I've followed Susana Baca's career since my college days in the late 70's, when we were still under the military dictatorship of Velasco Alvarado. Susana would appear mostly in a more intellectual circle since her artistic aspirations did not suit the popular scene.
As an intellectual black woman, she chose teaching. Later on she became a pupil of the great Peruvian songwriter and singer Chabuca Granda, known worldwide for her "La Flor de la Canela" (The Flower of Cinnamon) song.
"Chabuca and I were very close," she told me years ago. Unfortunately Chabuca died prematurely, before Susana crystallized the dream of her own music record.
As in many parts of the world, being black, female and of a humble origin -- read poor -- is a life challenge. In Peru, not only racism exists--very ingrained in the Peruvian psyche -- but also class differences, inherited from our Spaniard past.
Any person is evaluated according to his last name, the place where he was born and raised, the school and university he went to. Most times it does not matter how successful you may become because, at the end, if you are dark, have American Indian, black -- even Asian -- features and a humble beginning you won't go beyond being called "the king of the potatoes" "cholo with money" or some other condescending expressions.
This happens to any person whose hue is in the brown spectrum, the darker the worse. Terms like trigueño (wheat color,) sacalagua (light-skinned black,) zambo (mix of black and American Indian,) injerto (mix of Asian and American Indian,) cholo blanco (light-skinned American Indian,) among others classify the variations of color and features. Susana acknowledges without fuss the racial rejection she has gone through during her life, which still exists and she will fight against.
However, the now diva--currently the Minister of Culture of Peru--continued with her life of poetry, singing and research of the African Peruvian roots; always watchful and alert but appeased.
What happened after is well known. Talking Heads David Byrne hears her singing "María Landó" while studying Spanish. Amazed, Byrne travels to Peru to meet her and ends up producing the CD that will make Susana a world sensation. "He didn't discover me; I already existed," she told me proudly last year at her home in Lima. Susana doesn't play the role of the subdued woman; she manifests her beliefs clearly and firmly. The softness of her words holds a strong and combative lady. We can vividly see it when she sings and captivates her audience: a contained fighting spirit.
WATCH: Susana Baca sings María Lando in Buenos Aires.
The world greets her with open arms. The Latin Grammy that she won in 2002 seals her in the hearts of a world audience. Susana becomes, finally, a Peruvian pride.
"Afrodiaspora" is her thirteenth musical production that arrived to the U.S. less than a month after being appointed Minister of Culture of Peru by President Ollanta Humala. She confesses the shock her appointment was. But why could it be an unprecedented surprise when we are talking about a capable, educated and professional woman who never sold her art to the system? Would it be because the first black Minister is that, black? She says that "in Peru we don't see each other" referring to the appearance and skin color.
Her detractors claim that she should sit behind a desk full time, but she will continue spreading her music around the world. A ministerial position should not exclude her art. "If I don't sing, I die," she told me.
Don't die, Susana. Continue singing and showing us that our world has still a lot to learn from you.
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