The new kid on the block in Latin pop is a 27-year-old Panamanian singer who, in this country, goes by the name of Flex. His album “Te Quiero” (EMI) is No. 4 on the Billboard Latin Music Chart, and has placed as high as 148 in the Billboard Hot 200. He is riding high on the strength of a musical gambit he calls “romantic reggaeton,” and his songs are syrupy smooth wisps of cotton candy.
But in Mexico and the rest of the world, Flex (Felix Danilo Gomez) has been using another street-tough moniker throughout his 10-year career. He uses it on the Mexican version of the album, which has sold 50,000 copies, and the album’s title track single, which spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on Mexican radio. Flex’s street name is a controversial one north of the border: N—-a.
When asked why he would choose such a name, Flex says that he sings “like a black guy from Jamaica.” While it is true that he engages in some tongue-twisting Jamaican-dance-hall rapper exercises on the hit single “Te Quiero” and other tracks, he mostly sings in a voice that sounds decidedly unmenacing - soulful as R&B or reggae crooner Gregory Isaacs perhaps, but not quite as edgy as New York rapper Nas, who is causing quite a stir for planning to title his upcoming album after a racial epithet
Although Mexican radio has featured Flex using his street name in heavy rotation without controversy, EMI records changed the name for the U.S. release, probably because they are using Wal-Mart as a launchpad for the album’s U.S. success. But in their promotional materials they sent out an MP3 file with the artist tag still intact, while simultaneously circulating a Billboard article that assures us that all references to his previous name (as on the song “La Balada de N—-a,” which appears on the U.S. release) have been carefully mixed out.
Still, Flex’s oeuvre is not without merit. The best stuff, like “Dejala” and “Sin Tu Amor,” is set to a reggae, not reggaeton beat, and is catchy enough, despite hit and miss harmonies. The breezy ambience of these songs are more akin to regional Mexican music and mainstream Latin pop than tropical urban, explaining his sudden, massive sales.
Flex’s original choice for a stage name might reflect the possibility that the N-word can be used benignly in some instances, or it may be glaring evidence of a shocking ignorance of the word’s destructive potential. With its large black population a reminder of the legacy of the tremendous amount of labor needed to build its famous canal, Panama, as opposed to neighboring Central American nations, has a relatively high awareness of its African presence.
But the way Latin America in general deals with blackness has always been hampered by a problematic tendency to gloss over things with a false sense of its own racial democracy. In a small way, Flex may have unwittingly helped inspire a new discussion to address these issues.