The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator
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Alex La Rotta

Columbia University
Postdoc Research Scholar / Center for the Study of Ethnicity & Race
“There Should Be Never No Walls”:  The Prison Abolition Politics of Salsa Music

Following his 1971 concept album, Harlem River Drive, a musical-social commentary on the deprivation of Black and Brown life in early-seventies America, Latin music pianist Eddie Palmieri recorded his two-volume album set, Live at Sing Sing, in the early winter of 1972. A then-unknown radio disc jockey from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Francisco “Paquito” Navarro, emceed the occasion. There, before an enthusiastic audience of mostly Black and Latino inmates, Navarro spoke to the politics of their performance: “For all mankind,” he declared, “there should be never no walls, never no fears, only one thing in life: liberty in the coming years.”

Not by coincidence, Palmieri’s performance at Sing Sing, upstate New York’s notoriously harsh men’s correctional facility, emerged on the heels of the Attica Prison Riot of September 1971—a flashpoint in modern U.S. history when over twelve-hundred prisoners seized control of the prison in an intense four-day stand-off with the state, resulting in forty-three deaths and a gripped nation reeling in indignant horror. Attica became a turning point in progressive activists’ ensuing battle for prison reform, a losing struggle coinciding with the explosion of America’s prison population and the fortification of the prison-industrial complex in the ensuing decades. A third rail of American liberal politics, prison abolitionism found a comfortable home in the 1970s lyrical imaginary of salsa music—a genre forged in the pan-American Afro-Latino experience with deep roots in New York City’s Black and Brown barrios.

Building on the momentum of the ongoing Movement for Black Lives, and the reenergized progressive political agenda in the United States, this presentation explores the subterraneous politics of prison abolitionism in salsa music to view the transnational struggles of Afro Latinos and their relationship to the American carceral state.

Alex La Rotta is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar in the Department of History and Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University where he teaches U.S. Latinx History and Black/Brown History of Rock & Roll. An avid record collector and DJ, his scholarship focuses on race and popular music in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. He is particularly interested in how music can provide a historical lens into the mechanisms of racialization and reveal tensions and collaborations across communities of color. His manuscript in preparation investigates sonic affinities and cultural kinships across African-American and Mexican-American communities in twentieth-century San Antonio, Texas. With the support from the Inter-University Program for Latino Research’s Andrew Mellon Fellowship, he received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Houston in Summer 2019.