An Interview with Shaggy Flores
Interview by Felicia Fahey and Liz Hoagland
In this interview Jaime “Shaggy” Flores talks about recent changes within the Nuyorican poetry movement and the emergence of two new generations of poets over the last two decades. He discusses a number of issues including the ongoing “island” vs. “mainland” debate, the impact of music on both generations, race and class differences, and his own views about the place of Nuyorican poetry within the African diaspora and Black cultures of the United States.
When Jaime Flores, aka Shaggy, enters a theater or performance space, he doesn’t enter quietly but as a catalyzing burst of energy. Transforming the space with vibration, he glides down the central isle delivering the simulated sounds of a human beat boom box, drawing the audience into an excited focus. Once on stage, he faces the crowd and gracefully pauses to find a breath before making his way through a verse from a traditional Yoruba Afro-Caribbean song: “Yemaya hace su, hace su Yemaya!” Hip Hop, African cultural traditions and a strong sense of performance indeed define Shaggy’s poetic style, but his references are multiple, ranging from popular culture to spiritual rituals. Shaggy also plays on various poetic genres, including erotic and romantic poetry.
As one of the young up-and-coming poets who has worked to reinvigorate the Nuyorican poetry movement in recent years, Shaggy brings a scholarly attitude to what he refers to as cultural work. He sees poetry as a way to simultaneously inspire people and educate them. For him poetry is a vehicle to dismantle stereotypes and damaging myths and to share knowledge of music, Puerto Rican culture and traditions, urban culture, the political movements of the 60s and 70s, African cultural traditions and black history in the U.S. Shaggy’s cultural work also involves organizing. He is the founder of the annual “Voices for the Voiceless” poetry concert, the “Urban Arts Project” and the Dark Souls Art Collective that serve as networks for African Diaspora artists. In the following interview, Shaggy discusses some of his views about the new generation of Nuyorican poets.
FF: Under the dynamism of poets Miguel Piñero, Sandra María Estévez, Victor Hernández Cruz, Nicholasa Mohr, Louis Reyes Rivera and others, the Nuyorican Poets scene blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s. In the last decade the scene has been reinvigorated by a new generation of poets. What are some of the differences, the continuities and ruptures between these two generations?
JF: I always think of the movement in terms of three, even four generations. The first generation was transplanted from Puerto Rico to New York City. Julia de Burgos, Clara Lair, Clemente Soto Velez, Juan Antonio Corrtejer, Jesus Colon, all came from Puerto Rico in the 30s, 40s and 50s and brought in traditional Puerto Rican styles, but also experimented with new emerging styles that were developing from the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude movements. These poets started writing about their experiences living in New York City and in America. Of these, Julia Burgos was the most famous but not necessarily the best of the early Puerto Rican poets. Clemente Soto Velez and these poets were making a lot of moves in the poetry community and in the Puerto Rican scene in New York. This first generation of poets didn’t refer to themselves as Nuyorican but as Puerto Ricans transplanted to New York. They were modern-day jibaros living in the tenements of a new land.
It was in the sixties that the term Nuyorican, which comes from the word Neo-Rican, meaning new-generation Rican, emerged. Actually, at that time it was considered derogatory to call someone Nuyorican because basically it implied that the person wasn’t Puerto Rican. This meaning was changed during the struggles of the sixties when first and second generation Puerto Ricans living in New York said “We are Nuyorican, we too are Puerto Rican and we are proud of it.” This Nuyorican generation insisted on asserting their identity and they struggled with a lot of identity issues particularly about race and where they fit into the Black and White debate. Through their poetry they were claiming “we are here … we will be heard” and “you have to respect our craft cause [we’ll do] everything it takes to let our voices matter.”
The third and fourth generations, which have emerged starting in the late 1980s and through to the present, have had to fight a different battle. We also struggled with the mainstream establishment, but also with the second generation of Nuyorican poets, who have not embraced the new generation. The new generation has basically had to be like the older, but a little harder. They’ve had to market themselves, and they’ve had to fight to get recognition, to get on the microphone, just to share their craft and their different style. They’ve faced the same struggle, but found different approaches to winning the battle and getting heard.
FF: What influences do the different generations share? How have the cultural and political influences shaping the poets changed?
JF: Poets from the Black Arts movements of the 60s and the Harlem Renaissance of the 20-40s influenced the original Nuyorican poets. Black poets and writers such as James Baldwin, Alice Childress, Amiri Baraka, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets, Gil Scott Heron, John Oliver Killens and many more influenced the Nuyorican poetry movement in terms of subject matter and writing style. We, in turn, the new generation, have had similar types of literary influences such as writers like Louis Reyes Rivera, Abiodun Oyewole, Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, Quincy Troupe, Kalamu Ya Saalam, Sonia Sanchez, Piri Thomas, Ishmael Reed, Haki Madhubuti and others who pushed us to take our writing to new levels. Also, whereas the earlier generation drew mainly from musical styles like salsa, bugalu, jazz, cha cha cha, mambo and Latin Jazz, the new ones have drawn from Hip-Hop, House music, Drum and Bass and other forms of new technological black expression. We have the benefit that we have more influences because new things are always being created in the technological age. Yet, we understand that none of this is totally new. Old things are being re[made] but the foundation of these expressions comes from African Diaspora cultural forms and started with the Drum. [Is something missing here? The “since” makes this seem incomplete see changes] The living beat is at the center of the literary and musical expressions. That Drum is central to the understanding that the Nuyorican and African Diasporas all move to the same beat, a harmony that complements their existence.