1990s Musical Passports: Redefining Assimilation

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my grandfather and my uncle in 2015

          I reminisce of those constant days spending hours upon hours in my tio’s (uncle) studio. We would go in before noon, and as soon as we were done from studio time, darkness had set in. As a six, seven, and eight-year old, it is difficult to recall specific memories, but with my uncle on the production computer, listening to his voice along with the next cumbia beat, or my grandfather strumming classic Tejano sounds on his guitar in the front room; those repetitive hours permanently stay in my heart and paint images in my mind. Witnessing my tio on stage while performing that cumbia and having him be responsible for a smile on several fans’ faces is something a child cannot forget. At some point you say to yourself, “This is our music, our celebration, and our duty to keep Tejano alive.”  

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Selena photographed in 1992 by John Dyer.

          Yet, on March 31st, 1995, Tejano and time stood still. Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, a native from Corpus Christi, Texas, died at the age of twenty-three. That day I got off the bus from school, walked to my house, and one of the older girls at my elementary school stopped me. She said, “Selena died.” Those two words changed my life. I was only eight years old, but somehow those past images of my uncle and grandfather went silent. I did not believe it. As soon as I stepped into my house, I turned on the AM/FM radio, and I heard both the Tejano and “American” radio stations playing her music on a non-stop tribute replay. Further, I remembered a couple years before that tragic day, my uncle let me watch a videotape of a Tejano softball charity event, depicting each artist comfortable in a family environment. I remembered Selena being there. I never got the chance to meet her, but I can never forget her radiating smile. Watching numerous Tejano musicians on one field, I did not know the Mexican American history they were creating. Listening to my uncle and my grandpa record albums, at that time I did not fully appreciate the history I witnessed. Amongst the new generation of Tejano starting to take mainstream radio by storm with rap and hip-hop, Mexican Americans and African Americans redefined assimilation through 1990s musical passports, which created artistic and cultural revolutionaries and a new identity for the entire world to share and mimic; decades later.

Selena y Los Dinos: A New Tejano Generation Emerges
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self-titled debut studio album cover

          “Before, Mexican-American kids spoke only English and listened to pop stars Michael Jackson or Madonna at school, and ever admitted that at home they spoke Spanish, ate beans, and listened to their parents’ Tejano music” (Burr). Into the early 1990s, young Mexican Americans were rapidly demanding Tejano cumbias at festivals, on the radio, school events, weddings, and birthday dances – or as Mexican American’s quinceaneras. In 1989, record label Capitol Records signed 17-year old Selena Quintanilla, widely known to be their first artist under EMI Latin. In response to Selena’s success, the label laid the foundation and provided the laboratory where young creative minds forged wondrous new melodies and magnetic rhythms that fueled the new Tejano wildfire (Burr). CBS Records, after creating production deals with hip-hop labels like Def Jam, could not ignore EMI’s acquisition of over sixty-five percent of the Tejano business. Suddenly, EMI and CBS, two major international players, had dug in for what was quickly unraveling as a protracted record war – all this in a regional music genre that had previously been thought of by the major labels as too small-time to bother (Burr). Now, instead of just having Tejano album cassettes in mom-and-pop stores, their CDs were stocked in big retail chains like Target, Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, and Tower Records (Burr). New platforms for celebration were quickly born, including a new Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album category at the Grammy’s, a Tejano Music Awards, Tejano Conjunto Festival, and after Selena’s murder, People en Espanol magazine launched their first edition in response to the grief and anger in the Latino community (Paredez).

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Chemiro (my grandfather) and his band

          At the height of mainstream rap and hip-hop emergence, Tejano music, behind the popularity of Selena, a young woman who was about to record her cross over dream – an English-language pop album – a new generation of Mexican Americans in South Texas formed a cultural revolution of their own (Burr). With my grandfather, Anselmo Martinez, as a member of the Tejano Music Awards Hall of Fame and my uncle, John Martinez, as a multiple Grammy nominated Tejano producer and owner of his own Tejano record label (AMI Records), I carried tremendous influences for the creative nature of composing tracks and understanding the new Mexican style behind performing lyrics. My uncle learned to merge his father’s, “uptown sophisticated music” of El Chemiro orquesta with conjuntos and modern Tejano (Patoski). Although most of the lyrics were in Spanish, the roots and instrument combination of reggae, mariachi, cumbia, charangas, techno dance, hip-hop and funk, rock, and heavy German and Italian accordion ignited musical strings deep in the soul. For young Latinos and Latinas, Tejano music was a starting point to enjoying and comprehending the lifestyle and art behind rising music collaborations. Fortunately as a young Mexican American, I had role models for creative leaders in musical art, dance, and business ventures. There was a growing ethnic pride in Mexican Americans and Hispanics everywhere. Mexican heritage achieved the ultimate mainstream success in America, which seemed like a validation of our culture. Rapidly, it seemed to be cool for Latinos to bring their ethnicity out of the closet and put it on display – to admit they listened to Mexican, salsa, or Tejano Music. Selena, behind her 1994 Grammy award, had ignited performing acts in Mexico, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Miami, New York City, and of course in her home state of Texas with audiences up to 80,000. Her family went from traveling to gigs in the banged-up family van, with only one concession to comfort—a foldout bed in the back, to signing Cola-Cola and AT&T sponsorships, and opening two signature clothing boutiques (Hewitt). Despite her international celebrity, Selena continued to reside next door to her parents in Molina, the working-class Tejano neighborhood in which she was raised and which some residents referred to as “Corpus Christi’s Bronx.” As a result, many fans in her neighborhood and in neighborhoods like hers across the country admired Selena as a hometown girl who provided inspiration for success while never forgetting her roots (Paredez). By late April of 1995, Selena, hailed as una artista del pueblo (an artist of the people), had five CDs on The Billboard 200 chart, an accomplishment previously only achieved by superstars like Garth Brooks, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles (Burr).

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Chemiro y guitarra

          Like African Americans in the Northeast hip-hop nation, Mexican Americans in the Southwest had evolved a unique style with enough of a following and an identity to emerge as not only a musical form but as a distinct culture. Tejano in the 1990s was not only about the music; it was about the lifestyle and the attitude of young and hip Mexican-Americans. Through the decades the message has been: in order to assimilate, to be a “proper American,” you had to blend in, become part of the program. Some saw that as a message that one needed to lose or bury one’s ethnicity, one’s accent, or else risk seeming different or standing out from the homogeneity (Burr). Tejano proved be a vocal key to the gate of revolution from “the years of self-doubt and cultural inferiority felt by generations of Mexican Americans” (Burr). Part of that gate began in San Antonio, my hometown, and the city that became known as Nueva York de la cultura, where the largest concentration of Mexican-American lived. Selena had recorded her second studio album in San Antonio entitled Ven Conmigo (Come with Me). Released in 1991, the album went gold, exceeding fifty thousand units, “something that no group fronted by a female had ever accomplished” (Patoski). Naturally, I gravitated towards this creative wave behind using music for a method of education on community youth anxieties and celebrations America faced; from new political administration policy on job loss, poverty, gangs, drugs, and enemies abroad, to the local struggle of family and friends which mainstream music began to display by showcasing this specific Latino/a romance and dance culture. Selena y Los Dinos, my uncle, grandfather, and later my talented cousin, Crystal Martinez, making records in the same city amazed me. Most importantly, Tejano music was evolving outside the studio. Behind the personality of Selena, Mexican Americans were gaining self-esteem at all ages. Her choreography and fashion, infused Tejano’s cumbias with ‘70s disco sound and dress, new jack swing, pop, and rock, was more than lyrics and new wave beats. Selena’s migration across multiple music genres’ instrumental orchestration enabled true possibilities for Mexican Americans to exceed beyond the physical border of Mexico and Texas and into a united mainstream force, cultivating Latinos and Latinas everywhere. The plight and protest of inner-city black and Latinos grew louder as the nation’s economy, increasingly tied to the globalizing market-place, became more unpredictable and less accessible for the poor (Johnson). The assimilation process had become exhausting, however; young African American and Mexican American individuals were creating their own outlet, their own language of protest. These new musical and performing arts, as an outlet, produced intriguing similarities for both Rap and Tejano.

Tupac: New Rap Transformation and Poetic Responsibility

          Similar to Selena’s time of death, Tupac Shakur, at twenty-five years old in 1996, died wrapped in the height of a genre’s popularity on September 13th, 1996. Though by the age of twenty, Tupac Shakur, born in New York City, was one of the best musical rap lyricists and highly controversial figures of his era. As a teenager, his mother enrolled him in the 127th Street Ensemble, a Harlem theater group, then to Maryland, attending the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts, where he laid out his talents on paper in the aesthetic forms of lyrical poetry (Bynoe). Later in Richmond, California 1991, he converted those intellectual poems to song tracks to express his individual struggles on the first solo album, 2Pacalypse Now. Tupac’s musical lifestyle and Hollywood acting debut brought recognition for worldwide distribution of his abilities. Millions of dollars, enemies, and more pressure to be a certain type of black street “Thug” began to reshape Tupac and hip-hop as a transforming poetic culture.

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young Tupac

          Tupac became the first (and so far only) performer to have an album reach number 1 although in prison (Bynoe). Many argue Tupac was the first to live the mainstream music celebrity life, while still wanting to live a street “Thug” gangsta life. Tupac’s philosophy redirected responsibility back to the roots of rap. To aspiring African American males and females, his style demanded attention, and he challenged a new generation of hip-hop. This new T.H.U.G L.I.F.E (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone) code enabled Tupac to bring powerful gang leaders together for “ending black-on-black” crime and “curb the twin scourges of drugs and violence that were ravaging black neighborhoods” (Johnson). Shakur, during both his time on earth and long after his 1996 death, brought a new consciousness to life; the civil war struggle for many rap artists to not forget those who live impoverish street lifestyles. As rap music rapidly became commercialized, Tupac forced an obligation to new and old artists to remember where you came from and at the same time spread awareness, freedom, and pride through these lyrics and beats. Source magazine called it “a combination of ‘60s black political thought and ‘90s urban reality” (Johnson).

Tejano Culture Halts and Rap Commercialization Complete

          Rap lyrics, hip hop’s message, and Tejano music have changed tremendously since 1997. As Tejano and its young vibrant culture has come to a halt for mainstream culture, the rap genre lives on in manner that neglects the deepest problems and accomplishments of a highly diverse youth society. There are few artists who hit the mainstream radio celebrating social obligation and change. Today, most of America’s mainstream rap is composed of those artists who speak of only wealth. “The party gangstas and thugs rule the school, drawing the wrath of both veteran artists and social activists concerned about their effect on young people (Mervis). Because of this, the message of music is corrupted and lyrical poetry has faded. There is a popular culture temptation to rap and sing exclusively for money, wealth, and unconscious sexualities and not for educating the public on the real tribulations of America’s culturally diverse youth. In his posthumous song, Resist the Temptation Tupac says, “oh and how it hurts, the children pay the biggest price. Never get the chance, to grow up with a happy life. Blame it on the rock, but we know that’s a bunch of crap” (Shakur, Resist The Temptation).

          Nevertheless, rap music has changed and the public eye has shifted. The new rap music genre has created a diversion to the social-economic statuses of this country. It is crucial to diagnose the changes and highlight those current artists who continue to pass the torch of Tupac Shakur. Talib Kweli wrote a song dedication to Tupac entitled Fallen Star. “We need leaders, we looking at entertainers. It’s about the cash, so we respect the biggest gainers. Get paid then they run away from the community” (Kweli, Fallen Star). The creative power behind music as art cannot be overlooked. Music as a lyrical art is freedom. It is an entrance to another world we do not know, a musical passport. In a specific example, Tupac’s song, Keep Ya Head Up, lends a door into “a permanent place in the hearts of poor black women. It mostly communicated that women didn’t have to accept abuse or ill treatment (“And if he can’t learn to love you, you should leave him cause sista you don’t need him”) just because they were poor” (Johnson). Although we may not be able to relate to the exact socio-economic condition of individual, when lyrical poetry meets music instruments, our ears allow our heart to feel and instill an awareness of the anxiety in specific populations.

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Me Against the World album cover

          Though rap music has transformed, the heaviest influences of past rap artists maintain. Tupac’s most renowned album Me Against the World, Grammy nominated for Best Rap Album in 1996, entitled a song Lord Knows. “Homies died in my arms, with his brains hangin’. I had to tell him it was alright, and that’s a lie and he knew it when he shook and died, my God. Even though I know I’m wrong man. Hennesey make a man think he strong” (Shakur, Lord Knows). In 2011, fifteen years after the release of Me Against the World, one of music’s most popular hip-hop and rap artist, Drake, speaks his attentive style and fortunes on a track called Lord Knows, from his Grammy award winning album Take Care. “They take the greats from the past and compare us. I wonder if they’d ever survive in this era. In a time where it’s recreation, to pull all your skeletons out the closet like Halloween decorations” (Drake). One of the biggest differences in Tupac’s message, and artists alike from the 1990s, is that music did not play or rap for “recreation” in order to meet a mainstream standard of airplay. These artists set foundations, rapped and wrote poetry to detail their anxieties living as an African American in the post-crack epidemic, gang, and highly imprisoned type of community. They rapped to speak to the youth of their American repression symptoms and celebrate their social climbs in the form of a track-by-track album. The rap album, as a detailed story of the ethnically diverse individuals, happened to be of interest to corporate America for an enormous profit share. Most artist like Drake recognize Tupac’s intention of the past and each come to understand today’s rap music transformation. Drake’s persona highlights a specific point in today’s culture of hip hop and rap, a world where many male artists desire to adhere to and capitalize from superficial broadcast standards of fame, style money through clothes and cars, “recreation” drugs, alcohol, misogyny, and heartache romantic relationships. Filmmaker Spike Lee states that much of today’s rap reminds him of how Whites in blackface ridiculed Black in order to entertain Whites. “If you turn on Black Entertainment Television and watch some of these rappers, that stuff is borderline minstrel show….It’s horrible and they don’t even realize it” (Bynoe). I would agree with many critics that rap music is a tool to escape the streets and has a means to survive; however, at the same time rap music today is too much of a fantasy, and it neglects to outline the real news of the disenfranchise, where once a upon a time America’s poorest and highly creative youth had a station to transmit their one true voice; absent of corporate’s agenda interference.

          In several ways Tejano and Rap have become a victim of its own unparalleled success. The creation of exhilarating and relevant music by young talented artist attracted a wider audience, which in turn heated radio’s growth. The music expanded, pulling in more labels, which chased other creative acts, who drew new younger fans. The cycle repeated until the genre’s growth had outstripped its native pool of truly talented superstars (Burr). The current generation of Rap and Tejano has endured the start and demise of their respective genres. About a year after Tupac had been gunned down and approximately two years after Selena’s tragedy, March 9th, 1997 marked the date of The Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) death. Christopher Wallace and Tupac Shakur were primary leaders of emerging solo acts in the hip-hop/rap radio and television industry. Though many could argue otherwise, like Tejano’s unraveling with the murder of Selena, the combination of Notorious’ and Shakur’s death marked the end of rap and hip-hop as a musical and performing catalyst for social awareness, social change and responsibly, and new discoveries of cultural identities.

          “Rap record labels continue to recycle its artists” and in turn, social progress is missing. Artistically, rap hit a plateau. “It’s all become dance music. Nothing wrong with that. It just means that a lot of the artists who are having the biggest hit records have the least amount to say… having hit records is more important” (Mervis). Tejano stands still, hunting down the “next Selena,” a young artist with potential to capture bi-cultural audiences in fashion, dance and language (Burr). Mexican American music lays trapped but given that a large part of Selena’s staying power is due to the sense of becoming that she represented – as an imminent crossover star, and aspiring clothing designer, a Tejana musician in the process of emerging into a Latina superstar – it is no surprise that young Latinas have used the creative sphere of her legacy to chart and give voice to the liminal, social, economic, and generational roles they occupy (Paredez). At the roots, rap and hip-hop had begun with “young black people coming together in their communities and expressing their ideas about the world and their life experiences” (Bynoe). With the new wave of working class Mexican nationals coming to America, many feel Tejano will rise again. Within the 21st century’s first decade, hip-hop became an approximate 1.6 billion dollar industry, and many suggest it is now known as a “more visible corporate branch” producing “studio thugs and party music.” (Bynoe).

Conclusion: Eternal Artistic Seed

          It is my hope for the next generation to learn the past influence Tejano has had on today’s Mexican American lifestyles, and begin to understand rap music’s roots belonging to African Americans, and how both genres were created to highlight the social responsibilities and mobility behind the microphone and its spoken word culture. Selena is an icon, a role model for not only young Mexican American females, but also for the Latino/a family struggling to find their own voice, their own dream amidst mainstream American assimilation. Shakur erected the stereotypical failures of black males and females by reestablishing a new destiny of success through performing art spirits.

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          Once you become open into fully understanding the stories of Tupac Amaru Shakur and Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, you can enjoy the road they have created not only for music, but to start as a very disadvantage youth and leave one’s legacy in performing arts for every player in pop culture to impersonate. Tupac’s and Selena’s success has been seen as one of a kind, never again to be replicated in their respective genres. Selena, Queen of Tejano Music, has sold over 60 million records worldwide and even in her 1995 death, by 1999 Billboard named her the “Best selling Latin artist of the decade” (E! News). To this day, Tupac is a leader among rap and hip-hop sells, distributing over 75 million albums worldwide (Greenburg). Tupac, remembered beautifully as The Rose that Grew from Concrete, and Selena, forever blooming in her vibrant but peaceful melody Como la Flor (Like a Flower), each have planted a common revolutionary and eternal seed for those who have the courage to aspire to. From two different ethnicities, each of these individuals possessed creative methods through their minds, body, and voices to progress a local culture at world’s stage.

1990s Musical Passports: Redefining Assimilation and Creating a Place through Rap, Hip Hop, & Tejano compiled by Mario Gabriel Adame for your educational purposes (2013).
Works Cited Here

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