Latina rappers make their voices heard


Ana Tijoux is not your average rapper.

On “1977,” the lush title track off her new album, she raps about her life so far, from childhood in exile and rebellious adolescence to maturity as a young woman. But her rhymes don’t rhyme. The words don’t bounce off each other with the expected repetition of most commercial fare.

Instead, Tijoux’s lyrics boast an internal logic of their own. Breathlessly, she raps, manipulating syllables, exploring the beauty of the Spanish language — a staccato rhythm here, an unusual metaphor there. The result is a new sound in the burgeoning genre of Latin rap. Even Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has paid notice. Recently, he listed “1977” among his current faves on his band’s website.

2010 is shaping up to be a transformative year for the Latina rapper. As Latin music continues to mutate and evolve in new directions, three noteworthy recent albums have a female MC at the core of their sonic DNA. There’s Tijoux, who was born in France to parents from Chile and currently resides in Santiago, and two groups from Colombia: Bomba Estéreo and Chocquibtown. All three albums are on Nacional Records, a Los Angeles-based label that specializes in the Latin Alternative market.

Rapping came naturally to Tijoux. In the late ‘90s, she was the female MC with pioneering Chilean hip-hop group Makiza. She went solo in 2006, and continued to develop a unique flow.

“There isn’t a logic or theory to what I do,” Tijoux explains from her home in Santiago, where she spends much of the day taking care of her young son. “I taught myself how to rap — and eventually reached a fortuitous moment when I discovered my own style, or signature.”

Tijoux’s take on her artistry is as complex and contradictory as her rapping.

On “Crisis de un MC,” from “1977”, she describes in painstaking detail the insecurities of a musician — or any artist, really. The contradiction between her natural shyness, her desire to isolate herself from the world, versus her need to make art with words and expose her soul onstage.

“I’m faced with an inner contradiction that is nothing short of explosive,” Tijoux says. “When you’re onstage, there are all these euphoric people at the venue, and for a moment, you wish that you could be at home. Interacting with an audience is a beautiful thing to do, but there’s also a violence to it. When I started doing photo shoots, I would panic and sweat profusely.... No one told me that it was part of the job. Slowly, you learn how to deal with your insecurities.”

Chocquibtown follows a musical path that was pioneered in the late ‘90s by Cuba’s Orishas: party-friendly hip-hop with a distinct Afro-Caribbean zest. With their feel-good call-and-response choruses, songs like “De Donde Vengo Yo” and “Somos Pacífico,” included in Chocquibtown’s debut “Oro,” are all about celebrating Colombia’s cultural heritage without dwelling on the country’s painful realities (for example: “todo el mundo quiere irse de aquí, pero nadie lo ha logrado” — everyone wants to leave this place, but no one has managed to do it.)

The trio of Miguel “Slow” Martínez, Carlos “Tostao” Valencia and Gloria “Goyo” Martínez hail from Chocó — one of the country’s poorest provinces, marked by its large Afro-Colombian population. Goyo’s uncle is Jairo Varela — legendary leader and composer with salsa supergroup Grupo Niche. The influence of tropical music on Goyo cannot be underestimated; at times, the swing in her voice suggests the invisible presence of famous cumbia divas like Leonor González Mina or Totó la Momposina.

“I grew up in the town of Condoto, next to a river, surrounded by music,” says Goyo, during a break from an extensive European tour. “My father was a record collector. He had a music room, devoid of light or furniture. Its only luxury was a huge LP collection: Michael Jackson, El Gran Combo, Marvin Gaye. No one could have imagined that there was music from all over the world in that little room in Condoto. And yet, his collection gave me a broad panorama of sounds. It made me the performer that I am today.”

Colombia’s other powerhouse female MC is Liliana Saumet, vocalist with Bogota’s Bomba Estéreo.

The group began as an instrumental outfit, mixing cumbia with electronica and a strong dash of psychedelia — much like Richard Blair’s Sidestepper, founder of the electro-cumbia school of thought.

Alternating between rapping and singing, Saumet injected a reckless sexual intensity that permeates “Blow Up,” the band’s U.S. debut. Bomba’s bouncy radio anthem, “Fuego,” is all about fire and adrenaline. On “Cosita Rica,” she describes in detail a night of clubbing and ferocious lovemaking.

“People often see my lyrics as daring, or sexual,” says Saumet, who is articulate and polite, almost soft-spoken. “I grew up in the Atlantic coast of Colombia, where language is meant to be sensuous. People are warm. There’s the beach, of course — the sweating, the ocean breeze touching your skin.”

Goyo and Saumet come from different backgrounds within the same vast nation. And yet, both were raised to the sounds of the shimmering tropical hits that define a big part of Colombia’s cultural identity.

“My mom’s favorite artist was [Afro-Caribbean singer-songwriter] Joe Arroyo,” offers Saumet. “I grew up singing his songs. There are a lot of outside influences in his music. The ships that arrived to the Colombian coast in the ‘60s and ‘70s brought records of funk and African music. The local sound systems would play them, and people like Joe would assimilate those influences.”

Similarly, it is the collision of cultures that makes the music of Tijoux, Bomba Estéreo and Chocquibtown so intriguing. In the end, the voice of a female MC is just one of many elements that separates these bright new hopes from the competition.

“Women have always played a big part in Latin rap,” says Juan Data, a San Francisco-based DJ who has been writing about the genre since the ‘90s. “I can’t really explain why that is, but compared to American rap, the Latina MCs occupy a place of honor in this music. I guess that in a scene as macho as rap, a woman who establishes a strong presence of her own will always enjoy an extra bit of respect.”