What We Need to “Get Right” about J.Lo and Cultural Appropriation

 

J to the L-O hello! It seems Jennifer Lopez needed a wake-up call after her major faux pas on Monday when she carelessly tweeted a photo of she and Lin-Manuel Miranda promoting their new tribute single in honor of Pulse victims, Love Make the World Go Round. In a since-deleted tweet Ms. “Jenny from da block” allowed her political correctness to supersede any historical context of black lives mattering by erasing the specificity of black lives and relegating them to all lives. Yup, she did all of that in a hashtag and Vibe Viva editor Marjua Estevez gathered Ms. Lopez in the most epic of reads and said nearly everything many of us were thinking.

Jennifer Lopez getting called out on her privilege and selective memory was necessary as she has significantly benefitted from the many black lives she refused to acknowledge when co-opting a movement founded on the centering of said marginalized people. While it was commendable that Lopez used her celebrity to champion for the unity and visibility of one marginalized group it was disappointing to witness one of the Latino community’s biggest crossover sensations then turn around and in seeming tone deaf brevity silence another. I for certain was in my feelings but not surprised considering J. Lo has never been one to “get loud” when it comes to issues affecting the inner city enclaves she so fervently claims. Her lack of advocacy toward Puerto Rico’s economic plight has created further dissonance among her many fans and critics considering she was once the Grand Marshal of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade and continues to be honored by the organization.

In fact, if Jennifer Lopez wishes to live up to her “I’m real” mantra, what would be more revolutionary than throwing that brown fist in the air (a la Young Lords) and recognizing the very real way systemic racism has affected the livelihood of our “hoods.” While Lopez’s rosé colored glasses may have contributed to her disconnectedness, the community doesn’t forget and in the remembering, we made sure she didn’t forget either. In an op-ed published by Blavity, Lopez was called out on the snafu and rightfully so, but in a very clickbaity headline, she was also taken to task for appropriating black culture. I’m confused on the black culture being appropriated part, as to my understanding (and historically noted) urban culture is not exclusive to African Americans and considering that Puerto Ricans are very much a part of the African Diaspora, African culture, is an essence of our lived experiences.

I read Blavity often and in fact, it is one my favorite digital content platforms, but I was turned off by the assumption that because Lopez is a light skinned Latina she’s denied the inclusion of the culture into which she was born. A culture founded in part by Black and Puerto-Rican youth. A culture created to combat the very same oppressive systems we continue fighting today. When Puerto Ricans migrated to New York City from the island, our socio-economic status was no different than those of our Black American comrades who migrated from the South. Our shared history, inextricably linked to homogenous levels of oppression, mirrored those of African Americans. We have always been in this struggle together. Often in formation together.

While many Puerto Ricans have embraced their blackness and label themselves Afro-Latino or Black Latino, there is still a majority of us who shy away from calling ourselves black. It may seem (and understandably so) rooted in anti-blackness due to social and psychological conditioning but it’s not always the case. There are layers to this. Though I was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents I never took into consideration the othering of my identity until my family relocated to the suburbs of New Jersey. It was one of the most challenging moments of my youth. In Brooklyn, my authenticity was never questioned. There was a mutual understanding among diasporic children born in low-income communities and evident in our slang, our movement, our music, our fashion, that we were familia. But, in the recluse of suburbia, I was either too white to be black by African Americans or too black to be white by white folk. The delegitimization of my perceived blackness followed by my inherent refusal to call myself white, caused me to rethink my existence within the black/white binary thus me choosing the term Latina to self-identify.

Puerto Ricans have always existed in the crossroads of race and identity often resulting in our exclusion from influential movements because we are deemed “not black enough” or accused (by those who lack research) of hijacking the very culture in with which we have shared contributions.

In academic research of urban culture and more specifically Hip Hop culture among Puerto Ricans and Latinos, scholar and author of New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone, Raquel Z. Rivera goes on to say:

“To ignore the areas of cultural overlap among African Americans,
Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean people in New York City is to distort
history, which results in the marginalization of some of the richest
forms of contemporary urban creative expression. To overlook that New York Puerto Rican culture and identities have long been intricately connected to those of their neighbors not only obscures these groups’ shared history but prevents a sense of connection between past and present.”

Is Jennifer Lopez out of touch with the inner city that raised her? Maybe. Does she need to check her privilege? Absolutely. Does her refusal to self-identify as Afro-Latina mean she’s anti-black? Based on my experiences as a woke light-skinned Latina still navigating my own blackness, I would have to disagree. We can’t simplify such a complex issue. I’m all for calling out our problematic faves. I’ve learned early on that our heroes are not subhuman and will often disappoint us. Anyone group or person co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement and erasing the work of its founders deserve to be held accountable for their actions and also their inactions. It’s a great disservice to ignore the injustices that black people have faced at the hands of state-sanctioned violence, and while we can certainly support other causes, we should do so without stripping the humanity from another.

Like many people of color that stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, I too was vocally critical about Jennifer Lopez’s problematic hashtag, but it would be hypocritical of me to ignore the very erasure of Latino but primarily Puerto Rican contributions to urban culture as suggested in the Blavity article. To disregard our intergenerational influences prevalent in everything from Boogaloo to Hip Hop, break’n and beatbox, Kangols, and Cazals, to the more affluent taste of the Lo Life generation, is not only irresponsibly divisive but also inaccurate.*  To deny Jennifer Lopez, born to working class Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx, (the mecca of Hip Hop culture), the roots she has rightfully inherited from her predecessors is reaching. To suggest that those same roots are a form of appropriation is counterproductive to the collectiveness Blacks and Latinos have historically worked towards and does little to further the solidarity needed in the present.

 

For further reading on those intergenerational influences:
*Barco de Mandalit, “Rap’s Latino Sabor” Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Temple University Press, 1996. 63-84. Print
*Flores Juan, “Cha-Cha with a Backbeat; Songs and Stories of Latin Boogaloo” From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 79-112. Print
*Flores Juan, “Puerto Rocks; Rap, Roots And Amnesia” From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 115-139. Print