Los Angeles, often dubbed the “melting pot” of cultures, is a city brimming with stories, each one as unique as the chords and beats that flow through its streets.
As a Panamanian American living in South L.A., this varied tapestry makes my personal playlist eclectic and dynamic. Growing up, my home was filled with the vibrant sounds of Spanish music, as my parents exclusively conversed in Spanish and were engrossed in Latin media. Yet, outside our doorstep, the urban heartbeat of L.A. pulsed with hip-hop.
Amid this diversity, I grappled with my identity. My parents, with their deep skin tones, predominantly spoke Spanish, but when they did converse in English, it was infused with Patois. My father would sometimes interject with phrases in French, and photographs of my great- grandmother, adorned with a striking red bindi on her forehead, hinted at even more cultural intricacies. The swirl of potential identities—Spanish, Jamaican, Indian, Black—left me confused and at a time when cultural identifications felt more rigid, usually limited to Black, white, or Hispanic.
Yet for all the moments of alienation I experienced, this very duality of my heritage also became my strength. It allowed me to traverse all kinds of spaces with ease from Leimert Park—a neighborhood pulsating with the rich African American heritage and resonating with elements reminiscent of my Panamanian roots—to the iconic lights of Hollywood—a melting pot of cultures, reflected in its food joints to avant-garde art galleries—to the bustling streets of DTLA, where contemporary influences blended with historic undertones.
Over time, I’ve come to understand that identity isn’t confined to rigid boundaries. Instead, like the music on my playlist, it’s a fluid dance of acceptance, understanding, and evolution.
“Rica y Apretadita (feat. Anayka)” by El General
El General left an indelible mark on the musical landscape of Latin America. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was almost a given that the rhythms of El General would reverberate through homes, adding a sense of joy to mundane life (or Saturday chores). For me, his song “Rica y Apretadita” is especially iconic. Whether it was attending a festive quinceañera, a lively neighborhood party, or a casual gathering, this song was the go-to anthem, binding generations with its universal appeal. Today, El General’s music remains a unifying force within the Panamanian community and beyond, creating shared memories and experiences that are fondly reminisced upon today.
“Dedication” by Nipsey Hussle feat. Kendrick Lamar
Especially for those of us who grew up within the Crenshaw district, “Dedication” is more than just a song; it’s an anthem of motivation and an ode to authentic hustle. The late Nipsey’s legacy is celebrated not just for his music but also for the significant impact he had on his community. He is the epitome of rising from humble beginnings and making it big. With this track, he brought forth a message that went beyond the typical narrative of street life. He championed the idea that it’s not just about making it out, but also about uplifting where you came from. “Dedication” is about entrepreneurship, supporting family, and reinvesting in the community. It captures the essence of the commitment and drive needed to transform one’s circumstances while staying true to one’s roots.
“Cha Cha Slide” by DJ Casper
“Cha Cha Slide” is not just a catchy tune; it’s a cultural phenomenon that bridges generations and backgrounds. As a journalist who’s covered countless community events, I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power of this track. Its instructive lyrics and invigorating beat not only compel any gathering into a synchronized dance fest, but also pull people from all walks of life to the dance floor. No matter the culture, background, or age, when this anthem plays, there’s an undeniable sense of unity. It’s the kind of feel-good music that reminds me of the power of song to connect and uplift communities. Many songs in hip-hop and beyond have incorporated call-and-response elements, but few have done it as effectively as the “Cha Cha Slide.” It actively engages listeners, turning passive audience members into active participants.
“Suavemente” by Elvis Crespo
“Suavemente” deeply resonates with my experience as a dark-skinned individual with a Spanish-speaking family. It stands out as a unifying anthem, especially since it’s one of the few Spanish tracks universally recognized and beloved by the Black community. As a part-time bartender (and someone who frequents various L.A. bars), I’ve observed firsthand the song’s power in cutting across genres. Amid DJ sets dominated by rap, hip-hop, or Afrobeats, “Suavemente” invariably finds its way into the mix. And every time, without fail, I watch Black individuals in the venue not only recognize the tune but sing along passionately, celebrating its infectious rhythm.
“Top Shotter” by DMX feat. Sean Paul and Mr. Vegas
Growing up, my parents’ unique blend of Spanish and Patois often made me feel self-conscious amid the dominant American English around us. However, the release of Belly in 1998 changed that for me. The movie, written and directed by Hype Williams, wasn’t just popular because of its star-studded cast featuring DMX, Nas, and T-Boz, but also because it introduced and celebrated dancehall music to a wider audience, like with “Top Shotter,” a powerful fusion of American hip-hop and dancehall culture off the soundtrack. The film’s widespread acclaim made me feel more comfortable embracing my Caribbean side. For the first time, I could proudly sing along to dancehall tracks in public, relishing the fact that the genre was gaining the recognition and appreciation it deserved.
“Essence” by Wizkid
I see “Essence” as a bridge, introducing the Afrobeats genre to L.A.’s music scene. Afrobeats, echoing dancehall and reggae yet carrying a distinct melody and more tempered lyrics, had been around for some time when “Essence” began to circulate widely in 2021. But this track felt like something new and fresh, and with its Sunday brunch vibes, it’s become synonymous with relaxation and good times.
“You” by Lucy Pearl
As the sun sets over the L.A. skyline and the palm trees sway, there’s a certain rhythm and flow that “You” taps directly into, echoing the heartbeat of the city. I feel like this song brings back memories of backyard parties and house parties in the hills—Windsor Hills—when my parents finally allowed me to go be outside with my friends. It also reminds me of going skating because the song always played at the now-shuttered World on Wheels. Whenever this song comes on, it effortlessly connects Angelenos of all ages—old heads, millennials, Gen Z-ers—together, reminding us of sun-kissed days, warm nights, and the shared experiences that bind us to our city.