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Where'd the Afro-Latinos Go?

It's a great time for music in South Florida just now, with more events than most audiophiles can absorb. Following close on the heels of the Winter Music Conference two weeks ago, the Billboard Latin Music Conference brought more panel and party dazzle last week over four days at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. The Latin Grammys are similarly a big deal, yet they're just an awards show, whereas for many participants, the BLMC is also the year's premier networking event, bringing together thousands of artists, music biz execs, and media types.

Many Latinos in music here have ample reason to be proud of that. It's just too bad all Latinos can't take the same pleasure. More on that in a minute.

I was curious to see the BLMC so I headed out to the Hard Rock, where I found lots of swank parties and plenty of red-carpet treatment, attesting to the organizers' prowess. It was a bonus to also encounter truly engaging panel discussions on such topics ranging from industry trends, the Latin youth market, and the digital technologies that continue to transform so many aspects of the attendees' lives. In light of those changes and the upheaval they cause, the conference also offered some cool seminars about survival strategies for artists and small music companies. Another bonus: With the entire conference and all the parties going down in Broward, it wasn't just good for the Hard Rock, it was a nice little bump for the local economy.

Yet something was missing among this abundance — and it didn't take long for a sighted person to deduce what: Afro-Latinos.

The BLMC is apparently an ideal venue for many — but not all — Latino artists, a way to jump-start careers and get music circulating. Yet I saw very few Latinos of African descent on the panels, among the invited artists, or even in the audiences.

To be sure, this is just one facet of an issue that has persisted within Latino cultures for centuries. Still, the fact that very little effort was made to welcome Afro-Latinos at the BLMC in 2008 was striking.

"We get left out of these events all the time," said Gabaluchi, a Puerto Rican reggae artist at the conference who also is black. "I don't think they invite enough black artists at all. I don't know if it's intentional or that we just get overlooked, but every year it's like this."

Actually, it goes both ways: Typically, there isn't much room made for Afro-Latinos at events like the BET Awards and other traditionally black conferences, either.

For Gabaluchi, it feels as though he and other Afro-Latino artists are "stuck in the middle," he said. "We're too Latin for black events and too black for Latin events."

The BLMC did offer "Urban Moves," an attempt to explore less traditional markets for Latin music, with artist-panelists Tego Calderon, Kat DeLuna, and the D.E.Y. But the conference organizers could have done much more. When most of the Afro-Latino artists at the Latin music conference seem to fit on just one panel, that's a problem.

In all fairness, the BLMC's organizers deserve some credit for even having done that much, and for paying attention to reggaeton and Latin hip-hop. Still, one also could argue that's merely a shrewd recognition of the market. After all, we're talking about pop music here, not opera, where success is measured by sales (and tallied on charts such as Billboard's). In other words, such token efforts are not even inclusive for its own sake or for the sake of any shared culture; they're really about one thing, and it's green.

Not surprisingly, Afro-Latinos returned the favor: Their turnout at BLMC this year was abysmal.

"Every year it's like this," said Sergio George, a Palm Beach County-based music producer of Puerto Rican descent who is also a black man.

At least one attendee faulted organizers for the lack of depth in some of the presentations. "There's been no discussions on politics or the upcoming elections," complained Will Lopez of Hialeah, a light-skinned Cuban-American who sings and plays guitar with punk band Guajiro. "Nobody wants to talk about that. Or Obama. When it comes to race there are all these things that Latinos don't want to openly talk about."

Others echoed Lopez's concerns. "I think next year, they need to have a panel on the subject itself: Just put it out in the open," said George, who was on the "Urban Moves" panel. "Everyone knows Afro-Latinos are marginalized, and it happens in the music industry as well. It's something I've dealt with for years."

George is happy to take matters into his own hands. Tired of not seeing Afro-Latinos represented in some aspects of U.S. culture, in the '90s he formed the innovative salsa band DLG (for "Dark Latin Groove"). DLG, which blended elements of reggae and hip-hop with salsa, disbanded in 2000. In recent months George reunited most of the group; they're working with local singer Miss Ya Ya, he said.

Now DLG just needs a fresh round of exposure — something they hoped to trigger in part by representing at BLMC, where after all this time they're still looked at as exotic.

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Jonathan Cunningham