The story of Puerto Rican hiphop.

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:22

    While some whites claim that hiphop in the Eminem era has moved beyond blackness, Puerto Ricans have all but disappeared from the official history and current discourse. You now know about the Beastie Boys, but what about Big Pun or Fat Joe?

    This is interesting, given that Puerto Ricans were there at the creation of hiphop in the boogie-down Bronx, and Raquel Rivera's New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone is a smart and needed corrective. The author looks at how New York Rican rappers, and second- or third-generation Boricuas (Puerto Ricans), have been sidelined by both race politics and marketplace classification. Puerto Ricans are "caught between latinidad and blackness? [and] may fit in both categories and yet also in neither." This is problematic. In America, you either is or you ain't sumpin.'

    Puerto Ricans, like Dominicans and Cubans, are part of the Afro-diaspora. They are an African-heritage-based people as well as having Taíno (the indigenous people who resided on the island of Borikén) and European (Spanish) heritages. So are they black, or not? Yes and no. They are a distinct people who tend to have three races coursing through them. Yet historically they have shared a more profound relationship with African Americans, especially in New York, than with any other group in the U.S. This is due to the fact that they and blacks share certain specifics that are based on Kongo/Bantu cultural traits that stress music, dance and wordplay.

    African Americans and Puerto Ricans have tended to share the same low-income socio-economic status and all that it entails. Culturally, Puerto Ricans have grooved on jazz and r&b sounds, while blacks have taken to salsa and gotten down with 1960s Puerto Rican "soul music," bugalú, or "boogaloo." The exchange that fueled hiphop was between African-American, Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean youths.

    When hiphop became commercially viable, it was defined strictly as a black music form. The demands of "authenticity" thus forced New York Rican rappers to decide if they were black to the exclusion of being Puerto Rican. If they are Puerto Rican, they are relegated to categories like "tropical rap," "rap en español," or "Latino hip hop."

    The contributions of New York Ricans have either been downplayed or ignored. "And when their presence has been acknowledged," writes Rivera, "frequently it has been misinterpreted as a defection from Puerto Rican culture and identity, into the African American camp."

    Unlike most cultural criticism, New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone is not too jargon-laden, but it reads like a cross between a Ph.D. thesis and reportage. It flows, however, and actually explains and delineates the cross-fertilization of one of America's most controversial and dynamic music forms, establishing that back in day, New York Puerto Ricans were en la casa.

    New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone By Raquel Z. Rivera, Palgrave Macmillan, 288 pages, $22.95