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Meet the Self-Proclaimed President of Colombia’s Hottest Music Trend

Champeta started as an outsider Afro-Colombian folk movement. Now it's taking over the country.

All along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, champeta music booms out of tricked-out, streetside mobile speaker systems called picós. The genre is a product of the region, one long-marked with racial tension and sharp socio-economic inequality. In recent years, after historically being stigmatized by the Colombian ruling class, the style has surged in popularity, moving beyond its Afro-Colombian roots and into the mainstream. Champeta records have topped Colombian charts, scored hit telenovelas, and even starred in tourism campaigns by the Colombian Foreign Ministry.

The genre, like the inhabitants of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, comes from Africa. It first developed in the '70s and '80s in northern port cities like Cartagena and Barranquilla, where commercial traders introduced locals to West African rhythms like soukous and highlife. The musica Africana proved to be a hit at local street parties, and the community began fusing the traditional guitar-driven melodies with Spanish language lyrics, adding in flourishes of reggae for a distinctly Caribbean sound. Today, champeta artists are integrating elements of reggaeton, dancehall, hip-hop, electronic, and Colombian vallenato and cumbia music, further twisting the genre into new local forms.

Last Friday Mr. Black, the self-proclaimed “El Presidente del Genero,” made his American debut in New York City, packing full a nightclub in a predominantly Latin American part of Queens. Before the show we sat down with the artist to talk about champeta’s history, its increasing popularity across class lines, and how the genre's acceptance nods to a peaceful future for a country fighting to move out of a five decade-long civil war.

Being from Cartagena, the city where champeta was born, what was your first memory of champeta growing up? What made you want to be a champeta artist?

I grew up around champeta—all of my family was involved in the picós, so I was always around the culture when I was young. Things were very hard for me growing up. I had no money for anything, not even a bus ticket, so I knew I wanted to be a champeta musician.

In what ways is champeta important for the Afro-Colombian community in your country?

Champeta is our music. It is Afro-Colombian music. It brings all of us in Colombia closer to Africa because it is based on soukous from the Congo and highlife from Nigeria. This is very important.

Do you think the growing popularity of champeta is changing attitudes and perceptions about race in Colombian society?

Of course, it’s a really big deal for all of Colombia right now. It is bringing people together. Eighty percent of the people who buy tickets to my shows in the interior [cities like Bogota and Medellin] are upper class. I was just in Europe bringing our culture to Belgium and Holland. Champeta is growing up.

Who are some of your influences and inspirations, in music or otherwise?

Earlier champeta artists like Viviano Torres and Ane Swing are both big influences to me. Outside champeta, I think Bob Marley is my biggest inspiration, how he created a movement, how he fought for his people.

Your music is very uplifting and positive. How important is it to you to bring happiness to others through your music?

Bringing positive messages to the people through my music is very significant. In 'La Cuerda Floja,' I try to tell them to stop fighting, to put down their weapons, to end the war, to think of the future. People come up to me and say, 'Hey, thank you for this song. It made a difference to me.' This means a lot.

One of your biggest hits, 'El Serrucho,' was the official song of last year’s carnival in Colombia. It incorporates traditional accordion, and has become a huge dance craze. How important has this song been in introducing champeta to new fans?

With this song, I wanted to bring other elements into champeta. Champeta can evolve and bring more people in, including people from other classes. So I introduced Colombian folk music like vallenato and cumbia, and also electronic music. I made this song for everyone to dance to.

You call yourself the President of Champeta, but you also recently met with the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. What did you two talk about? Is he a fan of champeta?

(Laughs) Yes, this summer I had the opportunity to meet President Santos. He likes champeta. He encouraged me. He told me, 'Go ahead in your music. I know you come from a difficult background and that you are making many people proud. Congrats for all of your success.'

Music is very important to Colombia’s history and culture, and as President Santos continues peace negotiations to end the conflict, do you think music, and champeta specifically, has a role to play in uniting the country?

Music can definitely help advance peace in Colombia. It unites us all. Champeta brings happiness. It gives people reasons to smile. It also says no to violence. Yes, I think this can play a role in bringing peace.

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