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Still from interview with Theo Gonzalvez from the National Museum of American History about Joe Bataan; photo also featured in National Portrait Gallery

A Fusion of Cultures and Identities: Joe Bataan’s Latin Boogaloo Music

In this short video, Theo Gonzalves from the National Museum of American history, talks about musician Joe Bataan. Born in 1942, Joe grew up in Spanish Harlem, NY, the son of a Filipino immigrant father and an African American mother. He identified with Puerto Rican culture having grown up in the densely Puerto Rican populated community of Spanish Harlem. Drawing inspiration from the cultures that enveloped him, he helped create Latin Boogaloo, a music that reflected these different influences and gave voice to a whole community.

“Joe was an Afro-Filipino kid,” Theo Gonzalves of the National Museum of American History explains. “As far as he knew he was the only Afro-Filipino kid in Spanish Harlem.” American music has often included various cultural influences. Bataan helped create a musical genre, Latin Boogaloo, that helped voice the unique experiences of his community. Latin Boogaloo took traditional Latin rhythms and combined them with Philly soul and American R&B.

“It was music about the neighborhood,” Gonzalves says. And Bataan’s lyrics were often autobiographical. His song “Ordinary Guy” says that instead of a degree in biology, he has one in “street-ology.” “Audiences could recognize something of themselves in Joe’s music,” Gonzalves says. Seeing their lives represented in his art inspired the people in his community.

American history is multi-racial, multicultural, multi-linguistic. It comes from every corner you can think of.

In “Young, Gifted, and Brown,” Bataan celebrates his life and the opportunity to sing “with a beat so fresh and clear.” In his 1979 track “Rap-O Clap-O,” he performs an early version of rap music. “Joe feels he was really at the birth of hip-hop,” Gonzalvez says.

Bataan’s music, he argues, is an important reflection of multiple communities in the U.S. “It comes from every corner you can think of,” he says, “and it’s marked by immigrants as well as the descendants of slaves.” Through music, Bataan remade traditions into something new, fresh, and powerful.