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 to create an 'instrument of struggle,' according to Abraham Bojorquez, an El Alto hip-hop artist.
One night, as the sun sets over the nearby snowcapped mountains, I sit down with Bojorquez over a bag of coca leaves to talk about his music. We are at Wayna Tambo, a radio station, cultural center, and the unofficial base of the city's hip-hop scene. Bojorquez pulls a leaf out of the bag to chew and says, '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 to show 'the reality of what is happening in our country. Through our lyrics we criticize the bad politicians who take advantage of us.'
Bojorquez belongs to Wayna Rap, a hip-hop group in El Alto, a sprawling city above La Paz that is home to around 800,000 people. 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 integral to the group's philosophy and adds to their appeal in El Alto, where a large section of the population speaks Aymara. Though they collaborate with a wide variety of people, Bojorquez says, '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 life in the city. El Alto was the site of strife and bloodshed in Bolivia's Gas War, which revolved around control of the country's natural gas reserves, and many of these songs reflect that.
In Wayna Rap's music, Andean flutes and drums mesh with the beat. Lyrics grapple with weighty topics including street violence and homelessness in El Alto. One song deals with 'children living in the street, orphans of mothers and fathers and the violence that grows every day,' Bojorquez explains.
Below El Alto, in La Paz, another hip-hop movement is thriving. Sdenka Suxo Cadena, a hip-hop artist and college student, has been a part of the scene for over 10 years. I meet her at the home of Mujeres Creando (Women Creating), an anarchist feminist group.
Cadena started rapping in 1996, when she was in high school. 'I started doing it because I didn't like society's system-classism, materialism, elitism, ' she says. After hanging out with different hip-hop groups in La Paz and El Alto, she also decided she '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.'
They organized a weekly gathering of men and women from different areas of the city to perform hip-hop, break dance, and exchange styles. Cadena's music deals with such topics as Latin American unification, chauvinism, AIDS, race, women's issues, and nationalism. She knows politics are important, 'but for real change to happen, people have to change themselves,' she says.
Cadena hopes to open a place for hip-hop activities and recording music. 'Some kids need help editing music, recording,' she says. 'We help them get their message out.' One of their events is a CD exchange where artists can trade or buy discs.
Cadena believes hip-hop is 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,' she says. 'All you need is a pen and paper.' It is growing along with the current political changes all around Latin America, she adds: 'It's part of this regional protest movement.'
Back at Wayna Tambo, Bojorquez describes one of his most moving musical experiences. He had been invited to perform at the office of the Neighborhood Organizations (Fejuve) of El Alto, and he was nervous 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,' he says. '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.'
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of Toward Freedom, which offers a progressive perspective on world events, and the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, forthcoming from AK Press in March 2007. He is also working with Abraham Bojorquez on www.EvolucionHipHop.com, a website on Latin American hip-hop. Excerpted from Toward Freedom (Sept. 14, 2006); www.towardfreedom.com.