Velvet Barrios pp 107-122 | Cite as

The Verse of the Godfather

Signifying Family and Nationalism in Chicano Rap and Hip-Hop Culture
  • Richard T. Rodríguez
Part of the New Directions in Latino American Cultures book series (NDLAC)


Family and nationalism are two terms that occupy a fundamental place in debates concerning gender and sexuality. In this essay I will join those debates as I elaborate on how these terms are interrelated and articulated in Chicano rap and hip-hop culture.1 I aim to show how various strands of Chicano rap are rhetorically and ideologically linked to a genealogy of Chicano poetic consciousness stemming from the 1960s and 1970s that advocated cultural nationalism and la familia as potential keys for liberation. In the rap/hip-hop context I want to signal how this consciousness functions as an empowering political force for those who put it into practice in their everyday lives. Yet I want to emphasize the necessity of critiquing the inequalities that underscore its otherwise egalitarian potentialities. Sherley Anne Williams argues that “intellectuals have been slow to analyze and critique rap’s content. We have, by and large, refused to call that content, where appropriate, pathological, antisocial, and anti-community.”2 Following her lead, it is imperative to ask: What does it mean that “the family” in Chicano rap discourse does not include women, gay men and lesbians, or even one’s own parents? What are the ramifications of seeing (all-male) gangs as family? How does cultural nationalism emerging from working-class contexts promote a sentiment of resistance that contests racial, political, and economic subordination? How do these nationalisms “rejoin” the nation-state around patriarchy? What do we make of exclusionary practices within the ranks of the Chicano hip-hop nation that stabilize oppressive masculinities?


Popular Culture Gang Violence Cultural Nationalism Black Nationalism Black Music 


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  1. 1.
    Although “rap” and “hip-hop” are frequently used interchangeably, it is important to distinguish between these terms. Rap, as Tricia Rose defines it, “is a form of rhymed storytelling accompanied by highly rhythmic, electronically based music.” Rap is but one link in the signifying chain of hip-hop culture, which also includes graffiti, breakdancing, and DJ technologies. See Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 2.Google Scholar
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    I am using “Chicano rap” somewhat loosely here (mainly to accommodate my particular focus on Chicanas and Chicanos), since the Funkdoobiest duo is comprised of a Puerto Rican and a Chicano, whereas the Cypress Hill trio lay claims to Mexican American, African American, and Puerto Rican backgrounds. Both acts, however, command a large Chicano listenership, especially in California. Chicano rap is often categorized under the banner “Latin/o rap,” a banner upheld by the impulse of “Latinidad” which is described by Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez as resulting “from Latino/a agency and intervention when U.S. Latinos/as articulate and construct cultural expressions and identity formations that come from a conscious political act of self-affirmation.” See Alberto San-doval-Sánchez, José, Can You See?: Latinos On and Off Broadway (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), 15.Google Scholar
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    Or, as Alfonso Ruiz puts it, “the godfather of Latino hip-hop.” See Alfonso Ruiz, “No Longer a Kid,” Frontera Magazine 2 (1996): 28. Frost’s status as “godfather” is evident judging by the titles of numerous Chicano rap articles. Also, ads in Low Rider Magazine for 1999’s That Was Then, This Is Now, Vol. 1 declare: “The Godfather of the Latin Rap Game Returns!”Google Scholar
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    From an interview with Frost, quoted in Mandalit del Barco, “Rap’s Latino Sabor,” 73. Bandit from the Chicano rap act Street Mentality echoes this sentiment and takes it to another level when he claims: “A gang supplies love; they’re filled with surrogate father figures for youth from mother-centered households; they teach you about the streets and help you earn money through drug trafficking.” See Ronin Ro, Gangsta: Merchandising the Rhymes of Violence (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 46.Google Scholar
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    “Gangsta rap,” a genre to which numerous Chicano rap performers pay homage, is known to espouse a misogynist sentiment issued by all-male acts whose membership, demarcated along gender lines and sexual hierarchy, mirrors and embodies the all-male membership of street gangs. Consider the group Brownside, whose members posture as a gang “stra8 off the streets of East L.A.” and Los Angeles Chicano rapper Conejo, who unabashedly declares his gang associations on his 1999 CD City of Angels and on his web page. In fact, many Chicano rappers are not “studio gangsters” (that is, record-company-constructed gangsters). Wahneema Lubiano compellingly suggests that a black family/nation-affirmative song like Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up” is “more disturbing than gangsta rap … precisely because it is so easily accomodated, so easily routinized in ways that reproduce the status quo.” See Wahneema Lubiano, “Black Nationalism and Black Common Sense: Policing Ourselves and Others,” in Wahneema Lubiano, ed., The House That Race Built (New York: Vintage, 1998), 247. However, family values campaigns staged by rappers are not always in sync with procreative kinship networks advocated by dominant society. In fact, the family in rap discourse often refers to a male-only collective. It is necessary, then, not to insist that family values discourse in rap is more insidious than gangsta rap since they are often codependent narratives.Google Scholar
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    This position also undermines the Sister Sledge song in which the family in “We Are Family” is a sisterhood. Also interesting is how Blvd.’s use of the song contrasts with the way the song has been read by queer communities. Brian Currid argues that the song is “recognized as something of a queer national anthem” and “has served and continues to serve as an important site for the performance of gay and lesbian/queer community identity.” See Brian Currid, “‘We Are Family’: House Music and Queer Performativity,” in Sue-Ellen Case, Philip Brett, and Susan Leigh Foster, eds., Cruising the Performative: Interventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 165.Google Scholar
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    Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 209–210.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Alicia Gaspar de Alba 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard T. Rodríguez

There are no affiliations available

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