Susana Baca: the singer who became Peru’s first black cabinet minister
It is unusual for an artist to enter Peru’s rough-and-tumble world of politics. It is even rarer for a black Peruvian to enter the cabinet. In fact, it’s never happened before.
But despite the precedents and the fame that has made her one of Peru’s best-loved singers, the honeymoon period expired quickly for Susana Baca.
Earlier this month, Baca was forced to cancel a series of international tour dates to placate her opponents, who were demanding that she engage fully with her ministerial work. It was a tough reckoning for someone who has made music her life. Even now, she says she will not be able to completely abstain from her great passion.
“It’s impossible for me to put music to one side,” she says, adding that she will set aside two hours a day to practice with her musicians.
Yet Baca also knows that her role as culture minister championing the rights of Peru’s marginalised indigenous people is a formidable undertaking. When he came to power in the summer, the president, Ollanta Humala, appealed to Baca to help him implement his vision for social inclusion in Peru’s deeply unequal society.
Baca, 67, says racial discrimination, which she suffered “in her own flesh” in her youth, has persisted in her country.
“It’s been a painful chapter in my life, and when I recall it I can’t help feeling a deep sense of unease,” she says. “I don’t want children today to live through what I have lived through.”
Tears well in her eyes in a not uncommon display of emotion as she adds: “We haven’t lived through all that we’ve lived through in Peru to allow this to carry on.”
But she expresses hope about the new government’s commitment to racial equality.
“When a government says: ‘We will respect the rights of everyone and let’s feel proud of our diversity,’ then I feel I can work with that kind of government because I have the hope that Peru can transform itself.”
Earlier this month, Baca announced the creation of the National Observatory for Discrimination and Cultural, Ethnic Exclusion, which aims to reduce discrimination against black and indigenous Peruvians.
Her appointment is seen as symbolic, this year being the UN’s International Year for People of African Descent.
The singer, who wears flowing shawls and dances barefoot in her performances, has been at the forefront of the revival of African-Peruvian music. She has extensively researched the history of African-descended Peruvians, who first arrived in the country as slaves during the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.
International fame came in her late 40s when, in 1995, David Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman, put her version of an African-Peruvian classic, Maria Lando, on his Luaka Bop label’s Soul of Black Peru compilation.
Barely a year old, Peru’s culture ministry is a many-headed beast. Baca is now responsible for Peru’s wealth of archeological sites, its cultural heritage and the thorny issue of indigenous rights.
But she complains that the ministry’s annual budget of $28m (£17m) for next year will not be enough, adding that it finds itself orphaned and unable to cover musicians’ and dancers’ wages, let alone maintain archeological sites.
Baca is a regular in the local markets of Lima’s southern seaside district of Chorrillos where she grew up, near her home in Barranco, the bohemian neighbourhood she shares with other artists such as the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.
“‘Don’t take any notice of the press,’ the people tell me … the stall holders say: ‘How can we ask you to pay us, minister? Please take the carrots … I think I go to the market on purpose just to hear that,” she says.
The winner of the Latin Grammy award for best folk album, Lamento Negro, hopes to be able to perform on her many ministerial visits to provincial Peru.