Meet the Indigenous artists rapping for change in Colombia

Meet the Indigenous artists rapping for change in Colombia

Bogota, Colombia – Under the sweltering Andean sun, Walter Queragama walked several kilometres late last month from Ciudad Bolivar, a poor neighbourhood in the south of the Colombian capital, to Bogota’s National Park.

There, he and hundreds of Indigenous Embera people, displaced from their homes amid a coronavirus-related economic crisis and forced from their traditional lands by continuing violence, planned to camp out to demand housing and jobs.

As government subsidies offered as part of a COVID-19 relief package run out, the families – many of whom held infants in their arms – said they have nowhere to go.

“Today, we’re going to rest,” Queragama, a 21-year-old rapper from Alto Andagueda in northwest Colombia, sang in his native Ebera Bedea language, as the crowd walked to the downtown park on September 29, drops of perspiration forming on his face. “Today, we aren’t going to dialogue [with the government] because we’re too tired.”

Queragama and his 23-year-old brother Gonzalo, co-creators of the rap group Embera Warra, or “Sons of the People”, said the displacement and resistance of the Embera people serve as inspiration for their art – and rap is the way they have chosen to tell their community’s stories.

“We have many stories – of history, of culture, of displacement,” Walter recently told Al Jazeera at the makeshift campsite where hundreds have set up tents and cooked outdoors over campfires. “We have to tell all these stories and send a message.”

Violence-fuelled displacement

A 2016 peace deal between Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels and the Colombian government promised to end 52 years of conflict, but many Indigenous communities including the Embera have yet to experience peace.

The Embera people, divided between Colombia and Panama, live in remote riverside and mountain communities across the Pacific coast and the jungles of northwestern Colombia. About 50,000 people belonging to the Embera tribe, which consists of Chami, Katio, Dobida and Eperara Siapidara people, are at risk of extinction, according to a high court decision in 2009.

Thousands have been uprooted by continuing violence between the state and paramilitary groups and rebel fighters and forced to live in cities where food, housing, and employment are hard to find. The government has said more than 2,500 have resettled in Bogota since 2012.

But as the conflict lingers, and as Colombia experienced one of its most violent years in recent memory in 2020, hundreds more are expected to arrive.

“Displacement has wreaked havoc for the spiritual and cultural lives of our youth,” said Higinio Obispo, a leader of the Eperara Siapidara people, part of the Embera tribe. “These youth want to manifest what publicly goes unsaid. They’ve found they can do this through music.”

One of the first to use rap was Linaje Originarios, a duo of brothers Brayan and Dairon Tascon from an Indigenous community in Valparaiso. They released their first single in 2016. Condor Pasa became a surprise hit, receiving tens of thousands of views on YouTube and launching them to stardom.

It also set a precedent in the country, demonstrating that music based on Embera teachings and performed in the community’s native dialect could also be commercially popular.

‘Get to know our experiences’

The Queragama brothers have followed in their footsteps, while also expanding the boundaries of rap storytelling in Embera. Their music dives into aspects of their culture, but mostly focuses on their experiences as youth displaced by the armed conflict.

Last year, they released the song, Displaced, while sleeping in tents in downtown Bogota. About 300 families slept outdoors for four months while they waited for government aid. Women who made a living selling beaded jewellery in the streets had been forced indoors by the COVID-19 quarantine, and without an income, entire families were evicted from their homes.

Although some returned to their ancestral lands, many, including Walter and Gonzalo, said clashes between the National Liberation Army (ELN) – Colombia’s largest remaining armed group – and the military have continued to put their towns in danger.

The government of President Ivan Duque deployed extra security forces this year to sites of high displacement and offered security guarantees for Embera community members to return to their traditional lands. The federal government offered general aid to Colombians during the pandemic, as well as specific housing support to displaced Embera people.

But many Embera have said that they are afraid to return to their communities, and in the meantime, the Bogota mayor’s office is offering temporary housing and grocery assistance to those who remain in the city.

“The government doesn’t care about us, Indigenous people, while we are in our territory,” the Queragama brothers rap in, Displaced. “That’s one of the reasons for our displacement.”

These realities have often gone under-reported, added Gonzalo, which can be frustrating for Embera youth who seek representation in the media and support from their compatriots. “We rap so that Colombians, our country, can get to know our experiences, how we live, so that they can support us and help us improve our conditions,” said Gonzalo.

Women take the mic

Meanwhile, Embera women have rarely been heard in rap songs, but that is slowly changing.

Gloria Patricia Ahise, a 23-year-old rapper known as Wera Fono, signed with the Selva Records label this year after releasing the song, Michi, which advocates against gender-based violence both within Embera communities and society at large.

“I want people to know that abuse is not OK,” Ahise told Al Jazeera in an interview at an unfinished brick building in Bogota where she rents a room with her husband and her three-year-old daughter.

Ahise was displaced at three months old when armed groups killed her grandfather in Risaralda province, west of the capital, where she was born. Since then, she has lived in what are called “pagadiarios”, communal living spaces in city peripheries where residents make daily rent payments.

Ahise, who arrived in Bogota as a newborn, says she hopes her music will inspire other Embera women [Andres Buitrago/Al Jazeera]

“There you see a lot of abuse,” said Ahise. “Embera couples come to Bogota to scrape a living and flee the violence in their territory, but on top of that, the husband is also abusing his wife.”

As the first woman to rap in Embera, Ahise – who pairs her vibrant beaded necklaces and traditional dress with Nike Air Force 1 sneakers – had no female role models to rely on. But despite the challenge that created, she regularly practised her flow in hopes of inspiring others.

“It’s a bit hard to rap. It takes a lot of patience to combine the music with the lyrics and to sing quickly,” she said. “But mostly, I want other Embera people to see me and think, ‘I can do it, too.’”

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