Mexico’s Indigenous rappers find rare spotlight – on Wakanda soundtrack

Mexico’s Indigenous rappers find rare spotlight – on Wakanda soundtrack

A new generation of Mexico’s Indigenous musicians like Pat Boy are using rap to combat prejudice, revive ancient languages and reignite pride.

Indigenous rapper Pat Boy in Mexico in 2019. Photograph: Agencia EFE/Handout

The journey from a quiet Mexican village to being billed on the soundtrack of an Oscar-nominated film has been an epic one for Indigenous rapper Pat Boy.

Born Jesús Pat Chablé, Pat Boy grew up speaking only Mayan until he started primary school; his parents still speak no Spanish.

And like many of Mexico’s 23 million Indigenous people, he has often encountered discrimination.

“People would comment on the videos or on the street, or when you’re on stage,” said Pat Boy in a phone interview.

In a country where Indigenous cultures are often revered in museums but otherwise disparaged, such attitudes are widespread: according to a 2017 government survey, nearly a quarter of Indigenous people over 12 said they had experienced discrimination in the last five years.

But now a new generation of musicians like Pat Boy are using rap as a way of combatting prejudice, reviving ancient languages that are in steady decline, and reigniting a sense of pride among young people in being part of a centuries-old culture.

“Through music, I started researching more about the Maya, and I began to see great things: philosophies, traditions, culture,” Pat Boy said. “I wanted to share that information that I learned to new generations through music.”

Recently, Pat Boy’s music, and Indigenous rap more widely, have reached a global audience through the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

The comic book movie, which features an army of Mayan warriors, includes a number of contemporary Indigenous rappers like Pat Boy on its soundtrack, as well as a title song by Rihanna which received an Oscar nod this week.

“We wanted to create a complete immersive sound world where songs and scores are part of the same DNA,” said Ludwig Göransson, the film’s composer, who found Pat Boy via an Instagram search.

“It’s just really cool to see something like that,” said Göransson, “the Mayan sound, the Mayan language, or an Indigenous rapper from Mexico, hearing that in the scale of this movie.”

But despite the American film’s worldwide success, such a spotlight on Indigenous culture remains rare: of the more than 250 films produced in Mexico last year, not even 12% were centered on Indigenous or Afro-Mexican characters and storylines.

And along with this lack of representation is widespread racism in daily life: according to the same 2017 government survey, three-quarters of people aged 12 and up said that Indigenous people were valued little by the majority of the population.

“In books they admire us, on the street they push us aside,” said Juan Manuel Martínez Hernández, a rapper from Veracruz state in eastern Mexico who goes by El Kampezino.

Martínez’s own parents refused to teach him Nahuatlhe said, fearing he would face the same discrimination they did, something which is also common among Indigenous families.

Mare Advertencia Lirika, another Indigenous rapper featured on the Wakanda soundtrack, said her grandmother was the last person in her family who fluently spoke Zapotec: after moving from her rural community to Oaxaca city, speaking Spanish was the only way to succeed.

“We didn’t inherit the language,” she said.

Mare Advertencia Lirika. Photograph: Handout

That kind of cultural erasure is common when Indigenous people are forced to leave their communities and migrate to cities as a result of violence or poverty.

“If they want to function in the city, they’re basically forced to abandon many of their traditions,” Advertencia said. “They start to have to assimilate.”

As a result of these processes, the dozens of Indigenous languages spoken in Mexico are slowly dying out. Between 1930 and 2015, the percentage of Mexicans aged five and over who spoke an Indigenous language more than halved, according to government figures.

Martínez picked up a few Nahuatl words from his relatives, but it was only when he began working in the fields with other Nahuatl speakers that he began to really learn. And after discovering Mexican rap groups like Control Machete, he began rapping himself.

“Writing in my own language filled me with satisfaction,” Martínez said.

Given the importance of oral tradition to Indigenous cultures, rap in some ways is an ideal fit, according to Josep Cru, a Spanish lecturer at Newcastle University who has studied Indigenous rap in Mexico.

“Orality is the main channel to transmit knowledge, ancestral wisdom,” not unlike rap, “which has verbal skills as something fundamental”, he said.

For Indigenous rappers like Martínez, rap is a way of making these languages more relevant to a younger audience.

“My idea was to rescue our culture,” he said, “and make sure that our language isn’t lost.”

And beyond its linguistic importance, rap music, with its roots in Black youth culture of the 1970s, has also become a means of political expression, highlighting the discrimination that Indigenous people face.

“There’s this connection with the origins of political rap in the United States, in the Bronx, as a weapon of social protest,” said Cru.

For Advertencia, who only raps in Spanish, this political element has been fundamental to her music, particularly growing up in Oaxaca which has a long tradition of protest.

“It was a tool to question reality, where I could express my voice.”

Pat Boy’s rap tends to be less overtly political, but perhaps his greatest influence has been leading by example.

“Young people see that they can create, that they can become artists,” said Cru.

In 2016 Pat Boy founded his own production house, ADN Maya Productions, to help other young Indigenous rappers break into the industry. So far they have produced three albums, and are on their way to a fourth.

More recently, he launched a collective of young musicians called ADN Maya Colectivo, several of whom came together to record a song for the Wakanda Forever soundtrack last year.

“We started to talk about resistance,” said Pat Boy of the rap on the soundtrack, “about the Mayan people and about the resistance of the language.”

After they finished recording, life went back to normal, as the movie wrapped up production. Then in November the soundtrack was released, billing Pat Boy and his team alongside artists like Rihanna and the Nigerian singer Tems.

“It was very emotional, seeing our Mayan name among all those artists,” Pat Boy said.

Since then, his profile has exploded, with the rapper appearing in several local and international newspapers.

As for Indigenous rap in general, he said he’s unsure how long its popularity will last. In the decade he’s been working, he has witnessed many ups and downs. But there is one significant change he has witnessed among his peers.

“A lot of people feel proud,” he said. “They don’t feel so ashamed to say, ‘I’m of Mayan blood.’”

Original article by Oscar López at The Guardian

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