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Love, Hip Hop, & Latinx: Amara La Negra and the Uncovering of Race

By Wilfredo Gomez | @BazookaGomez84 |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Thursday, January 3, 2019.

What does it mean to theorize or better yet to operate as one who theorizes: this is a question posed by the first season of Love & Hip Hop:Miami. The implications of those theoretical propositions will continue to play out during the upcoming second season. The person at the center of this query is Amara La Negra. At its foundation, theory suggests a particular way of looking at the world. For Amara La Negra, her Afro-Latina identity is central to how she conceptualizes her Latinx identity, a springboard for a broader conversation about race, nationality, belonging, being, and inclusivity. Amara is unapologetic about her blackness, but its centrality to her Latinidad brings a critical lens to bear on the erasures of bodies and its significance in excavating histories and experiences that are far too readily dismissed in conversations regarding Latinxs in America.

Collectively, these sentiments made for tension and public conversation during the first season of Love & Hip Hop: Miami. One could suggest that it was the driving force behind the entire first season as discourses of colorism, access, and inclusivity touched upon topics of race, ethnicity, language, socialization, consciousness, diaspora, class, kin, hair politics, representation, performance, commercial appeal, mainstream standards of acceptance, a politics of respectability (what is and is not acceptable/commendable with regards to the representations of race) and geography. What all of this highlights is the cache and critical possibilities inherent in the language of Latinx identity, whereby the X signifies upon and is critical of Latinidades at the crossroads. A stark departure from Latino/a and Latin@, Latinx pushes back on its predecessors tackling the increasingly politicized nature of what it means to conceptualize, embody and enact one’s Latinidades both in private and in public. The X forces listeners to think critically about intersectionality and the power dynamics involved in the prospects of that “inter” being disrupted, stifled, and made void of voice and agency.

For a figure like Amara La Negra, she is both black and Latina, proudly claiming her Dominican identity from the outset of season 1. A hip-hop cipher promoting the show’s premier in 2018, not only highlights Amara’s Dominican identity as evidenced in the symbol of the Dominican flag that adorns the house near her as she (deliberately) raps in Spanish, it highlights a nostalgia that further implicates an invitation to diaporic blackness with the presence of an old car that simultaneously symbolizes how the past is always invoked and ever present (think of Cuba) and how the presence of Afro-Cubans both in Miami and Cuba (in both the contemporary and historical context), draws attention to the specter of Celia Cruz’s musical memory and artistic influence in Amara’s performative repertoire. Moreover, the fact that Amara punctuates her rhyme with the crescendo of a clenched raised fist (an homage of sorts to John Carlos), a clarion call for a more nuanced diasporic blackness, situates black power firmly in the wheelhouse of Latinidad in ways that illuminate the transnationalism and transregionalism that is encapsulated in the diverse geopolitical realities and histories that inform the presence, movements, and cultures of Latinx communities. However, the performance and embodiment of that identity as an everyday lived reality seems lost on figures such as Young Hollywood and later on Veronica Vega (more on that in a bit).

Art By Simply Jess

SJ Art website (www.simplyjessart.com) and instagram (@artbysimplyjess)

In the age of Trump and Trumpian politics, public calls for walls, border security, and safety serve as coded language that effectively signifies-delivering multiple messages that permeate throughout a variety of media outlets. The direct consequences of said actions and behaviors weaponize xenophobia giving it free reign to be every bit of rampant as it is flagrant. What results is an essentializing of identity and the political arena, where terms are politicized (and politically charged) in ways that draw tangible connections between language, broken systems, institutions, and the criminalization of bodies that implicate individuals as an extension to and commentary on the condemnation of the “other.” As such the invocation of words like “gangs” and “MS-13,” amongst others, represent systems of indifference that demonize, dehumanize, and pathologize with frequent (and unchecked) promiscuity. One unintended consequence of these actions is that they not only expose glaring misunderstandings of the push and pull forces that contribute to “others” being “here,” they also serve to essentialize Latinidades, creating singular universal narratives that ignore diversity within and across communities. Thus, the broader American public does not or can not be afforded the space, tools, or literacies to understand the differences say between Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Mexicans, on the one hand, and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans on the other. I raise this point not to further essentialize the conversation, but to make an argument about the existence of Latinidades in the American popular imagination.

It is with this in mind, that Amara La Negra takes on a particularly pedagogical project through her body, language usage, and artistry when juxtaposing her Latinidad to the Latinidades represented (and celebrated) via the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara, and Shakira (Puerto Rican and in the latter two’s case Colombian). Amara’s use of “Afro-Latina” is an affirmation of blackness. Taken within this context, producer Young Hollywood is a proxy for the American popular imagination (not ignoring his own melanin infused existence). Not only does he explicitly state that Amara can not be elegant while possessing of afro, he does so mockingly referring to her as a “nutella queen,” while playfully (if not ignorantly) asking if Amara is in fact Afro-Latina because she is African. Hollywood goes on to further complicate the policing of what become the porous borders of blackness by framing the optics of Amara’s body and artistry through the real, symbolic, and sonic bodies of Beyonce and Macy Gray.

The reference here invokes a discussion about the how, when, and where, involved in ways of knowing and ways of being: coded language for artistry, sound, crossover success (which Amara explicitly aspires to in season 1 and seemingly attains by season 2), beauty, and narratives involved in performances of racial passing (both the what counts as “white” in the case of Vega’s controversial use of the word “nigga” and “black” as evidenced in the narrative surrounding Amara’s Afro Latinx identity). This analytical lens echoes the work of Tracy Sharpley-Whiting in Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Young Black Women, Hip Hop and the New Gender Politics, wherein she brilliantly connects the optics (and cross-over sound and sights) of hip-hop with the broader forces of globalization and digital technology, which privilege, through repetitive behaviors and ideology, a reinforcement of the very particular branded narrative of femininity that reinscribes the appeal of ethnic ambiguity, and the subsequent desire for a consumable exotic beauty. The significance of the previous statement should not be overlooked as it speaks to a longing for a commodifiable black body (and sound) void of blackness (an ethnic ambiguity the Love & Hip Hop franchise has mobilized to its advantage).

Rather than commending or uplifting Amara’s identity and attempts to expand the prospects of what is commercially viable (beyond English language crossover appeal), Hollywood’s comments further cement the liminality of Amara’s body by constraining the being and becoming at the crossroads of her blackness and Latinidad. As a result, Amara’s identity is further cemented as performance, a performance of blackness or perhaps more compellingly, an African-American artistry in drag. This invites a curiosity on the part of viewers that seek to unpack the socialization processes that might frame Amara’s blackness as an exotic brand of African-American identity. Moreover, there is a persistent variable that questions the visual, suggesting a concern of legibility (a recognition of Amara’s Afro-Latinx identity) and credibility (an understanding that that Afro-Latinx identity is in fact authentic).

This is an identity that Amara is all to aware of having cited the influences of the likes of both Celia Cruz and Tina Turner, (influences that speak to an American upbringing and the relevance of popular culture in informing identity politics, as well as thinking about questions of representation vis-a-vis black bodies in the Americas). This represents Amara’s pushback on white Latino privilege and white (read: American) privilege more broadly conceived, as she attempts to navigate the politics of the music industry. These misreadings stoke the fires of misunderstanding, which revolve around the legitimacy of her hair and skin complexion as manifested in rumors regarding her tanning/darkening her skin or worse yet, allegations about performing in blackface.

However, Amara La Negra is not the only figure on the show implicated in essentialist notions of blackness, or calls for a nuanced blackness, a fluidity mindful of socialization, solidarity, self-identification, community, and the ever illusive idea of culture. During the latter stages of season 1, Veronica Vega, becomes an antagonist of sorts, a stark contrast to where she started in the beginning of the season as a confidant of Amara’s. Even at the outset of season 1, not only is Vega cognizant of colorism, she articulates an idea of racial democracy, suggesting that all Latinos trace their ancestry to European, indigenous, and African roots.

It is perhaps within this particular paradigm that Vega not only self identifies as black, she does so while employing the lexicon and (loaded) history of the word “nigga” in ways that both rupture and explore the public and private domains of language usage, while highlighting the productive tensions that underscore the presence of Latinos within hip-hop. This too highlights a crossroads that exists at the intersections of African American and Latinx relations, let alone how those relationships co-exist within the realm of cultural production and popular culture.

Not only does Vega (implicitly) cite an age-old adage in Spanish-speaking Caribbean households, “Y tu abuela adonde esta” (and your grandmother where is she? A phrase that speaks to a larger ideology, at least rhetorically, of racial democracy within familial lineages.It is meant to serve as an acknowledgement, and at times, chastisement, that signals to lighter complexioned folk, that within families, blackness is inherently and fundamentally a part of collective roots, and a challenge for a more enlightened stance on race and identity that combats, or filters out, the expression or adherence to anti-black sentiment. Whether or not the discourse accomplishes that is the subject of another article). The intent behind the invocation is an attempt to counter racial essentialisms, while confronting the presence of white supremacist values and value systems (which are highlighted in spanish-speaking communities, by the phrase, “mejorando la raza,” a call to “better the race” by intermarrying and having children with someone of a lighter complexion, presumably in an attempt to whitewash blackness-an aspirational whiteness if you will).

In the reunion following season 1, Vega, perhaps unintentionally, delivers an ultimatum of her own identity by stating “I’m black...I’m absolutely black.” This statement stands in stark contrast to her (physical) appearance and is juxtaposed (on camera) with the presence and commentary of Juju, who herself, like Vega, is of Cuban descent, (not overlooking the contributions made by Amara La Negra to spark such conversations). However, in light of the debate surrounding who, when, where, and how one can deploy such contentious language, we might ask ourselves, what further informs Vega’s conceptualization of blackness and black identity? Would she in turn, self identify as Afro-Latina or Latinx for that matter? Would the audience present at the reunion (including the cast) respond differently had she taken the stance, “I identify as a product of the black diaspora?” In reflecting on the politicization of Latinx identity, what gets glossed over, highlighted, or erased when articulating such a view as part of one’s identity politics? How do we think through erasures or essentialisms within the assumptions made by the language of Latinx identity, when the ideological stance underscoring its necessity as vocabulary (and marker of greater inclusivity) may or may not be a term that is universally understood or deployed?

Vega alludes to this by speaking not of race, during her exchange with Trina (who suggest that “her people” were upset with Vega for her linguistic transgressions), but of processes of racialization. She expresses the sentiment that in a room full of caucasians, her “whiteness,” its credibility, legibility, performance, and authenticity, is called into question for essentially not being the “right” brand of whiteness. Thus, Vega is astute in her understanding of what it means to be implicated in discourses (and realities) of white privilege, and how that excludes bodies rendered “other.” She applies that analytical lens to the plight of Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria implicitly speaking to and speaking out on racist colonial policies and practices that not only race, but racialize: an erasure of Americanness and citizenship that unmasks white supremacist values symbolized by the role of empire (and exceptionalism) in promoting and projecting racial paradigms that privilege some bodies at the expense of others. In being “othered” these Caribbean (diasporic) bodies are abject, dehumanized and disposable. While unacknowledged, the brief exchange (between Trina and Vega) accentuates Vega’s solidarity politics and agency as someone who has a race (in terms of how her body is “read”) on the one hand, and how she racializes her own being, becoming the other. Thus her “blackness” if you will is political, diasporic, Latinx, and Caribbean.

Although less prominently featured on season 1 of Love and Hip Hop: Miami, is the storyline of Steph Lecor, a fair complexioned woman of Haitian descent. At various points throughout the season, she is present in conversations (along with Veronica Vega and Amara La Negra) surrounding debates around racial authenticity, its embodiment, and its resistance to the business and politics of conformity. She enters these discussions not only with an understanding of how those debates within the Latinx community translate to other communities, she does so with an understanding that highlights her own understanding of racial essentialisms. Her engagement and understanding of the complexities of Latinx identity are in conversation with the recent provocatively argued, and brilliant offering by Ayanna Legros, a Haitian-American woman and who self identifies as Afro-Latinx. In light of this argument and the conversations they have sparked I can’t help but reconfigure Lecor’s contributions and presence within these discourses given the historical context and significance of Haiti being the first free black republic in the Western hemisphere (having obtained its independence in 1804), and the role that played for black folk throughout the diaspora to conceive of and execute both large scale and everyday acts of resistance that afforded them opportunities to exercise control over their individual and collective becomings. The American popular imagination also comes into play for Lecor given Haiti’s presence in the apparatus of xenophobia and racism that informs our contemporary debates around values,  authenticity, and the role of the United States throughout the Americas (we have Donald Trump to thank for that with his derogatory comments towards Haiti and other countries).

The figure above taken by Jessica the artist and designer, entitled “Afro Latina” situates through art, how the personal is so intimately woven into the fabric of that which is both public and private: an endeavor that situates race more as a byproduct of what others see and project, as opposed to how the individuals fashion their own identities. It is by no means coincidence that the image of one Amara La Negra appears in black and white, a cultural commentary on what constitutes blackness and who has access to its deployment-competing voices, aspirations, and intersections that provoke more grey matter than the image could possibly capture.

And while words like strong, love, bold, powerful, beautiful, and loyal feature prominently, the words “Afro” “Latina” are punctuated by fists and fittingly capped off by an afro. While missing, Latinx is embodied in the figure that is the muse Amara La Negra: Afro Latina existing at, yet transcending the structures and institutions empowered through language. One can only imagine how these particular discourses and insights implicate those others who may themselves be Latinx throughout the Love & Hip Hop franchise: Trina, Gunplay, and others. Let us see how we can further complicate these discussions together...through love and hip hop at the crossroads of Latinx identity.


Wilfredo Gomez is an independent scholar and researcher. He can be reached at gomez.wilfredo@gmail.com or via twitter at @BazookaGomez84

Love, Hip Hop, & Latinx: Amara La Negra and the Uncovering of Race

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