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Rapping in Aymara

At 13,000 feet, the hip hop movement in El Alto, Bolivia is probably the highest in the world. The music blends ancient Andean folk styles and new hip hop beats with lyrics about revolution and social change.

As the sun set over the nearby snow capped mountains, I sat down with Abraham Bojorquez, a well-known El Alto hip hop artist. We opened a bag of coca leaves and began to talk about what he calls a new “instrument of struggle.”

We were at Wayna Tambo, a radio station, cultural center and unofficial base of the city’s hip hop scene. Bojorquez pulled a leaf out of the bag and said, “We want to preserve our culture through our music. With hip hop, we’re always looking back to our indigenous ancestors, the Aymaras, Quechuas, Guarani.”

He works with other hip hop artists in El Alto to show “the reality of what is happening in our country. Through our lyrics we criticize the bad politicians that take advantage of us. With this style of hip hop, we’re an instrument of struggle, an instrument of the people.”

Bojorquez belongs to a group of rappers in El Alto, a sprawling city above La Paz which is home to around 800,000 people. His group and music is called Wayna Rap (Wayna means young in Aymara). Under the umbrella of Wayna Rap are smaller bands like Insane Race, Uka Mau y Ke, Clandestine Race and others. They often get together in freestyle events, where different singers take turns at the mike.

“We try to show the true reality of what is happening in the country, not hide it.” Abraham Bojorquez, a well-known El Alto hip hop artist

Some of their songs are completely in Aymara, an indigenous language. Others include a mixture of Spanish, English, Quechua and Portuguese. This fusion of languages is an integral part of the group’s philosophy, and adds to their appeal in El Alto, where a large section of the population speaks Aymara.

“The door is open to everyone. … This is our proposal for how to change society,” Bojorquez said. Though they collaborate with a wide variety of people, “we don’t just sing things like ‘I’m feeling bad, my girlfriend just left me and now I am going to get drunk.’ It’s more about trying to solve problems in society.” The social and political themes in the music come from the city’s reality. The death and conflicts in the 2003 Gas War made a huge impact on El Alto, and many of the songs reflect that.

One song, which Bojorquez made in his own group, Uka Mau y Ke, deals with the October 2003 mobilizations in El Alto against the gas exportation plan and President Sanchez de Lozada.

In the song, “we speak about how bullets are being shot at the people and how we can’t put up with this because the people are reclaiming their rights.” It starts out with the president saying he won’t resign. His voice is ominous, gruff and peppered with an unmistakable U.S. English accent: “Yo no voy a renunciar. Yo no voy a renunciar.” The sounds of street clashes in the song become louder. The roar of machine guns and helicopters come and go until the beat and lyrics begin.

“We are mobilized, arming street barricades. We are mobilized without noticing that we are killing between brothers.” Another singer comes in, rapping about the “corrupt governments. … with closed eyes that don’t look at the reality in the society. Many people are ending up in poverty and delinquency, which is why they demand justice.”

The song goes on to call Sanchez de Lozada a traitor and assassin. They demand his head, along with that of Carlos Mesa, the vice president. The music fuses with a testimony from a woman whose family member was shot by soldiers. The lyrics kick back in, “We hear over there that there are dead: 80 citizens, five police and mass of people gravely injured. We’re in a situation worse than war, killing each other, without a solution.”

In many of Bojorquez’s songs, Andean flutes and drums mesh with the beat. This aspect, along with the indigenous language, sets the music apart from standard hip hop. The topics covered are also distinct. In one song, they grapple with street violence and homelessness in El Alto. It deals with “children living in the street, orphans of mothers and fathers and the violence that grows every day. The lack of work, all of these things,” Bojorquez explained. “We try to show the true reality of what is happening in the country, not hide it.”

One of the most moving experiences Bojorquez said he’s had within his musical career came when he was invited to perform at the office of the Neighborhood Organizations (Fejuve) of El Alto. He was nervous at first because the place was full of older people. His music is directed more toward a younger audience. After the first song, people clapped weakly. “Then we sang in Aymara and people became very emotional, crying. This was a very happy event for us. It made us think that what we are doing isn’t in vain, that it can make an impact on people.”

The title of a recent CD of his is “Instrument of Struggle,” referring to his musical philosophy. “More than anything our music is a form of protest, but with proposals. We unite, we organize. We look for unity, not division. We want to open the eyes of people with closed eyes. … The music is a part of life.”

Benjamin Dangl is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press) He is the editor of, a progressive perspective on world events, and, a Web site on activism and politics in Latin America.