Hip-Hop Lives on in Venezuela

It is 7:00 on a Wednesday evening in Caracas’s southern barrio known as La Vega. In a small classroom lined with worn-out wooden desks, youth of all ages sit and listen to a local DJ talk about the historical roots of hip-hop culture. After the discussion is over, the youth quickly disperse and hip-hop beats begin blasting as dancers practice their footwork and emcees prepare to show off their latest rhymes. 

By Lainie Cassel - Upside Down World
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Venezuelan hip hop artists in Caracas’s southern barrio known as La Vega (Archive).
Venezuelan hip hop artists in Caracas’s southern barrio known as La Vega (Archive).

Hip-Hop lives on in Venezuela

It is 7:00 on a Wednesday evening in Caracas’s southern barrio known as La Vega. In a small classroom lined with worn-out wooden desks, youth of all ages sit and listen to a local DJ talk about the historical roots of hip-hop culture. After the discussion is over, the youth quickly disperse and hip-hop beats begin blasting as dancers practice their footwork and emcees prepare to show off their latest rhymes. 

Caracas may be further then a stone’s throw from hip-hop’s birthplace in the Bronx but in communities like La Vega, known for its large African descendent population and oral traditions, hip-hop’s emergence there seemed only natural. Allowing for youth to express themselves, while connecting them to their ancestral roots, hip-hop has become a way-of life for many. 

Thanks to a program called EPATU (the Spanish acronym for Popular School for the Arts and Urban Traditions), Venezuelans as young as 2 and as old as 76 are experiencing a growing hip-hop culture first hand. So far over 30 hip-hop schools have opened in 15 states around the country, mobilizing a new generation of youth through music. 

However, for EPATU organizers starting a hip-hop movement in a country largely consumed by salsa and reggaeton music has not come without a backlash from community members. Karine Esparragoza, a 19-year old emcee who attends classes at EPATU in La Vega, admits that her family members are not comfortable with the hip-hop culture. “They associate hip-hop with drugs and violence”, she told me in an interview, “but I’m here because I strongly believe that is what we are fighting against.

Overcoming the negative stereotypes of hip-hop is one of the biggest challenges facing organizers and one in which the participants are trying to change. They do so by targeting those most likely to get involved with violence – young males and children living on the streets. Hip-hop’s counterculture appeal draws the youth in while also giving them an alternate way of expressing themselves.

In La Vega, EPATU has had numerous successes, attracting anywhere between 20 to 50 kids on any given evening. Their school is located in a park at the bottom of a road that leads up to what were in the past some of Caracas’s most notoriously dangerous streets. “The point” as the park has been named, is the original headquarters of hip-hop in Caracas and has survived the ups and downs of a decades long movement. 

As La Vega-based rapper “El-Ega” claims, “hip-hop in Venezuela, like around the world, was born as a cry against the oppression we faced in our communities and as a call for protest”. In the 90’s, hip-hop music had clashed tremendously with the ruling government, a trend that changed when President Hugo Chavez, himself a hip-hop fan, took office in 1999. 

While hip-hop was less mobilized in Chavez’s initial years in office, it saw a rebirth with the rise of a nation-wide collective called Hip-Hop Revolucion (HHR). HHR, which since 2005 has held an annual International Hip-Hop summit, was born out of radical movements in the barrios of Caracas. The collective is home to a number of well-respected artists and has grown to include members from around North and South America. 

It was from HHR, that EPATU was born. A project that had been on the backburner for years and a dream of many of those hopeful to pass hip-hop music on to future generations, EPATU was officially launched on the 18th of January in 2010. Before its inception, organizers from around the country worked tirelessly through workshops and conferences in preparation. 

Each individual school operates according to the needs of the communities in which it resides but all are expected to incorporate political formation into their coursework. Generally, one day a week is devoted to discussions and workshops that cover topics anywhere from racism to consumerism and cultural imperialism. Other nights are saved for the four elements of hip-hop (breakdancing, emceeing, graffiti and DJing). 

Before the official commencement of EPATU, HHR put out a statement that reads 

We realize that the struggle of our movement begins within ourselves; we must try to destroy our individualities and understand that alone no progress is possible. Our culture is collective from its roots, for this reason we look beyond the four elements of our movement, we view our cultural creation as an act of freedom that can neither be bought nor sold, traded nor negotiated; it is simply for living and building.” (Read more

In a country undergoing radical political change known to many inside Venezuela as the “Bolivarian Process”, EPATU organizers hope to keep the movement autonomous of state as well as private institutions. As the national lead organizer, Julia Mendez notes, however “We are a 100% revolutionary organization and we fully support the [Bolivarian] Process.”

President Hugo Chavez has given support back and has gone so far as to invite numerous hip-hop artists from HHR onto his well-known Sunday television program,Aló Presidente. As La Vega coordinator, Tirso Maldanado argues, however, “our allegiance is not with the government nor with the President but rather with our community.” 

EPATU recently formed a relationship with the Ministry of the Communes but many of the promised resources have yet to arrive at the schools. As a result, national coordinators promote local projects to help sustain each individual EPATU school. Encouraging schools to do their own fundraising or begin their own businesses, organizers want to see EPATU last long-term, independent of who is in office. 

The movement of course is not without its own contradictions. While the main coordinator of EPATU is a female, the schools are overwhelmingly dominated by males. In a country known for its extreme machismo, however, the movement has arguably made strides in allowing women to express their own frustrations with the current status quo. 

And while coordinators try to promote politically conscious music, youth often have a difficult time differentiating between corporate rap from abroad and music coming from their own communities. Images of flashy cars and scarcely dressed women give false illusions to youth about what the music represents and makes the work of the coordinators that much more difficult. 

Yet, despite the obstacles EPATU continues to grow. Finishing off its first year, it has been successful enough that hip-hop artists from abroad have used it as a model for their own communities back home. Most importantly, though, it has set a standard for so-called conscious hip-hop artists to live up to their own lyrics by putting their work as community members and educators ahead of their individual careers. While in the United States, artists have gone so far as to claim the death of hip-hop, in the barrios of Venezuela its legacy lives on. 

For video of the artists in action, see: http://venezuelanalysis.com/video/6067

Lainie Cassel is an independent journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela and New York City. She can be reached at Lainie.Cassel[at]gmail[dot]com.