For Colombia's Angry Youth, Hip-Hop Helps Keep It Real
By JUAN FORERO
BOGOTÁ, Colombia, April 7 - In the living room of their mother's modest cinderblock home, beneath the glare of two bare light bulbs, the Rodríguez brothers, Juan Emilio and Andrey, whirled into action, arms swinging, as they burst into a rap about Colombia's drug-fueled guerrilla war.
"Blood in the fields, colonized lands, invisible bonds of slavery, in the Amazon," they sang in rhyming Spanish in "Criminal Hands," a song about Washington's war on drugs.
In another, "Exodus," about the refugees who have fled Colombia's civil conflict, they say, "as the war advances, there's only a ticket out."
"The exodus continues, burden of the violence," they chant, "The war is uncertain, incomprehensible, absurd science."
Juan Emilio and Andrey, rappers in a threesome called Cescru Enlace, are hardly household names. But they have released two CD's, their first in 1999, and their politically charged songs are catching on among young Colombians.
Today rap is produced and heard virtually the world over, as young people nearly everywhere mimic the lyrical styles and fashion of America's hottest selling music. Rap has spread across the Spanish-speaking world, too, but in few other countries are rappers as political in their lyrics as they are in Colombia.
"They've become like poet reporters for their neighborhoods," said Ruth Kathryn Henry, who studied Colombian hip-hop as a Fulbright scholar. "They're speaking for the people around them who don't necessarily have a voice."
They have seized on rap to vent about a world filled with Marxist rebels, right-wing death squads, poverty and a greedy elite - the kind of material rappers elsewhere could only dream of.
"Here in Colombia, there is so much to say," said Kany, 33, the leader of one of Colombia's oldest rap groups, La Etnnia, which translates roughly as the Ethnics. "You go out and you find inspiration. You do not need to go out and make things up."
Though their style is sometimes comically imitative of American artists, Colombia's rappers take special pride in the authenticity of their adopted art, to the point of professing disdain for their more famous counterparts to the north, who they say have sold out to get big record deals.
"This is real rap, not fake," said Juan Emilio Rodríguez, Cescru Enlace's 30-something leader, who goes by the name 3X. "It is contrarian. It is political. It is not about cars and women. They do not do this in the U.S. anymore. We are doing it."
Rap has not quite reached the mainstream here but is part of a diverse Colombian music scene that has come to dominate in Latin America. Juanes, the mournful rocker, won five Latin Grammys last year. The music of Carlos Vives, known for its jubilant accordion-laced vallenato songs, is spreading across borders. And the swivel-hipped singer Shakira has become one of the most successful Latin American crossover artists in recent years.
But increasingly, rap is what young Colombians want to hear. What they see as hip-hop culture, with its baggy jeans and big jewelry, is high urban fashion. Rap has taken over at parties where salsa or boleros once ruled. Even major radio stations are offering hip-hop oriented shows.
"I like the rhythm, the beat, the boom, boom, boom," said Waira Zamora, 19, a university student. "I can listen to rap all night long."
The biggest sellers remain Americans, artists like 50 Cent and the group NWA. Some American rappers, like Eminem, have had phenomenal success here, selling even more albums than better-known stars of more traditional popular music, like cumbia.
Colombian hip-hop artists, whose music is frequently suffused with anger against their government or the United States, have so far ignored the big record labels and made their own CDs, selling them at neighborhood record shops or sprawling street markets. But the musical establishment is taking notice.
"This has been an underground movement for a while, and now it is surfacing," said María Isabel Ramírez, who markets rap in Colombia for Universal Records and is working on a compilation of 14 local rap groups.
A city-financed rap festival has blossomed, attracting thousands of fans. In Bogotá's colonial center, a group of rappers has even started a hip-hop cultural center, founded with the help of a European cultural group, which offers classes in music mixing, break dancing and spraying graffiti.
But rappers who have come out of neighborhoods like Las Cruces, a collection of ramshackle colonial homes, dark passageways and narrow streets near the presidential palace, learned on the streets.
The Pimienta brothers, rap lore has it, became the first rappers in Bogotá, in the 1980's, after hip-hop and American urban culture began to surface in Las Cruces, founding La Etnnia.
The possibility of telling lyrical stories about poverty-stricken lives made rap instantly popular with young people who felt they never had an outlet.
Kany, the leader of La Etnnia, said the group simply sings about the lives people lead. "We were in a ghetto and we started singing about what we saw happening," he said. "The streets are full of stories and we are like chroniclers."
Still, while the rappers here style themselves after American gangsta rappers, Colombian rap is more about braggadocio than bullets. Even the street poets of Cescru Enlace live like most Colombian young people - with their elders.
Andrey Rodríguez, 26, of Cescru Enlace, goes by the name Batalla, or Battle. He has the swagger, the big jeans and the skull cap, and his music reflects the violent, chaotic country in which he lives. But he still rubbed his grandmother's hair as he said goodbye after rehearsal on a recent day.
"You see things and you say to yourself, 'These are things I can sing about,' " he said. "We try to just keep the rap real, always keep it real."