(Title inspired by the song Raza by Alexander Abreu and Havana D'Primera)
In our previous article, we told you about our work on the series Were You Listening? in which we translate and contextualize songs that talk about blackness in America, both beauty and pride and difficulties. In our next columns we are going to share that work with you. We began our musical journey with the song Raza by Alexander Abreu and Havana D'Primera.
Alexander is a very talented musician and writer born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, in 1976, and is recognized as one of the great trumpet players of his generation. Alexander founded the famous group Havana D'Primera in 2008 together with several high-end musicians. Havana D'Primera's style is essentially timba, which, according to Alexander, runs through the veins of Cubans. However, the group also integrates jazz sounds, Caribbean sounds and Puerto Rican salsa.
We wanted to start the series Were You Listening? with Raza de Havana D'Primera because Alexander Abreu wrote it specifically in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in 2020. He explicitly says in the song “if my color makes you angry, and you don't let me love you, at least don't kill me with your knee on my neck”. In Raza Alexander asks us several basic questions that reach us thoroughly because of their simplicity and veracity. Alexander asks, why does racism continue to exist, even though we are the same, is it our quality as human beings? We ask ourselves, who hasn't spent hours in frustration confronting this question?
Alexander immediately begins the song with an allusion to the terrible era of slavery. We hear voices that shout “release the big dog, take care of the bighorn”. These voices suggest that the mayoral, that enslaving foreman, release the dogs in order to capture enslaved men who have allegedly escaped, those so-called marrones.
Alexander sings: “Show me your bare skin, let's see if it reacts to the cold, and if you're different, maybe I can understand you.” This part of the lyrics contains that same question that anyone who has been affected by racism, whether directly or indirectly, asks. Those almost obvious questions that our inner boy or girl never stop asking: don't you realize that we're the same? Why do you continue to do this? Why can't we just live together? Most likely, most of us have had this reaction, perhaps naive, to racism. If only it were that easy.
The song then adopts what appears to be an optimistic strategy to convince those who demonstrate racist behavior. Alexander sings: “Let me give you a hug and smile back.” The verses reflect the Christian feeling of turning the other cheek: let me show you my appreciation, that way you will see that we are the same. Many of us who have received anti-blackness feedback have probably used this strategy at some point. Andrés reports that he hasn't been very successful using this strategy.
Alexander represents to us the maelstrom of mixed feelings that we experience when despicable acts of racism happen. He sings to us “Look into my eyes, and put an end to suffering and pain, may hope unite us, we are one race with a different color”. His verses show our desire for unity as human beings. For those who profess some faith, the lyrics represent our cries for help to heaven and even questions to our gods. Alexander shows the way in which we are divided between our desires for a harmonious community and our justified anger. The song ends with a warning and with a call to the very queen of the sea, to that maternal orisha of Yoruba culture, to Yemayá. “Cai cai Yemayá”, sings Alexander, “because of the blood shed the earth will tremble.”
In Raza, Alexander Abreu offers us a language that helps us understand and express many of the feelings we experience when we face explicit and tragic situations of racism. Anger and hate tend to be feelings that many of us feel and in which many find comfort. But what Alexander Abreu offers us is depth and breadth in the emotional vocabulary that helps us connect with what we really experience when confronting not only police brutality but all forms of racism, especially anti-blackness racism. Beyond anger, we now understand how sadness, the desire to be understood, vulnerability, love, justice, resilience, fear, pain, confusion, and despair emerge, among other feelings. This song is emotionally expansive, timely, and it's a beautiful way in which Alexander uses his platform to help us understand that we are all human and that racism really destroys us all.
Were we listening?