Black As They Wanna Be
The camera is trained on two young men holding a Haitian flag. They wear Haitian-flag bandannas, Haitian-flag T-shirts, and Haitian-flag shorts. The girl standing between them whips the Haitian flag up and down to the beat of "Dance Muthafucka!" -- the urban club anthem by local rappers Southern Affiliate that is banging out of a sound system balanced precariously on a wicker chair. A tricked-out burgundy Olds '98 convertible rolls slowly into the parking lot off NW Seventh Avenue, converted for the day into a location for Southern Affiliate's video shoot. A beautiful woman in a burlap dress and matching Gucci shoes, purse, and hat, with three silver studs piercing her lips and R.I.P. tattooed across her chest, sashays across the set to pass a bottle of Alizé to some amiable thugs waiting for their call. A teenager in a denim dress and denim slides walks around the Olds and shouts through the chainlink fence to a friend in the adjacent parking lot, "They finna do the Puerto Rican scene next. Come on!" Miami Mac, general manager of Southern Affiliate's label Lockin' It Down Records, pulls a red, white, and blue flag out of a prop box and asks, "You sure that's Puerto Rican?"
"Right now we're representing the Caribbean, what Miami is," explains Problem 13, the producer/rapper and mover/shaker behind Southern Affiliate. Born in Chicago and raised in New York until his teen mother sent him to live with his abuelita in Little Havana, Problem 13 says he didn't feel at home in Miami until he "discovered the hood" and his fellow rappers while looking for a bag of weed in Liberty City.
Seventeen-year-old rapper Miss Via leans against the fence to watch as Southern Affiliate and friends take turns flapping a flag to the "Dance Muthafucka!" chorus. "He don't look Cuban," she says of a stocky dark-skinned kid wearing a white T-shirt, headband, and sweatpants with one leg rolled up.
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"They got black Cubans," Miami Mac takes the time to tell her, even though he's got a hundred other things to keep track of today. "You don't know your geography. He look Cuban. He do."
But then it's not all about the look.
"Jamaica?" Mac asks a big guy with dreads rolling a blunt, who shakes his head.
Finally a kid in cornrows and a Lion of Zion T-shirt steps up. When no one else comes forward, a middle-aged cat with a fedora and a swagger steals the scene, pumping his shoulders and clenching his fists in front of the Jamaican flag. His name is Ragames Garcia, but everyone calls him Pop cuz he'll as soon school you in the history of oppression as bust a move that would embarrass James Brown.
"Jamaicans don't do what he do," shouts Problem 13 from his chair behind the camera. "Pop shoulda been in the Puerto Rican scene." Problem 13 instructs Pop on how to be Jamaican: "Don't be too wild, Pop. Don't be too wild."
Next up come the Dominicans ("Wake the fuck up, y'all! Drunk as hell!" Problem scolds. "You don't want to stereotype Dominicans as being drunk"), the Virgin Islands ("Tell him to take that blunt out his mouth, or they going to blank it out on the video"), and the Bahamas.
"We all live in the same communities," rapper Peta Blades says of Miami's black multitudes. "Eventually you gotta love somebody or else you're gonna hate somebody."
For Problem 13, it's not just about love but about power. "I'm directing my music back to those who feel my pain," he explains. "I'm an unlucky problem for people who want to keep the status quo."
Right now Miami Mac has a more immediate problem. He surveys the set for the final flag scene. "Got any straight American black people?" he asks. "Black people? American black people?"
The woman with the triple-pierced lip squeezes in with two young men and a short round girl in a halter top. The flag they hold up is not Old Glory. It is not red, white, and blue. It is the red, black, and green banner of Mother Africa.
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