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    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.

    Published on Jan 1, 2007

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