Whatever you happen to think of that peculiar phenomenon, Reggaeton, I would argue that it´s done some good things for Colombia. Not only does it give rhythmless gringos such as this humble blogger respite from their Salsa embarrassments during a club ¨crossover¨ night, but it´s also led to another, less obvious phenomenon.
Reggaeton´s mercurial rise has left Colombian hip-hop a little on the sidelines. A little marginal.
Let me explain. Anyone that takes a good look at me should know straight away that I´m a big hip-hop head. I mean, my appearance just screams rap. Being the massive fan I am, why would I be happy about the lack of prominence of Colombian hip-hop?
Let me explain before you condemn me. Although I think Kanye West´s new album is a troubling, brilliant, groundbreaking masterpiece, and that the flows of Jay-Z and Lil´ Wayne are something of a phenomenon, I do have some reservations regarding the messages these superstars are transmitting. Don´t get me wrong, the ¨bling bling¨ facet of hip-hop has always been there: even before Ice Cube was bragging about gold and pagers, Big Bank Hank was talking about all the sexy ladies with which he was going to drive off in his big OJ. However, as hip-hop has become the Rock ´n Roll of the new millenia in terms of popularity and reach, it seems to be going through the same things Rock did way back then; with popularity came lots of talk about sexy ladies and having lots of money. Fun, I suppose, but not the most stimulating subject matter, really.
Luckily (I´d say) for Colombian hip-hop, Reggaeton revels in such cutting-edge subject matter, leaving hip-hop free to address other issues. Being marginalised, people involved in hip-hop in this country really care about the craft, and use it as a serious and heart-felt method of connecting culturally – something that occurs all around the hip-hop world, but that can be kind of overwhelmed by all the talk of bitches and paper coming out of the mouths of superstars.
Hip-hop in Colombia, right from its start amongst Buenaventura stowaways (have a look at this movie, Resistencia, for more of that story), has been involved in cultural struggle. Hip-hop here, with such founding fathers as La Etnia or Asilo 38, took their inspiration from the gritty, grimy style of US hip-hop of the late 80s and early 90s; taking NWA´s lead of talking about their life in troubled urban neighbourhoods. Marginalised places outside of the major cities, such as the aforementioned Buenaventura, or Choco; as well as the poorer barrios of Bogota, Medellin and Cali; have always been the hip-hop hotspots here, and these guys rarely start out talking about Benzes or Louis Vuitton, for the simple fact that they generally don´t have them. You´re more likely to hear them rapping about politics, peace, and building communities.
If this sounds boring, it´s actually anything but. Rappers, like those of Medellin´s comunas (for example, the guys behind the 4 Elements School), risk their lives doing what they´re doing. Even today, with the great strides forward that Medellin and the country are making, there are people out there who get angry when people start telling underprivileged kids about building communities or professing peace as the way forward. In Colombia, hip-hop is no joke.
That´s why it´s so heartening to follow the rise of the favourite children of the beautiful, wet Choco, ChocQuib Town, a group that´s doing what the best hip-hop has always done: use local sounds and rhythms to talk about issues close to their hearts – but always in a way that will make you want to dance. These kids have plenty of party anthems, but they´re also looked up to in their community for the positive image and downright fun they project so freely and profusely. And, although they are indeed superstars in their own way, they still connect to their community, giving those that may be on the margins a possible way forward and up. A thang-shaking way, you must understand.
Feature Image of ChocQuib Town by Ernest.