With its US release date this Friday, May 25, the third installment of Will Smith’s most successful rap-to-film crossover, Men in Black 3, is expected to be yet another box office winner that further cements the hip-hop legend as film’s most bankable African-American leading man. However, upon closely examining the film—notably its theme song—there’s an intriguing story to be told regarding the the nature of hip-hop and minority-to-mainstream cultural crossover’s next great controversy laden success story.
Unlike the first two films, Men in Black 3‘s titular song, “Back in Time” is by Cuban-American emcee-turned-rap/electro kingpin Pitbull. Smith bestowing the honor of branding one of America’s most beloved franchises to the Latino rapper is not just proof of his fame, but also indicative of the rise to mainstream prominence of Latin Americans nationwide. In recent months, Time Magazine has begun to aggressively assert that Latinos are the next great standard bearers of progressive American culture. Furthermore, last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that US Census projections show that by 2042, Hispanics will be California’s majority population. Given these facts, Pitbull’s ascension to being not just a rapper but a part of the fabric of American pop culture is not shocking, but more indicative of the fact that the rise of Latino culture’s inclusion in the American mainstream is now deserving of deeper examination.
When examining issues of minority inclusion into mainstream American culture, it’s important to first note the terrifying imbalance to balance of the United States’ largely race defined history. In order to create unity from the intentional racial divisions upon which America was founded and perpetuated, there is a painful process and embarrassing journey. No matter how wonderful it was that Barack Obama was elected the 44th President, there are over 400 years of slavery and injustice that indelibly exist. No matter how wonderful it is to see Asian Americans as well-integrated American citizens, it’s important to remember that our Western railroad system would not exist without their conscripted labor. And no matter how exciting it is to see Pitbull fist-pumping to a re-working of what most Americans know as “that ‘Dirty Dancing’ song,” pause and remember the struggles of Cesar Chavez and so many others. However terrible the prior unassailable facts are, on the surface what appears even more damning actually presents a beautiful opportunity.
In the history of African-American civil rights, the term “go along to get along” defined the notion of working within a dominant white culture while ascribing to its perceived notions of the subservience of non-white races to achieve a modicum of social success. This concept, of course, existed before a world where the President was black, the rising dominant culture was Latino and Asian-Americans were tops in independent economy, the tech sector and playing point guard for the NBA’s New York Knicks. At some point along the way, going along to get along became going along, getting along, then gaining control. If you’re unaware and disbelieving of this idea, please pull your head out of the sand. All of the rules are broken, and minorities are setting the standards of excellence. How does this apply to the next level success of Pitbull and Men in Black 3? Let me explain.
There was once a time when Will Smith broke rap’s mold. Rap was the black man’s heaviest tool to date against the horrors that Caucasian-American cultural control had levied against African-American society. Along came Smith, a Fresh Prince to the mainstream throne. His raps, though impressive, did dreadfully little insofar as creating socio-political narrative space for black empowerment. “Parents Just Don’t Understand?” “Gettin’ Jiggy With It?” “Men in Black?” Not exactly the realm of “broken glass everywhere,” “fight the powers that be,” “fuck the police” or any of a ton of other great revolutionary examples. However, almost 30 years after his debut? It’s an easily arguable point that greater creative freedoms have been achieved for ALL forms of African-American social expression.
Pitbull? Different story with a similar yet more impressive conclusion. As “Mr. 305,” he was a celebrated, hood rich Miami emcee who like so many of his hustling brethren knew that “money is a major issue.” As his renown grew and opportunities for advocacy of stereotypical Latin party cultural advocacy expanded, rapping about “culos” didn’t fit the bill. What did? Apparently becoming a 21st century Ricky Ricardo. Though the aims of dropping 357 Magnums for magnums of champagne, stealing your girl, and getting her some “Hotel Room Service” after a night at the world’s hottest nightclub may feel like the most undeniable of blemishes against “sí, se puede,” please continue to follow along.