Afro-Colombian Hip-Hop: Using Transcultural Symbols to Build Identity

Natalie Tan – Singapore

visit this site Afro-Colombian hip-hop groups are trying to change the negative and overlooked image that “blackness” still has in Colombia by using and embracing symbols associated with the African diaspora and Afro-Colombian culture. They have consequently shown the world the role that that art can play in shaping the socio-political realities of marginalised groups.

where to buy propecia online forums “General characteristic, total happiness,
National and international invisibility
Auto-discrimination without reason
Imminent racism and plenty of corruption
War Machine
Displacement for interests of the land…”

These are song lyrics from Colombian hip-hop group ChocQuibTown, who, as one of Latin America’s most recognised bands, also function as ambassadors for Colombian music around the world. National identity in Colombia was built around the symbolic ideal of a “mestizo” (a person of combined European and Amerindian descent). ChocQuibTown chose, instead, to both use and embrace the folklore and attitudes of Afro-Colombians—a group of people who are typically associated with marginalisation and underdevelopment. Their artistic expression has changed the negative and oft-excluded image of  “blackness”, and as a result, has had an effect on the socio-political realities of Afro-Descendants around the world. The use of symbols associated with the Afro-Colombian community is at once part and reflective of a larger movement of Pan-Africanism in the Americas.

Embracing symbols related to the African diaspora comes as a response to a historical process of structural and cultural exclusion. In Latin America’s post-colonial states, projects of nation building gave political and economic continuity to criollo elites (i.e., locally born people with confirmed European descent), and, as a result, gave little participation and representation to other local groups, such as the black or indigenous minorities. As a consequence, these two groups of people were further entrenched at the bottom of the socio-economic structure. In many countries, including Colombia, there were governmental and societal attempts to theorise and valorise mestizaje, or whitening, by fixing the hierarchy of racialized identities around the notion of a mestizo, so that “blackness” as a distinct presence would be gradually eliminated from national identity. Today, despite being recognised as a multicultural and multi-ethnic nation under constitutional law, Colombian mainstream culture still dismisses Afro-Descendant structures as “primitive” and anachronistic to the extent that they are still associated with backwardness and exclusion. Government development models still disregard diversity, promote homogeneity, and perpetuate systematic violations of Afro-Descendant’s socio-cultural rights. In response, Afro-Colombian groups have embarked on a process of political resistance and affirmation of their identities. In many cases, they have done so through hip-hop.

Hip-hop, considering its accessibility and popularity, has allowed marginalised groups across cultures to put forward a progressive agenda that challenges the status quo. Artists have been able to construct identities using hip-hop cultural symbols such as videos, fashion, street vernacular, and local cultural and political landscapes. In Colombia, hip-hop has given many marginalised groups, that mostly comprise young people, the opportunity to speak about the issues they find most pressing. Indeed, Afro-Colombian artists like ChocQuibTown have adopted motifs from African American rap culture, fusing them with traditional Afro-Colombian rhythms like the cumbia and currulao. For instance, in the music video for the song “Somos Pacifico”, the use of symbols traditional to hip-hop is evident in the attire of the two male artists: they wear oversized t-shirts or basketball jerseys, bulky jeans, sneakers, chains and sunglasses. Nonetheless, they also use symbols pertinent to their own culture and traditions. The video displays people dancing and singing in traditional attire. There are images and references to religious traditions, particular foods, idioms, dances, and attitudes normally attributed to Afro-Colombians. These are intended to create a sense of community and pride in the experiences that are shared by the black population. By combining urban and traditional music, as well as their associated symbols, ChocQuibTown has garnered popular appeal, and, as a result, has gotten across their socially-conscious message. 

Moreover, ChocQuibTown’s lyrics bring attention to politically significant symbols by embracing them and giving them new meanings. For instance, in the songs “De Donde Vengo Yo” and “Somos Pacífico”, one can see an attempt to spread awareness about a culture that is often ignored.

“Where I come from,
Things are not easy, but we still survive,
Where I come from,
From struggling so much, we get away with it
Where I come from,
And here we speak badly but everything is much better…”

– De Donde Vengo Yo

“We are the Pacific,
We are united,
The region, the look, the race and the gift of sabor unite us
United forever, by the blood, the color
And even by land
Ethnic styles that can be seen in all of us,
our walking style
our hair and even our skin…”

-Somos Pacífico

Both songs create a sense of collective consciousness and shared spaces, that, in the eyes of the artists, should be embraced by Afro-Colombians. For instance, the way in which Afro-Descendants from the Pacific region of Colombia speak is typically used by others in mocking and derogatory fashion. Like hip-hop culture in other places, their taste for celebrations and parties is often characterised as loud and inappropriate. Everything, from the vernacular to the accent, the clothes and the dance, is embraced by the group, and, as a result, resignified as significant and positive, gaining recognition and cultural rights in an otherwise indifferent society.

Furthermore, there are attempts to draw connections to a larger African tradition.

“We are still here with the African heritage
Stronger than before
Bringing the legacy everywhere
In a constant manner
Expressing ourselves through the cultural
music, plastic arts and dance…”

-Somos Pacífico

ChocQuibTown, like many other Afro-Descendant movements, built their identity on a perceived and embraced continuity of shared cultural and racial identity of Black resistance. It has created a space for blackness as a symbol of shared history, strength, struggle and often beauty under multiple contexts. For instance, let’s consider Kendrick Lamar’s song ‘i’ on his latest album “To Pimp a Butterfly”. Towards the end of the song, he addresses the crowd and tackles the sensitive N-word, which has been used to historically discriminate and marginalise African Americans. Kendrick provides an explanation of the word NEGUS coming from Ethiopia.

“N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen
N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me…”

He has taken the word and transformed it into something positive that could bring together the African American community and potentially change external perceptions. In both cases, we see a strategy to resist and overcome a dominant culture by using and reworking “blackness” and African descent to embrace the relevance and communal identity of Afro-Descendants in a particular context.

The popularity of hip-hop in this globalised world has given marginalised groups everywhere a space to express their political views and attempt to transform their socio-economic reality. And while not exclusive to Afro-Colombians or any other group, hip-hop has given groups like ChocQuibTown the opportunity to resist and even change a dominant culture where “blackness” often has a negative connotation. Across nations in Latin America, Afro-Descendant groups are trying to change the social status of their communities within their respective societies. In a country where discrimination and marginalisation are still a reality, ChocQuibTown has opened a door to raise awareness about those issues, simultaneously embracing the beautiful and meaningful things that make Afro-Colombians unique and significant.