Afro-Latino Artists Are Speaking Out. Is The Industry Finally Ready to Help Them?

They've long faced discrimination — in their home countries, the United States and the industry at large. A new wave of promotion from labels and streaming platforms could finally start to change that.

On June 2, eight days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, Sony Music Entertainment held a series of meetings for employees and artists to discuss their perspectives on racism. One of them was led by Gloria “Goyo” Martinez and Tostao of Afro-Colombian hip-hop group ChocQuibTown, who opened up about the discrimination they had faced in and outside the industry.

“I had never talked openly with my label about the racism I’ve experienced in Colombia, but it seemed like they were never interested to know my story either,” says Martinez today. “Telling our stories is the first step toward change.” By the end of June, Martinez — along with over 100 Latin artists and executives — launched Conciencia Collective, an alliance against racial and social injustice that hosts weekly chats featuring musicians, historians and executives on Facebook.

For Afro-Latino artists — who have long confronted colorism and anti-Blackness within their own Latin music community — the music industry’s wider reckoning with racism has resonated strongly, but differently. “My grandfather was a slave in Cuba. Racism is something we’ve been experiencing for years in our own countries,” says Gente de Zona’s Randy Malcom. “You then come to the U.S., and here we’re also discriminated against as part of the Latino community.”

From salsa superstar Joe Arroyo to legendary singer Celia Cruz (whose 2001 anthem "La Negra Tiene Tumbao" literally translates to “The Black Woman Has Swag”), many of Latin music’s biggest stars are Afro-Latino and have chronicled their struggles and pride in their music. And plenty of current hitmakers have followed their lead. After Floyd’s death, Puerto Rican rappers Rafa Pabón and Myke Towers respectively released the protest anthems “Sin Aire” (“Without Air”) and “Michael X.”

In a June Instagram post, Panamanian singer Sech urged his nearly 6 million followers to educate themselves on racism in both the United States and Latin America, where several countries have significant populations with African heritage that must navigate a uniquely complex set of experiences. “When you’re Black in different places, there are nuances to your identity,” says Katelina “Gata” Eccleston, reggaetón historian and founder of Reggaeton Con La Gata. And in the Latin industry in particular, she continues, “there isn’t that sense of acceptance for things that are Black.” Reggaetón, for instance, has African stylistic roots — yet the majority of its biggest stars are light-skinned or white, a phenomenon dubbed blanqueamiento. “You have to look at the epicenter of what is being celebrated in the Latin industry, and it isn’t Black culture,” says Eccleston. “The Latin market has been whitewashed.”

This summer, a series of initiatives to combat those ingrained attitudes and better promote Afro-Latino artists began at labels and streaming platforms. Sony Music Latin launched a group of diversity and inclusion task forces, while Universal Music Brazil partnered with label TS Vox to produce an upcoming series of conversations focusing on the country’s Black community; UMB will also release new music created under the project’s auspices. “Executives must set an example with our behavior and [the] change we are effecting in our companies,” says Sony Music U.S. Latin president Alex Gallardo.

In June, YouTube announced a $100 million fund for Black creators and artists around the world. “It’s important for us to address all the challenges and racial justice issues that Black artists face,” says Sandra Jimenez, head of music partnerships in Latin America at YouTube. Spotify celebrated Latinx Heritage Month with Voces, a new playlist focused on amplifying Afro-Latino voices, while in September Apple launched the radio show SOMOS with an episode featuring ChocQuibTown’s Martinez and rapper Rauw Alejandro discussing discrimination and the Afro-Latino community.

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Whether these initiatives will lead to substantive change remains to be seen. Pandora launched new stations Afro Colombia, Afro Boricua and Afro Cuba in July, but Marcos Juarez, the platform’s head of Latin music, says labels and distributors have mostly been interested in highlighting catalogs of legacy Afro-Latino artists, not promoting new voices.

Loren Medina, owner of Guerrera Marketing & PR and co-founder of Conciencia Collective, worries that visibility for artists is not enough. “Diversify your staff, on-air personalities; invest in the community. This goes for labels, too.” Co-founder Cristina Novo is more optimistic: “Afro-Latin artists who weren’t placed in any other Latin playlist will now get the visibility they deserve.”

Four months after speaking at Sony, Martinez, too, feels progress is imminent — if these initiatives continue long after the summer’s protests. “The change will be slow, and we should be patient,” she says. “But the real change starts with us and how we perceive each other. This isn’t just my fight. It’s our fight.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2020, issue of Billboard.