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Las Caras Lindas: An Interview with Malcolm Friend

By Ivelisse Rodriguez, PhD


Editor's note: This interview is the eighth in a series that will focus on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. To read the previous interview with Sandra Rodríguez Barron, click here

Author bio: Malcolm Friend is a poet originally from the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. He received his BA from Vanderbilt University and his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of the chapbook mxd kd mixtape (Glass Poetry, 2017) and has received awards and fellowships from organizations, including CantoMundo, VONA/Voices of Our Nations, Backbone Press, the Center for African American Poetry & Poetics, and the University of Memphis. His manuscript Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple won the 2017 Hillary Gravendyk Prize and will be published by Inlandia Books in 2018.

Ivelisse Rodriguez: At its core, your poetry chapbook mxd kd mixtape is about music—how it connects us to identity, how it connects us to other people, including our ancestors, and how music is our cultural inheritance, among other topics. Do you find yourself to be more in conversation with Puerto Rican musicians or Puerto Rican poets? What do you learn from both groups to make your own art?

Malcolm Friend: For me the question has never really been about which one is more influential to my work, as I see the music and the poetry working in concert with each other. What it originally came down to was access. I’ve been hearing Puerto Rican music since I was kid—through both my father and Latinx friends who enjoyed Puerto Rican musicians. In contrast, it wasn’t until junior year of college that I read a full book of poetry by a Puerto Rican author, and even then, it wasn’t as required reading for the course, but rather additional reading a professor suggested to me after reading my work. Most of my early reading of Puerto Rican poetry was dictated by how easily I could find it in Vanderbilt University’s library, whereas for music, I could simply turn to YouTube when I wanted to listen to something my dad or a friend had introduced to me, and in a lot of ways, that influenced what I thought of as Puerto Rican cultural production growing up. It wasn’t until I read Martín Espada that I felt like I had permission to write about being Puerto Rican, and not until I read Tato Laviera and Sandra María Esteves did I feel like afrolatinidad was something I could write about.

In terms of what I’ve learned from both groups in my own artmaking process, I think the lessons overlap at times. The musicians have often taught me just how much exists beyond the lyrics of a song. For me, there’s something extremely poetic about the rasp in Ismael Rivera’s voice or the smooth baritone of a Cheo Feliciano. And reggaetón has been something I think about a lot, particularly in terms of how the prevalence of the dembow riddim speaks to connections between different parts of the African diaspora and the echoes that can be heard across the diaspora, something that gains even more prevalence for me when thinking about Afro-Puerto Rican reggaetoneros. The poets, on the other hand, have taught me the power of a singular narrative or story and how that everyday reality can be utilized. They’ve also taught me how to utilize that music in poetry, even when the themes aren’t musical. I frequently return to Stephanie Alvarez’s comments in her introduction to The AmeRícan Poet on how Ismael Rivera served as a spiritual and musical guide to her immersion into Tato Laviera’s work. I think the opposite can also be said, that Laviera can be placed as a sort of literary guide to Rivera and a broader Afro-Puerto Rican music, even in the poems that don’t focus specifically on Rivera. More than anything else, though, I think about the ways in which poets like Laviera, Esteves, and Espada have taught me to look at the music in day-to-day life and as something born in and of community.

IR: People like Bruno Mars and Cardi B are called racially ambiguous because they don’t fit into some rigid US binary of race. What is never discussed is how this view of racial ambiguity comes from the gaze of other people. And what is never asked is how people who are deemed racially ambiguous see themselves. In the poem “outro mxd kd sht,” you call yourself afro-american-boricua. What does that mean to you? And how does that push against this notion of racial ambiguity?

MF: Racial ambiguity is interesting to me because it points to the ways in which race depends on social contexts and highlights that how one is racially read might not always match one’s cultural identity. When I refer to myself as afro-american-boricua, first and foremost, I’m trying to honor both of my parents’ heritages. One way of reading that identity is that the first part is Afro-American, referring to my mother’s roots as Black American. The other thing that I’m trying to do with that marker is to acknowledge that in many spaces my blackness announces itself with my body; I’m seen as Black before further questions about ethnic or national identity are brought into the equation. While I definitely agree that part of this need I feel to highlight my racial and cultural identities comes from the often rigid way in which race is discussed in the U.S., I’m not sure if that’s pushing against any notion of racial ambiguity except in the ways in which discussions of blackness sometimes get centered around Black American experiences and the ways in which Latinidad often excludes and erases blackness. In my own identity, I’m often trying to remind people that my blackness doesn’t negate my puertorriqueñidad and that my puertorriqueñidad doesn’t make me less black. 

IR: In “Clemente al Sonero Mayor: Elegy in Bomba,” you contend with the issue that Ismael Rivera sings two pivotal songs about blackness in Puerto Rico. The first song, “El negro bembón,” from the 1950s, tells the story of a man killed for being black. This song can be read in different ways—as one that perpetuates the trope of the “big-lipped” black person or as a song that raises awareness of the prejudice and violence blacks face. The other song, “Las caras lindas,” from the late 1970s, extols the beauty of blacks. The songs come about twenty years apart, but your narrator questions “What happened / to the banging / barril voice / that told us / we were beautiful, / that black / was beautiful?” Can you discuss this discomfort and the dissonance you feel between Rivera’s “El negro bembón” and “Las caras lindas”?

MF: That poem is always interesting for me to look at because the original version of that poem is so different from the current one. In the original, that play between “El negro bembón” and “Las caras lindas” was definitely more in the forefront than it is now. “Las caras lindas” of course was still in my mind in that later version, but I was thinking more about how the popularization of Cortijo y Su Combo brought a little more visibility to Afro-Puerto Ricans and instilled a sort of pride. I do think “El negro bembón” is straddling a very fine line. It’s a song that definitely calls attention to violence against black people and challenges notions of racial harmony in Latin America, and I appreciate the song for that. But there are also aspects of the song that don’t sit as well with me. The “big-lipped” black stereotype is certainly one of the things that’s more difficult to deal with, even if the idea is that this is highlighted by the murderer in the song and exposes him. The tone of the song is also something that can be uncomfortable. There’s an interview between Jasmine Garsd and Tego Calderón for NPR’s Alt.Latino in which Calderón discusses the element of humor in the song and how that can be unproductive at times. Finally, the point in the song where the officer hides his own lips after questioning the murderer as well as the repetition of “esconde la bemba que ahí viene el matón” makes the song a little more uncomfortable, and almost clashes with that much later celebration of “Las caras lindas.”

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IR: In “Ode To Daddy Yankee, or Movement Backward from ‘Sígueme y te sigo’ To ‘Gasolina,’” Daddy Yankee is referred to as “white.” Can you discuss why he is described in this way and its significance?

MF: Daddy Yankee is interesting to me as he is one of the figures that really helped to popularize reggaetón, particularly with how non-Latinx folks in the U.S. responded to “Gasolina.” The push to write that poem came after reading the 2009 anthology Reggaeton. Both Félix Jiménez in “(W)rapped in Foil: Glory at Twelve Words a Minute” and Wayne Marshall in “From Música Negra to Reggaeton Latino: The Cultural Politics of Nation, Migration, and Commercialization” comment on Daddy Yankee’s racial identity. Marshall, while not placing Daddy Yankee firmly as white, notes how race differentiates one person’s views on the class and social status of Daddy Yankee vs. Don Omar and Tego Calderón. Jiménez firmly situates Daddy Yankee as white, and briefly makes note of his place in popularizing a genre rooted in the African diaspora. In both instances, Daddy Yankee is racialized at the very least as non-black. This in some ways gets back to the question about racial ambiguity and how changing contexts can change how someone is racially read, but in the U.S., many might not view Daddy Yankee as white or think about the reality of white Latin Americans and Latinx folks who benefit from the privileges of being white. In that poem, I’m trying to deal with what complications arise with Daddy Yankee being one of the biggest names in a genre once referred to as música negra and its popularization in the U.S.

IR: In the poem “Ode To Divino, or I Re-listen to Por experiencias proprias for the First Time in Six Years and Finally Stop Hating, or When ‘Pobre corazón’ Comes on I Think of My Dad,” the narrator chronicles his father’s love for Cheo Feliciano, a singer of salsa, but also a bolero singer. “…he fell in love with another man’s voice, / that he would choose the heartbroken wail of a bolero / over El Sonero Mayor or El Cantante de los Cantantes.” In this case, music becomes a transgressive space for men to love other men. In what other ways does music allow for this expression of love between men?  

MF: One of the things that immediately pops into my head is the way that music has allowed me to bond with other men. Through playing music in the background of hangouts and talking about it, and especially through rapping and singing along together/to each other, it’s an intimate situation. At the same time, I think music can be a crutch at times. Thinking in particular about “Ode To Divino,” my father’s love for Cheo Feliciano in some ways becomes his out for macho behavior in other areas. While music can open those doors for male intimacy, it also raises the question of why we often need those tools as barriers or layers to open up the door in the first place.

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. The Belindas, a fiction chapbook, is forthcoming from Tammy in summer 2017. She is the senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. To learn more about Ivelisse visit: http://www.ivelisserodriguez.com.

© Ivelisse Rodriguez. Published by permission in Centro Voices 13 April 2018.