WASHINGTON – Mercedes Sosa, an Argentine singer who emerged as an electrifying voice of conscience throughout Latin America for songs that championed social justice in the face of government repression, died Sunday at a medical clinic in Buenos Aires. She was 74 and had liver, kidney and heart ailments.
With a rich contralto voice, Sosa was foremost a compelling singer whose career spanned five decades. She performed with entertainers as varied as rock star Sting, Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes and folk singer Joan Baez, who said she was so moved by Sosa’s “tremendous charisma” and emotive firepower that she once dropped to her knees and kissed Sosa’s feet.
Sosa’s towering artistry, which led to several Latin Grammy Awards, belied her physical dimensions. Short, round, dark-skinned and often dressed in peasant clothing, Sosa was affectionately nicknamed “La Negra” (the Black One) as an homage to her indigenous ancestry.
It was a term of endearment that followed her throughout the Spanish-speaking world, said ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter, who has written about Sosa. “It’s hard to overestimate her popularity and importance as a standard-bearer of folk music and political engagement through folk music,” he said.
Sosa once declared that “artists are not political leaders. The only power they have is to draw people into the theater.” While not defining herself as a political activist, Sosa asserted herself in the “nueva cancion” musical movement of the 1960s and 1970s that blended traditional folk rhythms with politically charged lyrics about the poor and disenfranchised.
This “new song” movement, formed by singers, poets and songwriters with Marxist leanings, cast light on the struggle against government brutality and the plight of the downtrodden throughout the hemisphere. Sosa came under official harassment and intimidation by the right-wing, nationalist junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The government was responsible for the deaths and disappearances of an estimated 30,000 real and perceived leftists, and Sosa transformed her sold-out concerts into rallies against the abuses of power.
Her songs were banned from Argentine radio and television, and she courted arrest by singing anthems of agrarian reform such as “When They Have the Land” at one performance in the university city of La Plata. Many in attendance were arrested.
At one point, the military governor of Buenos Aires prohibited her from performing, and in 1979 she moved in exile to Europe. Sosa returned to Argentina shortly before the dictatorship crumbled and found her popularity had risen to a new peak. Her concerts attracted tens of thousands, and her albums sold hundreds of thousands of copies.