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‘What are you?’: My multicultural music discoveries of 2018

Nina Simone in 1968. (Getty Images)

I remember it as if it were yesterday. The song “Bam Bam,” by Jamaican singer/DJ Sister Nancy, was blaring in the car. My sister and I sat in the backseat, mortified, and rolled our eyes as our mom belted out the song’s famous chorus.

“Bam bam, ey, what a bam bam,
Bam bam dilla, bam bam,
Bam bam dilla, bam bam,
Ey what a bam bam, se what a bam bam.”

For a while, “Bam Bam” was my mom’s favorite song. She loved it so much that, at one point, the song was even her ringtone — one my sister and I hoped would never go off while we were out in public.

I am the child of two bicultural parents. My mom is Jamaican and Canadian and my dad is African American and Mexican American. Instead of trying to keep up with all the new music coming out this year, I choose to look more into the past as I’ve been working to learn more about each side of my family.

Growing up in Miami, Fla., I spent much of my childhood surrounded by my mom’s Jamaican family, where music and dancing were very important, especially to my grandfather. At family gatherings we’d often listen to his Jamaican ska, soca and reggae music. It was important to him to teach his grandchildren how to dance to the music. At the time I was too embarrassed and unsure of myself to really learn. I wish I hadn’t been.

When the recession hit Miami hard, job opportunities and a better education system led my parents to make the difficult decision to leave our home in a diverse area of South Florida and take a chance on not-so-diverse Minnesota.

Until we moved to the Twin Cities area, I never really understood what it meant to be a minority, because in Miami, I was not one. Most of the people who lived in my neighborhood and went to my schools were people of color. I had never seen this many white people in my life, and one of the hardest parts of adjusting to life in Minnesota was the realization that I was different.

As a multicultural person living in 2018, I don’t face the same struggles my parents did growing up, and whereas in the past I may have been assigned a label, I get to decide for myself how I want to identify. But that doesn’t mean things are perfect. To some degree, the world is still in black and white. All too often, I am asked by others to pick the side of my heritage I identify with the most or told that I am not enough to be considered any of them at all.

“What are you?” People would ask me with that quizzical look on their faces.

As a kid, I didn’t really know how to answer that question. Now as an adult, I know I don’t have to.

As multicultural as I am, I don’t think I’ll ever find a label I like that accurately describes what I am. But I do know this: being multicultural does not make me any less of what I am. I carry with me the music of prominent Jamaican musicians like Sister Nancy, Louise Bennett and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires; of proud Latinos like Selena and Celia Cruz; and of powerful black activists Gil Scott-Heron and Nina Simone.

Looking back, it seems silly that I was so embarrassed about it. “Bam Bam” is one of my favorite songs, and just like my mom, I sing along to it in the car. I’d even consider it as a potential ringtone. Of course, like many young people of color, I haven’t always been into the music of my heritage, but this year things have been different.

Simone’s Top 10 Songs in 2018

Count Basie: “Rock-A-Bye Basie”
Byron Lee & The Dragonaires: “Sammy Dead (feat. Eric ‘Monty’ Morris)”
Celia Cruz: “Latinos En Estados Unidos”
Gil Scott-Heron: “Lady Day and John Coltrane”
John Coltrane: “Giant Steps”
Sister Nancy: “Bam Bam”
Selena: “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”
Jimmy Bosch: “Descargarana”
Louise Bennett: “Brown Girl in the Ring”
Nina Simone: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”

Simone Cazares is a student at St. Catherine University. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.