(Title inspired by the song Raza by Alexander Abreu and Havana D'Primera)
(Title inspired by the by the song Raza by Alexander Abreu and Havana D'Primera)
In our previous article, we shared about our work in the Were You Listening? series in which we translate and contextualize songs that talk about blackness in the Americas, both the beauty and the pride but also the perils. We will be devoting the following few columns to share about the work we have done in this area. We start this journey with the song Raza by Alexander Abreu and Havana D'Primera.
Alexander is a very talented musician and songwriter born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, in 1976. He is recognized as one of the greatest Trumpet players of his generation. He founded Havana D'Primera in 2008 together with a group of top musicians. The style of Havana D'Primera is essentially timba, which according to Alexander, runs through the veins of every Cuban. However, Havana D'Primera also integrates sounds from jazz, Caribbean sounds, and Puerto Rican salsa.
We started the Were You Listening? series with this song because Alexander Abreu wrote it specifically in response to George Floyd's killing by a police officer in 2020, he explicitly sings in part of the song “If my color angers you, and you don't let me love you, at least don't kill me with your knee on my neck.” In Raza, Alexander poses a series of basic questions that shake us strongly due to their simplicity and veracity. Alexander asks, why is there still racism even though we are the same in our capacity as human beings? We wonder, who hasn't spent countless hours pondering in frustration about the answer to this question?
Alexander immediately starts the song alluding to the terrible era of slavery. We hear voices saying “Release the big dog, take care of the bighorn,” suggesting to the mayoral, the slaver overseer, to let the dogs loose to capture enslaved men who have presumably escaped. Those who are called “Cimarrones,” Maroons.
Alexander sings “Show me your naked skin, to see if it reacts to the cold, and if you are different, then, maybe, I'll be able to understand you.” These lyrics contain that same question that anyone who has ever been affected by racism, either directly or indirectly, asks. The almost obvious question which the child inside of us never ceases to ask: can't you see that we're very much the same? Why do you continue to do this? Why can't we just get along? Most of us likely have this initial perhaps naive reaction to racism. If only it was that easy.
The song moves on to adopt what seems like an optimistic strategy to convince those engaging in racist behaviors. Alexander sings “Let me give you a hug and give me back my smile.” This reflects a Christian sentiment of turning-the-other-cheek flavor. I think most of us on the receiving end of anti-blackness have probably tried this strategy at some point. Andrés reports that he has never been very successful with it.
Alexander lyrics depict the swirling pool of contradictory feelings we experience when these despicable acts of racism happen. He sings “Look me in the eye and put an end to the suffering and the pain, let hope unite us, we are all one race with different color.” Alexander emphasized our longing for unity on the basis of our humanity. For those of us with spiritual faith, he encouraged our calls for help from the heavens and even our complains to our deities. He shows how we are torn between our desires for harmonious community and the justified rage.
The song ends with a warning and a call to the queen of the sea herself, the motherly Orisha spirituality of the Yoruba culture, Yemayá: “Cai cai Yemaya” Alexander sings, “For the blood that has been spilled, the earth will shake.”
In Raza Alexander Abreu offers language to his listeners that aids in learning to understand and express many of the feelings we experience in the face of explicit and tragic instances of racism. Rage and anger tend to be feelings many people resonate with and find comfort in. But what Alexander Abreu offers us is depth and breadth of emotional vocabulary that helps us connect to what we truly experience in the face of not only police brutality, but all forms of racism. Especially anti-black racism. In addition to anger, we now understand how sadness, a desire to be understood, vulnerability, love, justice, resilience, fear, pain, confusion, and desperation, among others emerges. This song is emotionally expansive, timely, and a beautiful use of his platform to help folks understand that we are all human and that racism truly tears us all apart.
Were we listening?