Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gay Vatos In Love?

Cross-posted from my Media Justice column.

When I learned that Ozomatli a “notorious urban-Latino-and-beyond collision of hip hop and salsa, dancehall and cumbia, samba and funk, merengue and comparsa, East LA R&B and New Orleans second line, Jamaican ragga and Indian raga” band, had a new album out, FIRE AWAY, and that one of the tracks on the song was called “Gay Vatos In Love” I knew I had to hear the song. I’m thankful that a fan has uploaded the band performing the song live for me to share with you. This is not an official video for the song but it is the official song.

There are many other video uploads that have emerged this week regarding this song. You can see the many videos on YouTube alone here. This song came to my attention via an LA Times article that interviewed some of the band members while on tour in Mexico City. One of the aspects of this interview that really caught my attention was the motivation for creating the song, audience reactions, and the inclusion of the murder of transgender Latina Angie Zapata.

As a fan of Ozomatli, I know that there has been some shift and changes in the band members, but the sound and quality of the music they produce and create have stayed stellar. Often, Ozomatli’s lyrical content centered on social justice and human rights. I see the band very much as using their art and music as a form of activism.

Ozomatli stated in their LA Times interview that they created this song as the Prop 8 debates were at their height. The release of their new album and this track is very timely, especially with Ricky Martin coming out recently. I’ve heard various comments about this song and Martin’s announcement. One thing I have yet to hear people discuss is how this is a very important time in music for queer Latin@s. It’s not often that major record labels, highly marketed and commercialized (to an extent) artists that are Latino make the statements on solidarity with an oppressed community as Martin and Ozomatli have done recently.

I can’t say that I am extremely surprised at how Ozomatli shared their audience has responded to their song. In their interview they shared the following:

They’d played “Gay Vatos in Love” live on several recent tour stops, and the reaction was sometimes mixed, Pacheco said. “It can be polarizing.” So, he added, “we had to find a way to suck people in without giving it away.”

The singer says he now prefaces the song by asking audiences: “Do you believe in love?” The response is almost always enthusiastically affirmative. “People are like, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ And we just start singing.” Pacheco laughed.

Still, the song consistently challenges comfort levels among some listeners, the singer admitted. “I think people get confused, they don’t know where we’re coming from. Some people ask, especially in the Spanish press, ‘Who’s gay in the band?’ So there’s an assumption there.”

(When reporters ask about the sexuality of the band’s membership, Pacheco says he sometimes responds with a purposely blank, “I don’t know.”)

“For us it’s a bigger issue,” Pacheco went on. “We felt that [gay rights] is just another in a long line of underdogs, so I think we connected to it on that level. It was totally natural for us to take that stance.”

Ozomatli makes a good argument and example of how standing for your convictions and challenging all forms of oppression have consequences, that are positive and often challenging. Creating a song that centers the love between two men of Color by a well-known band is an amazing piece of media. Not only that, but the language used speaks to specific community members. Some folks may not know how or why the term “vato” represents or was used. I would not be surprised if folks who are not Mexican or Chican@ or who do not live on the west coast are only familiar with this term via Latino gang films (i.e. Blood In Blood Out). This form of code-switching speaks directly to a specific community, and that is something I love. The message is constructed in a very specific way with a particular community in mind, which makes this song, in my opinion, effective.

One important part of the song, something I have never heard done before by artists of Color on major record labels (If you have please share!): discussing the murder of a transgender woman of Color in music. Verses in the song invoke the memory and brutal murder of Angie Zapata, who was murdered by a partner after having sex with her and learning her sex assigned at birth was male. Ozomatli sings:

Juan Gabriel says amor es amor
But Angie Zapata is lying on the dance floor

At first I found this an odd inclusion, especially for a song that focuses on Latino men (hence the use of the term “vato”) who identify as gay, as Angie, to my understanding, did not identify as either. I feared Ozomatli had ignored or were not familiar with the problematic ways of ignoring the difference between sex, gender and sexual orientation and ignoring that and thus canceling out their attempted activism. I do believe it is a weak attempt to include her and problematic as it perpetuates stereotypes and misinformation. At the same time, when I heard the song I can see how there are trying to challenge the familiar and overused phrase “love is love” or as they sing “amor es amor.” I can see some connections they may be trying to make with regards to the idea that if we do believe that amor es amor, why are we mourning the intra-racial/cultural murder of transgender women of Color all over the world at a devastating rate?

I find this useful and at times exciting piece of media and look forward to the possibility of including it in a workshop or class in the future to promote discussion and education. There is definitely room for a more in-depth conversation around how and what trans-misogyny is and understanding how it works and how to challenge and dismantle it in our lives, psyche, and work. After all we do need to hold even our favorite artists accountable, and I think Ozomatli have made an important song, but it was a fairly weak attempt on including Angie; especially in comparison to their other songs about topics such as terrorism, colonization, and police brutality.

One thing I’m interested in hearing or experiencing is the band performing this song live and in the same fashion as they do many of their songs, not only with call-and-response techniques (as seen in the video above) but also coming into the audience. All of the Ozomatli concerts I’ve been to they have come into the crowd, all of the musicians and singers, formed a circle with the audience, danced, sang, and very much created our own musical fusion cipher. To know that this is a possibility, to have such a space to testify and honor and dance around these topics and our community is phenomenal. I wonder if the audience will participate in the same way if/when this song is part of that performance.

I’m feeling very hopeful and energized. This is exactly the way I hope Amplify readers feel as many of us prepare for the end of our semesters!

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