The Establishment, April 2016.
In the U.S. media, Central America and Mexico mostly appear as places overpowered by corruption and skyrocketing murder rates. Violence is a defining characteristic of life here, especially for young people—but so is creativity, and art.
The Establishment recently caught up with two hip-hop artists who use music to engage in a public conversation about the realities of life in their countries, and as a way to build community through shared experiences. Rebeca Lane from Guatemala and Nakury from Costa Rica were on tour in San Salvador. The tour is called Somos Guerreras (“We are Warriors”), and along with Rebeca and Nakury, it features two other young women rappers, Audry Funk from Mexico and La Voz Nativa from Costa Rica. Their collaboration is a celebration of music, justice, and identity.
I sat down with Rebeca and Nakury at a feminist community center for young women in San Salvador; they had just finished leading a workshop for a room full of spirited young activists who look to the artists as leaders—but the two made it clear they see them as peers. They were exhausted, kind, and relaxed, and eager to chat about the aesthetics and politics that drive their work.
Danielle Marie Mackey: Tell me the story behind one of your songs.
Nakury: “La Respuesta“ (“The Answer”) is a song that I wrote when I met a Salvadoran woman. She was the nurse for a family member of mine. She told me about the problems of the violence that people face here in El Salvador. The gangs tried to recruit one of her sons, and she had to flee. The way that she told me about it was very personal, and it touched me, and I found it painful.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the violences—social and individual, from micro to macro—and then I ended up writing this song, which is a bit of a catharsis. It’s my way of contributing in some way, or you could say it’s my way of being able to change a situation that hurts me. It also helped me reawaken my Central American sensibilities. At the end of the day, national borders are invisible, right?
Rebeca: I wrote the song “Reina del Caos” (“The Queen of Chaos”) last year in Guatemala, when there was a series of really powerful protests that had a huge impact on people. (The protests were sparked by a corruption scheme that involved the country’s top politicians, and led to even the president stepping down.) They didn’t change the political structure at all, but they were transformational for the people who participated in the protests. It was a historic moment for Guatemala because never before in history had there been protests on that massive scale.
[But in the end], the capacity to mobilize was there, but not the ability to analyze where the corruption came from. The accusations were against government officials but not against the private sector, the beneficiaries of the corruption. So people only got indignant. They saw the candidate who came out of nowhere—Jimmy Morales, who is a racist, sexist comedian—as a new face and decided to vote massively for him. When I saw the results, I had to understand that people have the ability to protest but don’t have historical memory, don’t have a political education, don’t have an ability to analyze beyond what the media wants us to know, and in the end everything is stuck in a light discourse. I wrote this song criticizing all of this stuff.
I use myself as the point of reference, because—yes, I do have a historical memory, I do have a political education, I do know what’s up—but I can’t present myself as better than others, because in the end this is my society. So the song is a bit of satire about myself, because, look, I can hardly govern myself.
Mackey: Tell us about the role of feminism and queer theory in your art.
Nakury: They help us build networks and to be self-sustainable. Within them, we can create the processes we need in order to liberate ourselves. This is also part of our own personal journeys and that’s why it’s in our music. We’ve come to these spaces because they’ve been healing for us. And we share that healing through our music and in our lyrics.
Mackey: Central America has some of the highest levels of feminicide and violence against women in the world. I’d imagine that being feminist rappers isn’t easy in that context. True?
Rebeca: Sometimes people think hip-hop is the most sexist space in the world, and that underestimates our culture, as if the rest of the world—academia, business, journalism—weren’t sexist. So, yes. It’s difficult. But it’s difficult just to be a woman. End of story.
I mean, if additionally you want to do something else with your life, it’ll be tough. So, the first thing is how to transcend the limitations of being a woman in a region like ours. If in addition to that you want to do something with your life, you’ll come up against the other violences that exist in those spaces too, and that’s not only in hip-hop. You have to almost prove why you should be allowed to be here. So that’s where Somos Guerreras comes from. Nakury and I have both survived violence. It’s so common, it happens to so many girls that you see it as part of normal daily life. So to be able to get out of those situations is to be a warrior. We realized that by using our bodies and our voices to bring people together and to share our experiences of healing, we can help other women also find healing.
Mackey: Who are your political inspirations?
Nakury: Nina Simone. She inspires me because she addressed topics that for some people weren’t the types of things you should talk about in music. It’s emotional, a little dark, a little crude. Her voice is thick, deep, full of pain and emotion; so for me, the way she transgresses the aesthetics of music and art is a political act. Because it’s a way of demonstrating that she’s a different type of woman. On stage she presented herself as a strong woman who faced suffering and she wanted to show that to people. She didn’t pretend that everything was rosy.
Rebeca: I just discovered her but she impacted me so much that my new album is written around her work: Gloria Anzaldúa. Last year I was on tour in California, where I found a latina, chicana, super-empowered community. I saw Los Angeles and the Mission in San Francisco as an extension of Latin America, with strong multiculturalism and politically mobilized people—young people interested in poetry, music, in the transformation of their communities, against police abuse in migrant communities. I mean, I saw a ton of empowerment.
That was good for me because I ended up finding myself with people like me, who’ve also transited through multiple identities, who, through language claim a political position in a place where speaking Spanish is resistance in itself. I saw that too in the indigenous people in Guatemala, for whom maintaining their language is a way to keep their culture in a context where their identity isn’t considered the valid one. So, there in San Francisco I bought the book ‘Borderlands.’ Reading it was like finding my own identity, because I’m from Guatemala, and I have both indigenous and non-indigenous blood. I recognize my ancestral wisdom, but also feel that shame for the last name “Temayac,” which is indigenous, and for the color of my skin in a society that aspires for whiteness.
And I’m a woman who grew up in globalization. (Anzaldúa) explains exactly that contradiction between not being from anywhere and being from border zones. So I liked the book because it was a way of facing this conflict—and of understanding that this conflict, without resolution, makes me who I am.
Mackey: Tell us about the connection between hip-hop and social change.
Nakury: It’s super direct. The main connection is sensitivity. Because in a society of everyday violence, you stop feeling things. You see the news, “they killed I-don’t-know-how-many,” and you don’t feel anything anymore. It’s a sensitivity that empowers you, that brings you self-awareness. It’s also a form of art that’s accessible for any social strata.
Mackey: What do you want people in the U.S. to know about Central America?
Rebeca: Who are “the people of the U.S.”? Because if you want me to talk to the government, I’d ask them to pick up their things and go home, because we’re tired of intervention in our region. I mean, they have us full of military bases, with plans like the Merida Initiative, molded after Plan Colombia. They have us dollarized, have basically imposed free trade agreements. In Guatemala, in 1954 they orchestrated a coup against the only transformative revolutionary government we’ve ever had. So now they show up with this new campaign to support human rights and justice for the women who were sex slaves for soldiers during the war and they’re helping investigate cases of wartime genocide. But the U.S. financed a huge part of that war. It gave military aid, technology, training.
Nakury: I’d ask the people to see themselves. Because the population of the U.S. is a migrant population, and it’s super diverse. And, consumerism. When I visited the U.S. I said to myself, “Wow, people here are really trapped in a cycle of consumption.” But it’s important to try to recognize ourselves in our own contexts, and this isn’t a matter of “us” vs. “them.” In the end we are a bunch of human beings who are living in a system that sees us as consumers, as tools to make money. We can break that barrier and connect with each other as human beings.