Hip-hop Kichwa: Sounds of indigenous modernity

Kichwa hip-hop dethrones the imagery of indigenous peoples as living in rural communities isolated from modernity.

Los Nin - Hip hop band from Ecuador [credit: Los Nin]
Los Nin blend Spanish hip-hop with Kichwa, the Incan pre-Columbian language [Photo: Los Nin]

Quito, Ecuador
– French people like hip-hop. So much so that socialist candidate Francois Hollande used Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Niggas in Paris” as the soundtrack to give some pizazz to one of his electoral campaign videos. It was probably a good shot at expressing ideas of change. Hip-hop is, after all, the global language of the youth. But it is also one of the languages of alternative politics, in the streets and against the state. Inevitably, then there is an un-bridgeable gap between Hollande’s electoral use of rap for his campaign and Medine rapping the ineffectiveness of human rights for black men and women in France.

Hip-hop emerged as the voice of the excluded, and as mainstreamed and commercialised as it has become, its essence can hardly be appropriated by those who represent the official politics of the state. Hip-hop talks to power from the streets, claiming self-empowerment, denouncing racial injustice and seeking economic equality.

It’s ok for politicians to try to establish bridges with electoral audiences through hip-hop. Much more powerful, however, is the appropriation of hip-hop among those trying to speak to power from Morocco to Kenya. As rap acquired beats and rhymes of its own across Latin America, indigenous groups started to rap in their ancestral languages. Los Nin, from Ecuador, have even brought their Kichwa hip-hop to Paris.

You know hip-hop has become a universal language when indigenous peoples from the Andes use art forms developed by African-Americans in the south Bronx to contest power structures in Paris. It’s not only that indigenous hip-hop represents the cosmopolitan, pop face of ancestral cultures. It is that hip-hop has become a tool to sing other worlds into existence, contributing alternative imaginaries in the pursuit for more, better democracies.

Los Nin in Paris

The Ecuadorian band Los Nin raps blending Spanish with Kichwa, the pre-Columbian language spoken during the Inca Empire. Their hip-hop has brought Los Nin international recognition. They have performed in the United States, Latin America and Europe. After Chicago and New York, Los Nin gathered crowds in Barcelona with their show Shinallami-Kanchik. They performed at Les Trois Baudets in Paris, the famous venue where musical icons such as George Brassens and Jacques Brel acquired celebrity status decades ago. 

“On stage Los Nin blend languages and native musical instruments like the Andean flute with more electric sounds.” 

When they are not on an international tour, one may see Los Nin rapping among young crowds of Quito’s indigenous bar – Cactus. The scene is the same as it would be in the Bronx, with students of communication and medicine gathering in a small venue to dance and collectively freestyle on the mic, except here the audience is a multilingual, multiethnic crowd, blending urban fashion with traditional attires.

Los Nin emerged in 2008. Originally from the town of Otavalo, in the northern highlands of Ecuador, their goal was to revive Kichwa through pop culture. The Kichwa verb “nin” means “to say”. The young vocalists admit they had to re-learn the language of their parents to put it into songs. On stage, they blend languages and native musical instruments such as the Andean flute with more electric sounds. They also juxtapose cultural references, combining men’s traditional long hair with the street fashion from NYC.

The musical repertoire is culturally diverse and inevitably rebellious. Lyrics discuss daily life, identity, discrimination and myriad other societal problems. “Identity” tackles cultural discrimination boys face for keeping their long hair and “20 balas” insists manhood is not achieved through violence or gunshots. Some songs celebrate the power of ancestry while others engage in the active defence of women rights over their bodies.

Other groups are also rapping in ancestral languages, facing different levels of acceptance. The Brazilian group Brô MCs was featured on national TV rapping in a mix of Guaraní and Portuguese, but was subsequently attacked on social media networks. Brazil’s public ministry is investigating charges of racial aggression, yet the incident shows how necessary it is to make indigenous perspectives visible.

Sounds of emancipation

As Los Nin gain international recognition, they are challenging assumptions of what it means to be indigenous. “What are you thinking?” asks one of their songs. It turns out one can be indigenous and rap, be at once cosmopolitan and native from Otavalo, revitalise ancestral cultures while living in urban environments.

Kichwa hip-hop dethrones the imagery of indigenous peoples as living in rural communities isolated from modernity – without electricity or laptops. Indigenous rap breaks such misconceptions by positing indigenous youth at the core of global, urban practices. Indigenous youths can be engineers and emcees, simultaneously urban and transnational. Indeed, while Los Nin studied at an elite, private university, the concentration of Mapuche populations in Chilean cities suggests the consolidation of urban indigeneities.

Los Nin develop as much as they transcend the concept of being indigenous. Hip-hop is the language of the subalterns. It is the art of resistance and contestation, it fuels the imagination to create a vision another possible world. By engaging them, Los Nin are locating indigenous youth in the realm of cosmopolitan political contestat, breaking assumptions of cultural isolation as much as political passivity. They claim an identity interwoven in global dynamics, fluidly evolving to the beats of pop culture, markets and international politics.

The group echoes the sound of larger struggles for self-determination. Their name itself is a reference to the silencing of indigenous peoples. They want to keep on saying what others have been saying for generations before them. Their message is one of unity beyond borders, of strength and rebellion in the continuous fight against poverty and injustice.

‘Lost in translation’

The ramifications of rapping in ancestral languages go well beyond musical aesthetics or multicultural practices. It opens up alternative ways of seeing the world. It is empowering that indigenous youth sing their own realities in a language of their own. Even more transformative is that language allows them – and their public – to conceptualise things differently. 

“Kichwa grammar and vocabulary opens spaces for new imaginaries, concepts and even relationships.”

Ideas are never fully translatable from one language to the other because words are incommensurable and are embedded in cultural contexts and philosophical values. Thus the expression “lost in translation”. German philosophers could think in unique ways through the abstract nature of their language and Portuguese-speakers are able to feel saudade in a way no other language can grasp.

Kichwa grammar and vocabulary opens spaces for new imaginaries, concepts and even relationships. There is no gender in Kichwa grammar, for instance, nor is there a difference between object and subject, key grammatical components in Romance languages that enable the dichotomies man/woman and man/nature respectively. The word “pacha” reveals the extent to which time and space intertwine, and the structure of sentences escapes the propositional attitudes organised around the self, the “I” that in English defines relations between people and their surroundings.

Language shapes the collective imagination. It shapes the way we inhabit our world. To rap in Kichwa unlocks the intellectual subordination to the Spanish language to enable a Kichwa imagination to free itself from western philosophy. Indigenous languages that are reduced to use in private spheres die slowly. The philosophies they encompass will fully blossom only if engaged in public realms, contributing new grammars to political debates. Hip-hop is a tool to strengthen the public use of such indigenous grammars.

When hip-hop goes Kichwa, indigenous ways of inhabiting the world become imaginable. More and different worlds interact to shape the future. Hollande made use of hip-hop, but politicians should not forget that the crowds in the streets, even those celebrating the French presidential election at the Bastille, are also resisting the very structures of power inequalities they represent.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.