|Abraham's Last Rap: Bolivian Hip-Hop Hero Dies in El Alto|
|Written by Benjamin Dangl|
|Sunday, 24 May 2009 07:30|
Abraham, 26 years old, was a member of the popular hip-hop group Ukamau y Ké, and in recent years had become increasingly well known within Bolivia and internationally. His music blended ancient Andean folk styles and new hip-hop beats with lyrics about revolution and social change. Through his music he demanded justice for those killed in the 2003 Gas War, spread political consciousness, spoke of the reality of life in El Alto, and criticized the lying corporate media. He was a radio host at the cultural center Wayna Tambo in El Alto, and regularly traveled around Bolivia to prisons, rural and mining communities to offer classes on hip-hop to young rappers.
For more details on Abraham's life and music, see this article: Rapping in Aymara: Bolivian Hip-Hop as an Instrument of Struggle
I first met Abraham in 2006 when doing research for a book on Bolivian politics and social movements, and he offered invaluable time, input, and interviews, enriching the book with his stories of growing up as an orphan in El Alto, working in a sweat shop in Brazil, joining the Bolivian military, and then entering the street barricades as an activist in the 2003 Gas War. Woven throughout this dramatic story was Abraham's hip-hop, an art he began in poor neighborhoods in Brazil, and brought back to El Alto.
Aside from being a key character I extensively interviewed for the book, I came to know the city while walking the streets and markets of El Alto with Abraham, listening to his stories of the city, its youth, meeting members of his family who produced beautiful carnival costumes and masks. After the book was completed, I received more emails, responses and comments regarding Abraham and his hip-hop than any other person or topic in the book. When I went on tour with the book in the US, I showed a music video of a rap song he did at nearly every event. We performed a Challa (indigenous, Andean blessing) for the book together recently when it came out in Spanish in La Paz, tossing alcohol and coca leaves on its pages for good luck. So Abraham was very much present throughout the whole process of writing and getting the book out into the world, offering support, stories and inspiration.
Over this time, he became one of my closest friends in Bolivia. Countless people from around Bolivia and the globe, including many rappers, activists, journalists, photographers and documentary film makers, became friends with this generous and talented person, and I was among the many drawn to his music, ideas and life story. The extent of this network of friends and fans obviously had to do with his incredible artistic and poetic ability, but it also had to do with his humbleness, sense of humor, and commitment to remaining true to his roots, his city, his friends and his struggle as he became more and more popular as a hip-hop star.
This was very clear to me when I met with him in La Paz a few days before his death. He greeted me in the Plaza del Estudiante with a hug and his big, contagious smile. We walked over to a café where I ordered a coca tea and he ordered some juice. Over the years, the news he shared of his hip-hop career kept on getting better and better, and this time he really seemed on top of the world.
He had just performed with the Argentine rock band Bersuit Vergarabat, and showed me the cover story in an Argentine cultural magazine that showed a few photos of him onstage with the band's lead singer. Abraham was particularly happy about the fact that the day after the show, instead of just hanging out in the lounge of an expensive La Paz hotel, the Argentine band walked around a popular El Alto market with Abraham. In previous years, Abraham and his hip-hop comrades had rapped onstage along with other star groups such as Manu Chau, Actitud Maria Marta and Dead Prez.
Abraham has performed around Latin America, including in Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. And he was regularly invited to perform - and teach hip-hop classes around Bolivia. During this recent meeting, he spoke of an even busier schedule than usual, performing in one Bolivian city one day, and then traveling by bus for another concert the following day, and on and on - a busy, hip-hop star life.
Abraham said he had recently rapped at a youth gathering in Cochabamba where Bolivian President Evo Morales was present. Morales was moved by Abraham's rapping, and invited him to rap at an event in El Alto the following day where the government would be giving out newly built homes. As much as he was excited about this new connection with Morales, Abraham decided to turn down the offer to stick around Cochabamba to meet other obligations with youth and union groups in the city.
We spoke about some of the same themes we had talked about a lot over the last few years, one of them being the media. Abraham had a very clear analysis of the misinformation put out by corporate and right wing media, and often rapped and spoke about the "lying media." As an artist and radio host, he also spoke regularly about the need to provide alternative, honest information about what was really happening around the world - the real stories about police repression, the root causes of poverty, corporate looting, as well as popular struggles and social change in Latin America. He seriously believed in the struggle to provide and distribute these real stories, so that they would become a part of the official history, and people didn't go through life without knowing the truth about politics, society and history.
A recent music video on media:
(Download Ukamau y Ké album "Para La Raza" by clicking here)
He talked about the need to take into account criticisms of the Evo Morales government, but to also look at it from a different perspective, look at it from beyond the borders of Bolivia, to compare the situation in Bolivia to political situations elsewhere in the world. Then, he said, you can really see that what's happening here is really new, exciting and historic.
Abraham was excited about the upcoming release of a new CD he was working on, and we talked about ways to distribute it in the US. Abraham spoke about how he was seeing an improvement in his music, lyrics and rapping, and how he thought he would always be improving his style. Clearly, he was looking forward to a long life in which such hard work, connections and political conviction would be without a horizon, without a limit, and help bring about social change on an even greater level. We parted ways after the coca tea and juice was long gone, hugging and wishing each other luck. I think we left each other both convinced that Abraham's rapid and amazing trajectory as an artist was just getting started, and he would continue to rise to new heights, with his new CD, connections and plans.
After our meeting, and before he died, he rapped on a main street in La Paz. It was a cold Saturday night, and the crowd was very excited to see him, warming up by dancing and cheering. He shook his fist in the air, jumping around the stage, rapping about Latin American unity and economic crisis. His words echoed across the Andes for the last time. A few days later, when walking home late at night from a party, he was killed by a speeding bus on a road in El Alto.
Abraham understood the rapid passage of time. He understood the importance and urgency of spreading political awareness through his music, and leaving something behind. He once spoke of the fact that he was happy to know that his music would be available to his grandchildren. Luckily, as a musician, activist and poet, his spirit and message will live on through his music.
It will also live on through the huge number of people he influenced as a teacher, colleague and hip-hop leader. He had an impact on countless young people's lives in mines, jails and impoverished communities across Bolivia. Abraham spoke of the need to help spread hip-hop as a tool, an instrument of struggle, an art and way of expression that desperate young people could turn to instead of hard drugs and violence. Thanks to his guidance, and the CDs he helped record with these hip-hop students, he changed lives.
This part of Abraham's work reflects another trait of his - his generosity. He could have easily used his rising popularity to simply consolidate his fame and power, but instead he shared his knowledge, connections, stories and skills with the whole world, uniting and empowering people. Thanks to this, his legacy lives on.
Abraham was one of those unique people who are able to speak poetically in a non-cliché way at the drop of a hat. Whether we were talking about a movie, a politician, or telling a joke, he always had this capacity to slip into a kind of poetic reverie, as if he was always rapping, or at least thinking of and working on lyrics for his next song.
This happened one night a few years ago during a failed attempt to broadcast a rap performance and interview over the internet from La Paz to Vermont. We were both hunkered down in a crowded internet café, and the connection with an eager crowd in Vermont just kept failing, until finally we came through over the phone instead. Abraham rapped to the crowd in the US, and to the surprised group in the internet café, then fielded questions about Bolivia from the VT listeners. Then Abraham asked the Vermonters about US politics, the Bush administration and the War in Iraq, and later spoke of his surprise about how similar the hopes and challenges in US sounded to those in Bolivia.
Afterward, on the sidewalk, walking toward a pizza place, we lamented the technological setbacks of the exchange, and spoke a bit about those political and social similarities across borders, and the importance of building those kinds of bridges of understanding, connecting and uniting people across continents - and bad internet connections.
Then he said something - one of his poetic reflections - that I didn't quite understand, it was lost in translation. So he stopped to explain, picked up a stick, and drew a line in the dirt near the road. "See," he said, finishing the line, "it's important to make a new path in the dirt, in the world, so that other people can travel more easily on that path, moving even farther along."
And I think that this is what Abraham did with his life: he fought, rapped, and shared, creating a new path, so that the road is easier for others, so that those he left behind can live a better life, can make it even farther along than he did in this hard world, where life is too short, and the Abrahams are too few.
Goodbye and Jallalla, Abraham!