At 13,000 feet, the hip hop movement in El Alto, Bolivia is probably the highest in the world. The music blends ancient Andean folk styles and new hip hop beats with lyrics about revolution and social change.
As the sun set over the nearby snow capped mountains, I sat down with Abraham Bojorquez, a well known El Alto hip hop artist. We opened up a bag of coca leaves and began to talk about what he calls a new "instrument of struggle."
We were at Wayna Tambo, a radio station, cultural center and unofficial base of the city’s hip hop scene. Bojorquez pulled a leaf out of the bag to chew and said, "We want to preserve our culture through our music. With hip hop, we’re always looking back to our indigenous ancestors, the Aymaras, Quechuas, Guarani." He works with other hip hop artists in El Alto to show "the reality of what is happening in our country. Through our lyrics we criticize the bad politicians that take advantage of us. With this style of hip hop, we’re an instrument of struggle, an instrument of the people."
Bojorquez belongs to a group of rappers in El Alto, a sprawling city above La Paz which is home to around 800,000 people. His group and music is called Wayna Rap (Wayna means young in Aymara). Under the umbrella of Wayna Rap are smaller bands like Insane Race, Uka Mau y Ke, Clandestine Race and others. They often get together in freestyle events, where different singers take turns at the mike, rapping.
Some of their songs are completely in Aymara, an indigenous language. Others include a mixture of Spanish, English, Quechua and Portuguese. This fusion of languages is an integral part of the group’s philosophy, and adds to their appeal in El Alto, where a large section of the population speaks Aymara. "The door is open to everyone This is our proposal for how to change society," Bojorquez said. Though they collaborate with a wide variety of people, "we don’t just sing things like ‘I’m feeling bad, my girlfriend just left me and now I am going to get drunk.’ It’s more about trying to solve problems in society." The social and political themes in the music come from the city’s reality. The death and conflicts in the 2003 Gas War made a huge impact on El Alto, and many of these songs reflect that.
One song which Abraham made in his own group Uka Mau y Ke deals with the October 2003 mobilizations in El Alto against the gas exportation plan and president Sanchez de Lozada. In the song, "we speak about how bullets are being shot at the people and how we can’t put up with this because the people are reclaiming their rights." This song starts out with the president saying he won’t resign. His voice is ominous, gruff and peppered with an unmistakable US English accent: "Yo no voy a renunciar. Yo no voy a renunciar." The sounds of street clashes in the song become louder. The roar of machine guns and helicopters come and go until the beat and lyrics begin.
"We are mobilized, arming street barricades. We are mobilized without noticing that we are killing between brothers." Another singer comes in, rapping about the "corrupt governments with closed eyes that don’t look at the reality in the society. Many people are ending up in poverty and delinquency, which is why they demand justice " The song goes on to call Sanchez de Lozada a traitor and assassin. They demand his head, along with that of Carlos Mesa, the vice president. The music fuses with a testimony from a woman whose family member was shot by soldiers. The lyrics kick back in, "We hear over there that there are dead: 80 citizens, 5 police, and mass of people gravely injured. We’re in a situation worse than war, killing each other, without a solution."
In many of Bojorquez’s songs, Andean flutes and drums mesh with the beat. This aspect, along with the indigenous language, sets the music apart from standard hip hop. The topics covered are also distinct. In one song, they grapple with street violence and homelessness in El Alto. It deals with "children living in the street, orphans of mothers and fathers and the violence that grows every day. The lack of work, all of these things," Bojorquez explained. "We try to show the true reality of what is happening in the country, not hide it."
One of the most moving experiences Bojorquez said he’s had within his musical career came when he was invited to perform at the office of the Neighborhood Organizations (Fejuve) of El Alto. He was nervous at first because the place was full of older people. His music is directed more toward a younger audience. After the first song, people clapped weakly. "Then we sang in Aymara and people became very emotional, crying. This was a very happy event for us. It made us think that what we are doing isn’t in vain, that it can make an impact on people."
The title of his next CD is "Instrument of Struggle", referring to his musical philosophy. "More than anything our music is a form of protest, but with proposals. We unite, we organize. We look for unity, not division. We want to open the eyes of people with closed eyes The music is a part of life."
When Bojorquez and I met months later, it was clear that El Alto’s hip hop movement was growing. More people were calling Bojorquez for pointers on their music or for help with CD recordings. Others were starting their own groups and showing up at Wayna Tambo for concerts. "Today this music is arriving to many young people who identify with the songs and lyrics," Bojorquez said. "In El Alto there is a lot of poverty and in the lyrics we talk about this. People identify with it."
He had recently helped initiate hip hop classes in a large prison in La Paz which focuses on prisoners that are between 16-18 years old. The idea started when Bojorquez and others did a concert there. The reception was so enthusiastic that they worked to organize a hip hop class in June 2006. Through the classes, Bojorquez said they are trying to "show the jail’s reality from the inside." He said the jail was a whole other city within La Paz, a "dead city" without hope. "This is where the hip hop comes in, so that people don’t feel like all is lost." At the end of the program, the group will put on a performance and record a disk. Based on the success of the class, Bojorquez expects the program to continue into the future.
"They are telling a history that reaches people and can prevent other youth from making the same mistakes," he said. "A lot of them regret what they did and they talk about it in their songs." He offered lyrics by Cesar as an example:
"Yo soy preso en San Pedro/I am a prisoner in San Pedro
Estoy esperando la puta paciencia de mi abogado/I am waiting on the fucking patience of my lawyer
Lo que el me ha dicho ya me olvidado/What he has told me I already forgot
Por tomar el camino mas corto/ By taking the short cut
Yo mismo me fregado/I messed myself up"
Back at Wayna Tambo, I ran into some of Bojorquez’s fellow rappers, Grover Canaviri Huallpa and Dennis Quispe Issa. Both worked jobs and studied at the same time, leaving little room for writing lyrics and listening to music. We were waiting for a bus to a hip hop concert. It was cold and the bus was late, so we went inside and talked. Like others going to the concert, they were dressed like people I knew in New York City. The camouflage and baseball caps, the baggy pants, it was all very familiar. But it wasn’t just the clothing style that these two felt a connection with. "I identify a lot with the hip hop groups in the US that speak of violence and discrimination," Huallpa said. "My mother only studied to 5th grade. She has suffered discrimination. We used to all be out in the streets."
Huallpa started listening to rap in the mid 1990s, and started writing his own lyrics a few years later. "Before Wayna Tambo there were pirated radios, secret places where we gathered because our parents didn’t accept it." Both admitted their parents didn’t understand their lifestyle as rappers. "They think we are just copying the US," Issa said. "People on the street discriminate us for the way we talk, walk and dress."
They both agreed that this kind of hip hop was growing in El Alto in part because of the experience of the Gas War. "October 2003 was a huge change for us musically," Issa explained, referring to the mobilizations. "It had a big impact on El Alto."
Below El Alto, in La Paz, another hip hop movement was thriving. Sdenka Suxo Cadena, a 27 year old hip hop artist and marketing major in college, has been a part of the scene for over ten years. When I met her at the home of Mujeres Creando (Women Creating), an anarchist, feminist group, Cuban salsa was playing on the radio. Her hair was in pigtails and she smiled and laughed a lot while talking about her work.
She started rapping in 1996, when she was in high school. "I started doing it because I didn’t like society’s system – the classism, materialism, the elite. This didn’t make people happy." After hanging out with different hip hop groups in La Paz and El Alto, she decided to start a women’s hip hop group in 2000. "I didn’t like to be controlled by a boy, or be someone else’s lady. Other women didn’t either. So we started our own group called the Nueva Flavah and had our own meetings and events."
Each Thursday they organized a gathering of men and women from different areas of the city to perform hip-hop, break dance and exchange styles. "We wanted to share hip hop without caring about the differences between us." They did have some rules, however. "We didn’t let people in that just talked about gangs, violence, drugs and guns." Her music deals with such topics as Latin American unification, chauvinism, AIDS, race, women’s issues and nationalism. She knew politics were important, "but for real change to happen, people have to change themselves."
When I met her, Cadena was about to open a place for hip hop activities and recording music. "Some kids need help editing music, recording. We help them get their message out." One of the events their doing now is a CD exchange where other artists can bring in their own disks and trade or buy one for less than a dollar.
She believed hip hop was becoming more popular in Bolivia because anyone can produce the music, regardless of whether or not they know how to play an instrument. "It’s popular in poor neighborhoods where people might not have a guitar. All you need is a pen and paper. You don’t need money. You can do it anywhere. People largely identify with it in marginalized neighborhoods, where people don’t have access to music lessons or instruments." She also said it is growing along with the current political changes all around Latin America. "It’s part of this regional protest movement."
I had an opportunity to see this movement in action at a hip hop concert one cold June night in a neighborhood outside La Paz. We zipped up into the hills like a roller coaster, weaving up steep streets past angry dogs, lit up corner stores, a woman shaking laundry out the window and soccer games under street lamps. The road wound up the hill like a drunken snake at impossible angles. The route was a cavernous labyrinth that never seemed to end. We almost crashed twice and had to ask for directions three times. Eventually the city spread out below in a vast collection of blue, white, yellow and orange lights, oozing and bubbling with life. Beyond the lights were the Andes Mountains in complete darkness. The stars were barely visible, belittled by the constellation of the city.
The concert took place at a large room in a school building. A banner hung outside the door, where young people dressed like New York City rappers were hanging out and smoking. Tilted baseball caps, baggy pants and shirts with US sports logos were the norm. It cost about 12 cents for a ticket. I handed over the money while my friend and I were frisked for alcohol: it was a dry event. Inside, the room was packed with people standing up, bopping to the music, or sitting in chairs. On a balcony above the crowd the performers swung microphones, shook their fists in the air and rapped tirelessly. It looked like a cross between a high school dance and a poetry reading. It had the same angst and self consciousness. The sound quality of the speakers was poor, but the enthusiasm was high. The audience clapped and cheered at every opportunity that merited it. Most songs were a mixture of Spanish and Aymara, with three words making regular appearances: coca, revolution and Mother Earth.
Many of the young people were sipping on clandestine bottles of booze, making out and slicking back their hair. The room was a convergence of cultures. Some rappers spoke of blunts and guns in one breath and their president Evo Morales the next. Bojorquez wore a red baseball cap from a US team, but his coat had indigenous designs on it with the name of his band in Aymara written across the front. I recognized some of the beats from US music, but the flutes, drums and rhythms were all Bolivian. The concert mixed Andean phrases and symbols thousands of years old with themes and rhymes fresh out of MTV music videos. Nations, music, histories and dance moves fused in a new Bolivian hip hop.
The finale was a performance by a young kid who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. He proceeded to swing his cap, move his feet and dance exactly like Michael Jackson. The crowd went wild.
Benjamin Dangl is working with Abraham Bojorquez on www.EvolucionHipHop.com, a website (that is still a work in progress) on hip hop in Bolivia and Latin America. Dangl is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia," forthcoming from AK Press in March, 2007. For more info on Dangl’s work and writing see www.UpsideDownWorld.org/ben