The Plurinational Republic of Bolivia

22 Oct, 2010 | Anna Hunter and Rishum Butt

If you’re like me, when someone mentions hip-hop your mind will be inundated with images of bling, fast cars, and jeans swinging super low with knees struggling to keep them from falling to the ground. Or perhaps you’ll think of Tupac Shakur, bandanas and gangs - granted, all valid associations. Now spin the record back a few centuries to the Colonial era, add some panpipes, and imagine yourself in a place where Túpac is the name given to an indigenous rebel leader, and not a best-selling, prison-dwelling East Coast MC. This is hip-hop, Bolivian style.

Just as a hip-hop subculture helped black Americans from every NY burrough to protest against social injustices and white supremacy in the 70s and 80s, young Bolivians are challenging cultural colonialism and the oppressive influence of Western capitalism by the means of rhythmic, defiant raps. Despite strong influence from U.S music imports and shared aesthetic ideals with their American counterparts (such as ill-fitting clothing), ‘Bolivia has its own battles to fight,’ shout the hip-hoperos from the Casa Wayna Tambo, the epicentre of hip-hop culture culture in La Paz.

‘Wayna Tambo’ roughly translates from the Aymara as ‘meeting place for youths’, and indeed its goals can be summarised as the unification of young people combined with the preservation of their indigenous heritage. Since 1995, Wayna Tambo has been a cultural epicenter for Alteño and Paceño youths. It is here that rap - in both Aymara and Spanish - has carved out a haven for itself and is one of the prime exports of the centre’s radio station and magazine. This very unique tutelage includes rapping workshops, studio time, hip-hop festivals, and interactive lectures about social and political issues affecting young people. This proactive program of urban culture promotion was spearheaded by the late Abraham Bojorquez, one of the most notorious figures in the Bolivian hip-hop scene to date and member of the El Alto based group ‘Ukamau y Ké’. Inspired by the rebellious raps that resounded from the overpopulated, poverty-stricken Brazilian slums of his youth, El Alto-born Bojorquez en- couraged a branch of particularly Bolivian hip-hop, initially bustin’ out rhymes in Spanish, Aymara, Quechua, Portuguese and even English in order to shake up the political, economical and cultural climate of his homeland. The addictive hooks and blunt, daring lyrics of Ukamau y Ké propelled the group to instant popularity among the younger generations, while the use of indigenous instruments, traditional dress and Aymara drove many older listeners to melancholy tears (eat your heart out, Vanilla Ice). Bojorquez even impressed President Evo Morales with his urban rhymes, and was invited to perform at a government event celebrating the construction of new homes in El Alto. Surprisingly (and perhaps even admirably), despite this gesture of approval from the country’s supremo, Bojorquez turned Morales down - opting instead to honour previous commitments with aspiring rappers in Cochabamba. This unerring commitment to the causes of his peers and Bolivia’s younger generations, partnered with his refusal to be at the beck and call of the government, is an attitude also echoed by Ukamau y Ké’s “Medios Mentirosos”, a biting denunciation of the political propaganda and apparent lies fed to the Bolivian public by its own media.

Tragically, Bojorquez died last year at the age of 26 after being hit by a bus on a dark El Alto street. However, his widespread appeal, catapulted by collaborations with artists such as Manu Chau and Dead Prez, fuelled by his sizable back-catalogue, and propelled by his commitment to the dispersion of Bolivian hip-hop (both inside and outside the country), has ensured that in Bolivia hip-hop is still very much alive today. And hip-hop doesn’t stop outside of La Paz and El Alto: record releases and anti-racism events have also taken place in Santa Cruz, Sucre and Tarija. This subculture can be seen, heard, worn and danced all over the continent, with Facebook groups and sites such as epicentrourbano. com promoting and showcasing rap, breakdance, music, cinema, graffiti and fashion - all with a hip-hop slant. These movements and collectives are living proof that young Latin-Americans in impoverished urban areas are capable of positive self-expression - a far cry from the stereotypical path of delinquency which the media often uses to stigmatise them. The Bolivian rap/hip-hop revolution is loud and clear: its MCs refuse to be silenced or censored, speaking out against the political game which continues to marginalise them, and discussing everything from AIDS and coca to machismo with their beat-driven lyrics. To give but one example, female hip-hop artists Sdenka Suxo Cadena and Carmen Rosa Alarcón Mamani construct their message around the egalitarian ideal that “we’re all human beings” in order to advocate gender quality and prove to young girls that they can carve their own paths. In this way (and countless others), young Bolivians seek to balance the artistic demands of taking part in popular culture movements sweeping the globe whilst honouring their commitments to their ancestral indigenous identity. Not to for- get they must constantly guard against the danger of letting their dreams be hijacked by the deceptive pursuit of an American dream. As Abraham himself declared: “We can’t – and don’t want to – talk about the same things as American rappers”. Through hip-hop, bolivianos are changing the record.


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