As a first-generation college graduate and a Latino from a family that constantly scrambled to make ends meet, there was very little in my upbringing that foreshadowed my current life as a religion professor and scholar. I didn’t grow up surrounded by books, and I spent many more hours in childhood dissecting hip-hop and shooting hoops than doing schoolwork.
It wasn’t until late in college, when a couple of teachers lit a fire in my bones, that I became hungry for the stuff of books and ideas. Learning about the world’s religions instilled in me a newfound passion for all the existential questions and conundrums of the human condition, connecting me with a truth beyond myself, a sublime pattern that brought the world into greater focus.
But if the study of religion swept me up into the stars, hip-hop brought me back down to earth. It was my first love, and its beats and rhymes schooled me in things closer to home. Hip-hop had its finger on the pulse of Black and brown lives on the frayed edges of the Americas, lives like my father’s and his father’s before him: cleaning trains, floors and toilets, doing whatever they could to support their families.
There is an unstudied wisdom in the defiant, dirty beats of hip-hop, and even religious dimensions – a focus of my research today, which explores the prophetic and even mystical elements in the genre. Its lyrics can be sweet like honey, as the biblical prophet Ezekiel describes the scroll of the Lord. Yet they can also be bitter, like the herbs of Passover – a remembrance of pains and indignities. Hip-hop turns 50 this summer, and throughout its history, Latinos’ experiences have been important threads in this music’s cries for justice.
‘Latins goin’ platinum’
Back in the day, my brother was a b-boy – a break dancer – and his group, the Royal Rockers, convinced me that in this fresh new culture, Black and brown youth had a story to tell.
Making their feet flutter like centipedes, their tails rise up like scorpions in a battle, these Tucson kids thrust themselves into public view, refusing to remain invisible. Their body language flipped the prevailing narrative about our battered neighborhoods, turning them into places of pride rather than shame.
Latinos beyond the U.S. borderlands were also very much part of hip-hop’s history. While there is no doubt that its inventors were Black Americans, Latinos added new colors to the prevailing palette of hip-hop. Whether in the South Bronx or East L.A., brown-bodied youth embraced hip-hop as an ingenious instrument of self-expression: a perfect medium to assert, define and even reinvent ourselves.
When it came to emceeing, rap in Latino circles started experimenting with Spanish words and slang by the 1980s. Artists peppered their verses with shouts of Latin pride, and my friends and I heard it loud and clear.
Kid Frost, to take a West Coast example, put in rhymes what we felt but didn’t have the courage to say. While he had the thuggish pretense of the gangster rap era, his body teetering to the side like the Tower of Pisa and his mouth riddled with threats, Kid Frost’s bars were also filled with cultural knowledge. Echoing the unruffled cadences of Latino subcultures around him – from kids cruising in lowrider cars to the street speech of caló, a coded argot from zoot-suit culture in the 1930s and 1940s – Kid Frost used barrio language to rewrite the story of hip-hop with Indigenous and Chicano lives as significant characters.
Meanwhile on the East Coast, the Panamanian reggaeton pioneer El General brought even greater visibility to Latin-accented hip-hop, as did Fat Joe and Big Pun.
“Cause everybody’s checkin’ for Pun, second to none / ‘Cause Latins goin’ platinum was destined to come,” he announced to the world, like a boxing ring announcer before a prime event, in “You Came Up.”
Both Fat Joe and Big Pun were big in stature and big in lung capacity, but Big Pun was the better rhyme-spitter; his flows spilled off his tongue in torrents of alliteration and assonance, rarely pausing to take a breath or gulp, as if he didn’t require as much oxygen as other humans.
In his hood, the South Bronx’s Soundview Projects, social and psychological stresses seemed to weigh heavily on residents. In one memorable rap, “Twinz,” he painted a picture of himself holding his “rosary as tight as I can,” fingering it to keep evil away on streets that swallowed the weak. Big Pun and his rap progenitors – from Big Daddy Kane and Fat Joe to Wu-Tang and Mobb Deep – projected violent images of oversized badness: of being the predator, not the prey.
La nueva religíon
Fast forward a couple of decades, and today’s Latino rappers and reggaetoneros are breaking new ground, frequently adding more sensitive, introspective and socially conscious touches to hip-hop.
One of the most-streamed artists in the world today, the Puerto Rican hitmaker Bad Bunny, is representative of this new style. Raised in a Catholic home, his voice nurtured in a church choir, Bad Bunny’s breadth – reggaeton, cumbia, boogaloo, trap, bomba, salsa – owes a lot to the musical diversity of the island.
Like so many artists of Latin American and African American heritages, he slips on religious sentiments, then drops them for bawdy ones in a beat, changing his mood like a stage performer between acts. Unlike R.E.M., Bad Bunny hasn’t exactly “lost” his religion as much as he’s reformed it, adding in dance rhythms, folk motifs, feminist sensibilities, LGBTQ rights and barrio experiences.
“El diablo me llama pero Jesucristo me abraza – amén,” he sings in his verse for the viral hit “I Like It,” a trap version of Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 “I Like It Like That”: The devil calls me but Jesus Christ holds me.
He named his first major tour “La Nueva Religíon,” a fitting name for the eccentric combinations of spirituality, sexuality, dance and pan-Latin motifs in his music. Since the tour in 2018, the term has endured, referring not only to Bad Bunny’s fans – devotees of this “new religion” – but also a generation that is questioning traditional gender roles, chasing new spiritual experiences and raising their fists in support of human rights.
Ever since Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria in 2017 – when over 300,000 homes in Puerto Rico were damaged or destroyed – Bad Bunny has produced anthems and rally cries as much as songs. Take “El Apagón,” “The Blackout,” a rebellious condemnation of the government’s inaction on power outages that have swept the island since Maria, and locals’ sense that their own needs go unmet while wealthy outsiders flood in.
He’s not alone: Many of today’s rappers are sampling some of the more righteous trends in the history of hip-hop. The Cuban rap song “Patria y Vida,” for instance – a collaboration between Gente de Zona, the Orishas, Descemer Bueno and other artists – appeared in Cuba like a storm in 2021. Capturing feelings of widespread discontent with the Cuban government, the rap reclaims and revolutionizes the classic slogan from the Cuban revolution of the 1950s, “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”). In the hands of these Cuban rappers, the phrase becomes “patria y vida”: “We no longer shout homeland or death, but homeland and life instead.”
Further south in the Americas, consider MC Millaray, a 16-year-old Indigenous rapper from Mapuche lands in Chile, whose fierce raps swing between Spanish and Indigenous languages. She wields her words like incantations to summon Mapuche ancestors and defend the dignity of Indigenous lives throughout the Americas.
Romp and grace
Now 50 years in the making, hip-hop continues to be a powerful amulet against powers that try to silence the young and underprivileged. It’s eloquent proof of an enduring truth: that hardship can fuel ingenuity and cunning, and that poetry can be fashioned out of society’s scraps.
For my brother and his breaking crew, hip-hop was a lesson in grace: how the body can find the still point in the midst of spins, leaps and flying arms and legs. For me, always drawn by the rapping, it was also a lesson in grace: the emcee’s adroit arrangement of syllables and syntax, the way they sculpted their bars, making language bounce, dance and romp.
For both of us, it was like a first love, making us feel rapturously free yet connected – liberating and revelatory at once.
Alejandro Nava is affiliated with Casa Alitas, a non-profit organization that works with refugees and asylum-seekers.
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