Lab weeds out the ‘Tangled Roots of Black and Latinx Music’
Panelists agree the artforms share the same DNA
The idea for the Park City Song Summit‘s lab discussion “The Tangled Roots of Black and Latinx Music” shot to the surface when moderator Holly G saw Making Movies, an international rock band co-founded by Panamanian guitarist and singer Enrique Chi, perform a song for Breonna Taylor.
Taylor, an emergency medical technician who was Black, was shot and killed by white police officers during a failed and alleged drug raid.
“It meant a lot to see people in the Latinx Community standing up for the Black community,” G said to Chi and his fellow panelist Rissi Palmer, a country-music singer and songwriter who is Black. “It’s important to talk about the dynamics between the two communities, (because) it can be rough sometimes. There are people on both sides who say, ‘Their issues are not our issues. And we have to just worry about our own.'”
G, founder of the Black Opry, an organization that supports Black artists who make country and Americana music, said she wanted to talk with Chi and Palmer, because they are known to support both communities.
Chi said the genetic and cultural divide between the Black and Latinx communities is a lie that has been perpetuated by members of those communities.
“It’s a myth that we’ve been taught,” he said. “I did a DNA test, and I am a mix of Spanish, Indigenous Native American, African and Asian. (I’m a) mixed up soup of stuff that is accurate for being Panamanian.”
Chi’s vibrant DNA is the result of colonialism.
“The mechanisms that created wealth for Europe were the trade routes that hit Panama and the port cities of Veracruz, Mexico and Havana, Cuba,” he said. “(The routes) also passed through New Orleans, so human beings, ideas and culture were being sprinkled and spread around that region.”
And that intersection makes what Chi calls “The best music in the world,” which drove home the topic of the lab that was held Thursday at the Park City Song Summit Forum Tent.
“You think of the music of New Orleans, and north in that area, as well as the music of Cuba and the music from Veracruz,” he said. “This is music that has touched the whole planet, because of the cross-pollination of humanity.”
Chi did say the incidents that led to the cross-pollinations weren’t pretty.
“There was probably a lot of ugliness, injustice and rape that makes up that pool of human DNA,” he said. “But we’re here now, and we do get the benefit to learn from all of these different perspectives. And I think that’s why it feels natural for us to advocate for (both communities).”
Learning the common ground between the two communities can come through unexpected experiences, Chi said.
“I remember when we were looking for another drummer, and we met Duncan Burnett, who had been a fan of the band for a long time,” he said. “He’s a Black kid who grew up in Kansas City. He played in church, but didn’t really play Latin American music.”
While the members of Making Movies started integrating Burnett into the fold, they sent him some music documentaries about Panamanian and Cuban music.
“He watched them, and said, ‘Wait a second. These Cubans are Black.'”
After that revelation, Burnett decided to add some of the rhythms he was playing in Making Movies to his percussion work at church, Chi said.
“He’d switch the rhythms and it worked,” he said. “No one went off. Instead, they told him he played well and that he did great. That was a reflection of the message that these musical cultures are united. Sometimes it was only the language that was imposed that made the shift.”
Palmer, who is also the founder of the Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund, had a similar experience when she moved to New York after being raised in the Midwest.
“When I was growing up, there were only Black people and white people and the occasional Asian person,” she said. “So when I moved to New York, it was the first time I (saw) a person who was Black speaking Spanish, and it freaked me out. People would come up to me speaking Spanish, and it was an eye-opening experience.”
Years later, and after the work she has done promoting Latinx, Black, Indigenous and Asian artists through her grants, Palmer feels like everyone is “inextricably linked.”
“The fate of the least of us is the bellwether of how the rest of us are doing,” she said.
To illustrate her point, Palmer talked about the music video for her song, “Seed,” which she wrote after the 2014 murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
The video shows an array of current event images, including a baby from Mexico who is locked in a cage.
“I got more push back from showing the baby in the cage than anything else, and it was from a lot of Black people who said, ‘I thought you were about Black people, but then I saw…,'” she said. “It just blows my mind, because I don’t feel like there is a separation between us. I feel like we’re all fighting for the same thing, and that is equity.”
And since both sides are fighting for the same thing, Palmer feels their fates are tied together.
“It seems reductive to me to only fight over this one thing, when, all of us, at some point have faced the same challenges,” she said. “How about we just get together and decide we’re no longer beholden to these systems. There is more power in us doing it together than it is in separating the movements.”
Palmer is no stranger to breaking down barriers between cultures.
She started her career playing country music in 2007, and became the first Black woman in 20 years to hit the Billboard Country charts, with her song “Country Girl.”
“There was a whole debate about whether or not it belonged on the Country Charts,” Palmer said.
Like Palmer, Chi knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider. He’s a Panamanian kid who also grew up in the Midwest, but he also knows, like his DNA, that American music is a mixture of cultures worldwide.
“Immigrant music, Indigenous music, Black music, Latinx music are all part of the American story,” he said. “It’s what makes this nation so wild, but amazing, and we should celebrate it under the same breath.”
“Everybody signs in the show,” said co-director Anne Post Fife, who is deaf. “The whole show is signed from beginning to the end for the whole audience to enjoy and be a part of.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Park City and Summit County make the Park Record's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.