The New American City: Color It Black and Brown
What do the late, great rapper Tupac Shakur, the band Sublime, the artist formerly known as Prince, white singer-songwriter Beck, and the former "boss" of rock and roll Bruce Springsteen have in common? All have realized that living in the big cities of the United States is increasingly a Latin experience -- and unlike our anti-immigration politicos, they celebrate it. Beyond that, they're beginning to map a new American identity. The other day , I caught the last half of Shakur's "To Live and Die in L.A." on the radio. The rap is prime Tupac -- by turns fun, boastful, and downright scary -- but when I heard him say "Mex-i-CANS" I turned the volume knob way up."This wouldn't be L.A. without the Mexicans Black love, brown pride in the (gang) sets again Pete Wilson tryin' to see us all broke... We might fight against each other but I promise you this We'll burn this bitch down -- (just) get us pissed". Tupac is stating what's obvious to those who live here: L.A. is practically a Mexican town today, and three-strikes legislation, the dismantling of affirmative action, and welfare reform will hurt inner city blacks and browns most. But that message is rarely articulated -- least of all in black rap.Although the rap audience in L.A. is a rainbow that includes Asian and white kids, most listeners to the stations that regularly play hip hop are black and brown. Yet Chicano rappers never mention blacks, and blacks never recognize their brown brethren despite the fact that black and brown have for decades lived side-by-side in the City of the Angels. Rappers are apparently too concerned with uplifting their "own race" to pay attention to others. It's a kind of nationalism reflected on the streets, where black and brown gangs often clash, as in city hall. But Tupac's nod to the "Mex-i-CANS" is only the latest in a string of pop references to the new realities of U.S. cities. In Sublime's debut album, singer Bradley Nowell (who preceded Tupac in pop heaven, due to a heroin overdose) peppers his songs with Chicano colloquialisms. One cut is almost entirely in Spanish -- the translation in the notes admonishes the reader, "Learn Spanish."The artist formerly known as Prince, who recently married a Puerto Rican woman, has a song on his new Emancipation album ("Damned If I Do") which starts as one of his trademark funk-pop numbers, then suddenly veers into a salsa-rock jam, complete with bouncy Latin jazz horn section. In the background we hear a send-up of a star-crossed couple snapping at each other -- in Spanish, of course.Last year Bruce Springsteen, the hero of at least one Chicano male some twenty years ago, wrote no less than three songs with Mexican characters cast in a heroic light. And that hillbilly funk genius Beck named his last album "Odelay", which, he tells us in an interview in Frontera magazine, is the Anglo way of pronouncing the Mexican colloquial affirmation "Orale!"All this may still raise eyebrows in some quarters, but we should have known. It's the new America facing off with the old one of Jim Crow, the Japanese internment, Proposition 187, Willie Horton, and the bogeyman of last year's electoral campaign, that Mexican who should stay in Mexico. Of course, we can't proclaim a mixed-race paradise on the basis of a few Top-40 tunes. At Franklin Middle School in Long Beach, California recently a classroom full of black, brown, Asian and white kids told me how often they hear Mexicans use the "n"-word, and hear "wetback" used by black teens. But then I asked the kids to tell me their race, ethnicity, or nationality. "I'm Irish-Mexican," said a freckled kid with green eyes. "I'm Jamaican and American black," said a girl with hair in corn-rows. "I'm Filipino and white." "White and Salvadoran." "black and Mexican -- they call me 'blaxican.'"As we talked, the kids loosened up -- and then they started asking questions. "Hey, mister, would you date someone of another race?" I blushed, and said that I have.Tupac's lyrics contain both promise and warning. Unless we deal with our lingering cultural misunderstandings -- and the economic gaps that exacerbate them -- and soon.Of course, if our lingering cultural misunderstandings -- and the economic gaps that exacerbate them -- aren't dealt with soon, Tupac's words will become prophetic. He wasn't so much threatening us as simply reading the writing on the wall.