Straight Outta El Alto

A revolutionary hip-hop scene emerges in Bolivia

| Utne Reader January / February 2007

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.'