Colombian salsa music band led by Alexis Lozano — who also co-founded Grupo Niche in tandem with Jairo Varela in the late ‘70s — Orquesta Guayacán rose to prominence during the 1990s. Born in Chocó, a Pacific coastal region of Colombia with a rich Black population, Lozano trained a group of youth in Bogotá in the ‘80s to create Orquesta Guayacán, a majority Afro-Colombian group of nearly 40 years. The group’s international hit, “Oiga, Mire, Vea,” became an anthem behind la Feria de Cali, or the Cali Fair, which gather throngs of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous natives every year to celebrate their Caleño identity during the winter holidays.
Originally from Montecristi, northwest of the Dominican Republic and near the sea close to the Haiti border, fusion singer-songwriter Xiomara Fortuna made a home of Santo Domingo and today continues her process of musical ingenuity as an essential local figure in the artistic landscape and everyday life of the capital city. Exploring and centering Dominican African roots is the driving force behind much of her résumé, which fuses folkloric music of the Caribbean with strong music trends in rock, hip-hop, jazz, merengue, and bachata. A shining and contemporary example of this is seen in one of her latest releases, “Afro E,” featuring fellow Afro-Dominican rapper Acentoh.
Afro-Peruvian ethnomusicologist and Peru’s minister of culture Susana Baca celebrated 50 years of championing Black Peruvian music with the release of her 16th album, Palabras Urgentes. Baca, who is immersed in her country’s current political climate, remastered Calle 13’s “Sorongo” in order to emphasize the record’s energy. “Susana was really, really adamant about feeling Africa in Sorongo, so we made a lot of really interesting decisions during the recording process about textures and sounds and structure to make you feel the connection between the sugar fields in Peru and the African roots of the people who were enslaved and working them,” said producer Michael League of the New York band Snarky Puppy.
Machito & the Afro-Cubans
Machito & the Afro-Cubans orchestra were a jazz band that boldly promoted its Blackness during a time when music was still segregated, turning what is an everyday societal disadvantage on its ear. The ensemble’s musical director Mario Bauzá penned “Tanga” and created the start of what today is called Latin jazz—or Afro-Cuban music arranged as jazz and swing music. The Afro-Cubans incorporated and played with many jazz greats from the U.S., including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; the likes of Miles Davis and Gil Evans were inspired by the arrangement innovations of “Tanga.” The group performed regularly at New York's Palladium, and Machito's band anchored themselves in the mambo craze of the 1950s.