“It was almost accidental,” says Bocafloja, on how he got into hiphop as a teenager in the 1990s.
“Whenever migrant workers returned from the U.S. they would bring back music,” explains the Mexico City-born hip hop artist, who now lives in New York City. Back then, home for many migrants was Ciudad Nezahuacoyotl, the informal settlement-turned-city that straddles the eastern edge of the Mexican capital. Bocafloja explains that Neza, as it is known, was “an enclave of immigration, and one of the early centers of hiphop in Mexico.” The connection wasn’t coincidental; hiphop taking root on Mexican soil had everything to do with migration.
In Neza, the traditional neighborhood markets, called tianguis, had a few vendors who specialized in pirated cassettes of hiphop artists like Ice Cube and NWA. Others recorded MTV Rap and BET off satellite television and sold the video tapes.
Bocafloja grew up in CTM Culhuacán, which at the time was one of the largest housing developments in Latin America. Built on farmland in the Coyoacan district in the 1970s, Bocafloja compares its blocks and blocks of low-slung apartment buildings to the U.S. projects. Coyoacan is also the ancestral home of Frida Kahlo, but Bocafloja grew up in the working class southeastern corner of the district, far from the cobble-stoned landmark carved out of the iconic artist's family estate.
“We didn’t have internet; we didn’t have social networks," Bocafloja recalls. "This was all happening by word of mouth and migration played a very key role.” Long since his start in the 1990s in Mexico City, at thirty-eight, Bocafloja—aka Aldo Villegas, just released his eighth album, Cumbé, in early June. Along the way he has written two books, Prognosis and Imarginación, produced a documentary, and started the art collective Quilomboarte. Recognized as one of the founding members of the Mexico City hiphop scene, he has focused most of his career on building musical ties across national borders, working with artists from the U.S., the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Europe.
He met with CultureStrike in New York to discuss his art and politics, shortly before his new album dropped.
Hiphop: Amplifying Resistance to hegemony
For Bocafloja and other early Mexican artists, hiphop was more than just a musical genre and served as a vehicle to understand and change their reality. The city's hiphop scene grew as youth bought the tapes and made copies for their friends. After buying an Ice Cube cassette, Bocafloja was hooked. He felt an immediate connection to the artists they first heard on mixtapes: Tribe Called Quest, Too $hort, and NWA among others.
The scene flowered in Neza, sometimes called Neza York by locals, along with the downtown neighborhoods of Obrera and Doctores and working class neighborhoods in the south-east of the city. CTM Culhuacán, downtown and Neza are all divided by miles of highways, subway lines and economically diverse neighborhoods, yet youth came together around their shared interest in hiphop.
Mexico City youth started rapping over the instrumental versions on the B-sides of their favorite rappers’ cassettes. Gradually they started organizing events. By the end of the 1990s, the first producers started making original beats for MCs to rap over, developing their own brand of cultural expression that spoke to their sense of marginalization. “The early scene was political," Bocafloja reflects. "Not at a discursive level, but in the sense that it was claiming space and representing our identities.”
As we talk in a café in Lower Manhattan, Bocafloja maintains a calm attitude in the early afternoon rush. I have to lean over the small table to catch his words, parsed out in a crisp, precise Spanish interspersed with English. In his early days in Mexico City he wore the typical hiphop style of t-shirts and jeans, but today he is more likely to use West African print shirts, or original merchandise designed by him or other members of Quilomboarte.
Bocafloja identifies as indigenous and afro-descendent, but as a young person, he says, he didn’t have the terms to define his identities. However, he says, “[i]t was always clear to me that consuming hiphop was bringing me closer to American culture, but that it wasn’t the hegemonic white culture of the U.S.”
Boca's music and that of a handful of contemporaries took a decidedly political turn in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Bocafloja, along with Akil Ammar and Skool 77, were among the early artists to rap about political issues in Mexico. Their style remained straight-forward—rapping over hiphop beats with occasional sampling, and simple videos uploaded online- but the lyrical content became more complex.
Spanish-language hiphop was becoming more commercially popular in the Americas, and Mexican music writer Feli Dávalos credits Calle 13 and the group's MC Residente with opening the genre to a broader audience in Mexico. However, Bocafloja and his contemporaries continued producing music independently and locally.
Bocafloja's political songs covered topics from his hometown of Mexico City in “Chilatown” (2003), feminicides in Ciudad Juárez in “Sueños Rotos” (2004) and the spoken word piece “Afortunadamente” (2003), a reflection about the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In Afortunadamente he raps in Spanish, “Is this really the most democratic country in the world? Sorry but I don’t buy it.” While critical of U.S. policy, he finishes saying, “Fortunately, many of its people don’t share this idea… …Fortunately soon there will be more of those who, now, are less.”
Quilomboarte: Decolonize, Self-Manage, Transgress, Emancipate
Bocafloja founded the Quilomboarte collective in 2005 “to do a kind of production that no one else was doing at that time.” The mission is to “Decolonize, Self-Manage, Trangress, Emancipate”. Its founding responded to the lack of support for more critical artists in Mexican musical production and provided an opportunity for artists to break with managers who did not encourage their creative process. The name refers to quilombos, the settlements that Africans who had escaped slavery, also known as palenques, formed in the Americas. The collective has always prioritized working with artists from the African diaspora and other marginalized identities, regardless of nationality, and brought some international artist, like Dead Prez, to perform in Mexico.
Many artists have come out of the collective over the years, including Mexican soul singer, Immasoul. Bocafloja says that they have also been among the few artists intentionally working on issues of gender in hiphop, particularly from the perspectives of women of color. “We define it as a musical conglomeration or an extended family,” he says.
CAMBIOWASHERE is a hiphop artist, photographer and film producer who has worked with Bocafloja consistently over the years. He is of Mexican descent and grew up in a migrant farmworker family, near Watsonville, California. His website explains, he's not “Not from the Bay or L.A” and his photography reflects the sparse desert landscape of the Central Valley of California where he is from. His hiphop includes G funk and soul samples.
Quilomboarte was in part a response to a turn in Mexican hiphop in the 2000s when artists and fans started turning towards the scene in Spain for inspiration. Spanish hiphop artists were invited to tour Mexico and young rappers began emulating them. Bocafloja says that he never felt affiliated with the movement.
“Disingenuously people thought that in Mexico we had more in common with hiphop made in Spain, just because of the language," he recalls. "But people weren’t considering the colonial relationship there.”
But when he was invited to perform in Madrid in 2011, he decided to take the chance to travel and get to know more artists. In his book, Prognosis, which collects poems and essays with Portland-based writer Sidony O’Neal, he reflects on his time in Spain. The Spanish MCs he met rapped about political issues, but he felt alienated by white, middle-class Spaniards espousing militant stances removed from lived experience.
“Miriam Makeba didn’t have to recite a political theory manifesto,” he writes, “because her smile alone was a painful maxim to structures of power.”
Today he works with artists from Spain and other European countries, but those who speak specifically to migrant or diasporic experiences. One of the featured artists is Lisbon-based, Mozambican-born rapper Mohammed Yahya, who raps about what it was like, “Knowing fully well that I would always be treated different, young, poor and black, raised up in Lisbon.”
Representative of his evolving sounds in the 2000s, Bocafloja’s 2007 hit “Autonomo” retains his earlier political critiques but over a soul-inspired beat. He takes on the complicated issue of Mexican-Americans coming to Mexico. He derides people who wear t-shirts of the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, but would be shocked to find out his mother was afro-descended, challenging their ideas of Mexican heritage.
He describes visitors who, “take a few pictures, drink two tequilas and go home happy, believing they have graduated from the Zapatista school.” He continues, “Take back your imperialist vision, save the progressive costume.”
Vocal Diaspora in Mexico City and New York
Bocafloja recently relocated to New York from Mexico City, finding it more feasible to support himself through presentations at universities and his music in the US, than he could in Mexico. He is a frequent speaker at universities across the country. It was migration that connected him to hiphop in the first place, so he points out there is no contradiction in deciding to migrate himself; “It’s a part of human existence.”
“When I migrated, my body took on new meanings," he says. "It gave me a chance to understand myself and know myself which Mexico had denied me.”
Cumbé marks Bocafloja’s first album since 2012, but since relocating in 2008, he has published the book Prognosis with Sidony O’Neal and produced the documentary Nana Dijo with CAMBIOWASHERE.
In the four years since his last album, Patalogías del Invisible Incómodo, his sound has matured and become more accessible for international audiences. The voices of the diaspora are ever-present, not just as a political stance, but a source of pride and celebration. On Emir, he raps, “Never forget who you are, your possessions. You carry the skin of the Atlantic and its thousand islands, you carry the oldest diaspora. Don’t be ashamed, we dance even in the face of scarcity...”
While his rhymes are still conceptually dense, soul and disco-inspired bridges and choruses keep the tracks upbeat and rhythmic. Tracks such as “Espiral,” which features Detroit rapper Awkward Theory, are more strictly hiphop, while on “Contrabalanza,” Bocafloja's verses take a backseat to the electronic beat and jazz instrumentals.
While Bocafloja’s lyrics remain political on Cumbé, which means celebration in Yuruba, which aimed to be both thought-provoking and danceable.
Now on tour with his new album, Bocafloja is performing for audiences scattered across the Americas and Western Europe—from Brussles, Belgium to Placencia, Belize.. But he somehow makes himself at home wherever his audience is. At a small spoken word event in Manhattan in May, he performed a few poems in English and closed with a rap in Spanish. While his work in New York today is decades removed from his start in Mexico City, he reminds the audience, “My name is Boca. …and whether here or there, I continue to challenge this society’s machinery.”
--July 21, 2016