Straight Outta El Alto

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.

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