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Boycott against Argentinian musician in France sparks debate on cultural appropriation

Chocolate Remix at the end of Pride 2017 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Nubeamarela, shared under a Creative Commons license (Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

Cultural appropriation is quickly becoming a hot topic, especially in the music world. On the one hand, there are those who belong to a culture, who are often cut off from power and commercialisation. On the other hand, there are those who enjoy certain privileges and are permitted to reproduce and benefit from cultural products conceived and created by members of the first group.

Questions arise which add to the complexity of the discussion: Who has the right to use these cultural products legitimately? Is it still appropriation if it is among people belonging to different groups, each oppressed in their own ways?

The most recent debate about cultural appropriation in Latin America is centred around the work of Argentinian Romina Bernardo,  better known as ‘Chocolate Remix’, who has been singing, collaborating, and producing  reggaeton music (a style of music originating in Latin America and the Caribbean). She identifies as a lesbofeminist, as shared in an interview in July 2017.

During her most recent tour of Europe, “La Mutinerie”, the venue in Paris where she was due to perform, cancelled the concert scheduled for the 26th of April after a group of Black French activists complained that she was guilty of cultural appropriation.

Bernardo responded to the complaints by questioning whether these queer trans French activists could legitimately talk about cultural appropriation given their French nationality. The discussion continued with reactions from both sides, including new comments from Bernardo reflecting on the discussion.

However, even though Bernardo would go on to recognise part of the issues that were raised, the debate and the reactions to it created ongoing conversations about oppression and privilege online.

A debate took place instead of a concert, on the same stage where Bernardo had performed. The singer also exchanged with famous Cuban rap artist Odaymar Pasa Kruda, a member of Krudxs Cubensi, who participated in the conversation over the phone.

Pasa Kruda responded to Bernardo's first reaction to the queer trans French activists via Facebook:

Nos silenciaron al decir que estábamos hablando por personas latinas negras y que nosotros, la gente negra cuir y la gente trans eran más privilegiados que ellxs porque somos franceses”. Lo cual es una prueba evidente de que no tienen idea de qué es la apropiación cultural, el colorismo, el racismo y la negrofobia y cómo funciona. ¿Cómo puede una mujer negra o una persona trans ser privilegiada entre cualquier persona en este planeta sobre una base racial?

They silenced us by saying we were talking for black Latin people and that we, as queer black women and trans people were more privileged than them because we are French. This is obvious proof that they have no idea what cultural appropriation, racism, colourism and negrophobia are and how they work. How can a black woman or a trans person be more racially privileged than anyone else in the world?

Bernardo made the following statement on her public Facebook page:

Celebro que las voces de personas negras se [hagan] oír y apoyo definitivamente la lucha antiracista, lo que lamento en profundidad es que aún no se oiga la voz de personas latinas migrantes, también racializadas, que acaba quedando silenciada entre medio del desconocimiento de realidades y subordinada a una lectura que parece plantear un orden jerárquico de opresiones sin tener en cuenta la transversalidad de las mismas. El resultado: dos grupos oprimidos enfrentados desvalorizando sus luchas mutuamente en un espacio blanco francés.

I celebrate that the voices of black people are being heard and I fully support the fight against racism. However, I deeply regret the way in which the voice of Latin migrants, racialised too, are still not being heard, ending up being silenced behind ignorance of reality and suppressed under a lecture on the hierarchy of oppressions, which doesn't take into account their transversality. The result: two oppressed groups facing off and devaluing their shared struggle in a white French space.

This response gave way to discussions and reflections which were shared on social media, to which the singer made another comment, elements of which are still the target of criticism, but which recognise some omissions made in her previous comments both on social media and on the stage.

However, by then the debate had sparked intense discussion on social media — marked, according to Pasa Kruda, by violence:

Durante el debate físico exigido por Romina y sus aduladoras, así como también en los comentarios escritos en los foros en línea se ha desenmascarado el facismo rampante que se arrastra en la comunidad blanca y blanco mestiza latina aún siendo cuir, aún siendo lesbianas, aún siendo emigrantes, aún siendo feministas. Seguimos esperando la declaración de Romina mientras sus fanes nos ofenden con los más dolorosos insultos y ataques racistas.

During the debate started by Romina and those who praise her, and also seen in the comments written on online forums, a widespread facism has been uncovered which creeps about in the white, mixed race and Latin communities, even among queers, lesbians, immigrants, feminists. We are still waiting for Romina's statement, meanwhile her fans are being offensive, hurling painful insults and racist attacks.

“There is an immense history of talented musicians behind you…silenced”

In an article called ‘Chocolate Remix: Reggaeton, Cultural Appropriation and Aesthetic Extractivism‘, journalist and rapper Fabian Villegas addresses how other musical genres have gone from being representative to being cultivated by white people.

Los procesos de apropiación cultural son tan viejos como los primeros espirales de producción, circulación y mediatización cultural. Para decirlo a cabalidad no hay posibilidad de que pensemos industria cultural al margen de procesos históricos de apropiación cultural y extractivismo estético. Del rock, al jazz, del jazz al tango, y del tango al flamenco, todos estos, solo por mencionar algunos ejemplos, se han erigido sobre estructuras y prácticas de apropiación, robo, despojo, “desahucio”, invisibilidad de los grupos racializados y de su propia producción y experiencia cultural.

The processes of cultural appropriation are as old as production, circulation and media coverage. The truth is, it would be impossible to see cultural industry as being at the margin of the historic processes of cultural appropriation and aesthetic extractivism. From rock to jazz, from jazz to tango, and from tango to flamenco: all these, just to give a few examples, have been built upon the structures and practices of appropriation, thievery, dispossession, evictions, invisibility of racialised groups and their own cultural production and experience.

Villegas also explains the most complex aspects:

Lo conflictivo también está en que por tu privilegio racial, termines no solo por apropiarte de esa práctica cultural, sino que tu privilegio racial te otorgue la capacidad de resignificar, estetizar, sofisticar y ampliar la incidencia de esa práctica cultural. Y no conforme con eso, estés consciente que es por tu condición de blanco que esas prácticas culturales empiezan a ser asimiladas y aceptadas en el mainstream y en la industria cultural. Atrás de ti había una fila inmensa de músicas y músicos talentosos, pero la industria y el significante colonial los silenció, invisibilizó o relegó al anonimato, porque tu blanquitud hace cómoda, fresca, y cool esa práctica cultural…

The trouble is, because of your racial privilege, you end up not only appropriating that cultural practice, but your racial privilege also gives you the capacity to redefine, aestheticise, sophisticate and share that cultural practice.

Writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, prominent Puerto Rican poet, participated in the debate through her poem ¡Soñé!: Versos contra la apropiación cultural de lo Afro (I dreamed! Verses against the cultural appropriation of the African), published in Afroféminas:

Soñé que en honor al feminismo
y al antirracismo
y al colorismo
quiso honrar el dolor ajeno
y evitar el vejamen discriminatorio
sobre nuestras cuerpas negras
no hacerlo es ser partícipe aún del patriarcado
de la heteronorma
del machismo
del bullying
de continuar pisoteando a otras y otros

I dreamed that in honour of feminism
and of antiracism
and of colourism
I wanted to honour others’ pain
and avoid discriminatory satire
of our black bodies
to not do so is to remain part of the patriarchy
of heteronormativity
of machismo
of bullying
of continuing to stamp on others

In El barrio antiguo (The Old Neighbourhood), Denise Alamillo and Emilie Mourgues from France closely analyse Bernardo's arguments.

En el debate en facebook a Romina se le hicieron varios señalamientos sobre su trabajo, el título de su proyecto artístico “Chocolate remix”, el uso de la frase “Me gustan las Negras” en una canción/video en el que sale una mujer afrolatina exotizada y sexualizada. A esto la artista respondió que no se estaba refiriendo a ‘Las Negras afrodescendientes’ sino que en su país ‘así se les dice a las personas mestizas que son pobres, de clase social baja. Con este argumento me parece se abrió la caja de Pandora y quedó al descubierto el extremo racismo estructural que se encuentra enraizado en la cultura Argentina, en donde se ha normalizado y pareciera ser evidente que Negrx en Argentina es un insulto peyorativo que hay que queerizar y reapropiarselo (hasta siendo blanqux) con orgullo sin siquiera hacer conciencia de lo que se está diciendo, cómo y a quiénes.

Lots of comments have been made to Romina on Facebook about her work, about the title of her ‘Chocolate Remix’ project, about her use of the phrase ‘I love Black women’ in a song/video which features an exoticised and sexualised Afro-Latin woman. Romina responded that she wasn't referring to ‘Black women of African origin’, but that in her country ‘that's how we refer to mixed-race poor people, from low social classes’. Her comment seems to have opened Pandora's box, uncovering the extreme structural racism which is engrained in Argentinean culture, where using ‘black’ as a pejorative insult has become normalised. It needs to be queerised and reappropriated (by white people too) with pride, without paying attention to who's saying what and how and to whom.

Although Bernardo has changed the lyrics of her song Como me gustan a mí (“The way I like them”), lyrics which were fiercely criticised by Afro-feminist activists, she has confirmed that she will continue to use her alias.

The author of this post featured the letter written by the Ile-Iwe/La Escuela group in her personal blog: ‘¡No más Chocolate Remix! ¡El Feminismo Negro importa!’ (“No more Chocolate Remix! Black Feminism Matters!”) which was written in response to Bernardo's letter, although it doesn't focus solely on her. It's signed by activists of African origin from various countries and of various gender identities, sexual orientations, and allies:

Romina Bernardo parece no comprender el insistente cuestionamiento de su nombre “Chocolate”, cuando justifica y confirma, diez días después del debate inicial, su intención en continuar utilizándolo. Queremos volver a insistir en que ese alias estigmatiza, cosifica, fetichiza, re-traumatiza y oprime a las personas negras en general, no importa en qué lugar del planeta.

Romina Bernardo doesn't seem to understand the persistent questioning of her name ‘Chocolate’, as she tries to justify it and confirms, 10 days after the initial debate, her intention to continue using it. We want to insist again that using this alias stigmatises, objectifies, fetishes, retraumatises and oppresses all black people, wherever they may be from.

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