INTERVIEW – Bocafloja: “I am a historically colonized body in its own process towards decolonization”
By Sound Check
October 12, 2016
At its core, hip-hop is a social, political movement. It’s an artistic expression, one that allows us to explore conversations and ideas creatively, and when I first heard Bocafloja’s music, I was convinced he knew this better than anyone else.His latest album, Cumbe, was released earlier this year and is a powerful venture of music and soul across the African diaspora. Along with this new album, Boca also recently released a documentary titledNana Dijo (“Nana Said”) which examines anti-Blackness and notions of race across Latin America.
I got the chance to talk to Bocafloja recently and discuss his new projects, as well as many other topics, and was blown away by how poetically he spoke. I remember being a kid and riding in the backseat while my older cousins blasted his music, and I’d bob my head to the words. In his prolific career, he’s managed to rack up several awards and release over 8 albums, and his most recent, Cumbe, is an extremely unique and personal project that reminds us to make sure our notions of Blackness remain international in perspective.
By Devyn Springer, AFROPUNK Contributor
You’re somewhat of a legend in the Spanish hip-hop world. I remember being a kid and my older cousins blasting your music in the car, and I’d bob my head along to the beats. How have you managed to have such a prolific career?
Boca: I am part of one of the first generations of Hip Hop artists developed in Mexico City, so in that sense it’s been a 20 plus year journey of cultural production. I think one of the reasons why I am still active and relevant is because I rapidly understood that my art was not restricted to just rapping, but that there were several other formats I could use to communicate and share my production. Also, I stepped back quickly from certain problematic constructions within certain Hip Hop communities like the pathological obsession with “realness” or “Latin-American nationalism” in the context of Hip Hop.
The first time I gave your latest LP “Cumbé” a listen, I was blown away. Having been a fan of yours for years now, this album has a much different sound and feeling to it. What is it about Cumbé that sets it apart from other projects you’ve created?
Boca: Cumbé is basically trying to establish joy and celebration within Black and Brown bodies as a form of emancipatory dialogue. The beats are more suitable for dancing, the musical aesthetic has a different character.
I think that sometimes cultural industries attach relevant and critical discourses with obscure musicality, and I was very tired of that. My music has always been very soulful and jazzy, but this album in particular is way more intentional when letting the music itself communicate my message.
On songs like Distopía, the vibe is somewhat ethereal, and the way it merges together the Spanish and English languages is interesting… Would you say that, in a sense, Cumbé crosses borders, or at least purposefully distorts the notions of borders?
Boca: Yes. Even when I have more control and tools to articulate myself better in Spanish, I don’t embrace that language as mine. I understand both English and Spanish as colonial languages that I want to redefine, vulgarize and resignify through my body. I do want to express that my music in particular is not “Latino Hip Hop,” “Mexican Rap,” or “Latin Alternative.” On a very personal level, I’m very conflicted with those colonial and/or geo-political identities, therefore my artistic production is a direct antagonist to those structures.
In May you did an interview with Counterpunch, and you talked about “decolonized music” and discussed “decolonial rap.” You distinguish socially aware and politically intentional rap from that of mainstream rappers, and you talk about the power that decolonial rap has. Can you expand on that a bit?
Boca: I don’t pretend to establish “decolonial rap” as a category or a genre. I am a historically colonized body that is in its own process towards decolonization. As an artist I am aware of my responsibilities towards our communities and one of my main objectives is to socialize other forms of knowledge that are coherent and useful to our conditions of existence, in order to generate a cultural and political transgression towards hegemonies. I don’t look down on “mainstream” rappers or artists due to their apparent lack of political knowledge, instead I understand it as one of the several complexities of our existence as people of color. I like to understand discourse beyond its verbal or written forms. Even when it’s not always embraced and portrayed, the body of the oppressed itself carries an anti-systemic narrative. I have a million more valid reasons to relate and appreciate Rihanna over a White “conscious” rapper like Macklemore for example.
To me, it’s as if capitalism has creeped into the Black art world over the last few decades, and socially aware rappers are the last few on the frontlines fighting against this. Do you see yourself, and others rappers who tend to be more “underground” and socially aware in their artistry, at odds with the capitalist music industry?
Boca: I understand this as a permanent negotiation. Capitalism is a mercenary and genocide machinery in which we navigate as colonial subjects. I do believe in other forms of political organization, resource distribution, and access to power. Capitalism is world currency unfortunately and cultural industries like hip-hop are absolutely embedded into that apparatus. Black and Brown cultural expressions have been historically co-opted, then neutralized, and Hip Hop is not an exception. As part of a strategy to legitimize democratic processes within the liberal frameworks and international organizations, the system gives light to certain voices of controlled opposition in the context of art and culture.
The commodification of dissent is very real and profitable. Nowadays, I think the binary relation between “the underground” as a staple for relevant projects and “mainstream” as a hyper commercialized outlet is a stale narrative.
A theme of this album seems to undoubtedly be Black joy. The beats make the listener want to dance and the songs are crafted in a way that makes one feel emotion, and it’s quite incredible. It’s almost like that’s an important piece of your “decolonial rap” – making sure the listener can still dance and vibe to it.
Boca: Definitely. The concept behind redefining joy is very important since we’ve been historically denied that experience; at least when joy is expressed under our own terms and parameters. Joy and celebration can be a very transgressive action when coming from our bodies as people of color since it can become a direct interjection towards whiteness.
You’ve had a really hot year, Boca. You recently released a new documentary, Nana Dijo. Congrats on making such an amazing, artistic piece of film. As an Afrolatino identifying person, I was truly captivated by every second of it. It felt like Nana Dijo was a personal project, and I’m wondering if experiences in your life influenced its creation?
Boca: Nana Dijo is a very personal project, it is in fact a historical reclamation that became part of my responsibility as an artist. in order to socialize a narrative that needs to be heard and embraced.
My body of work has always been in ways connected to the critical analysis of colonialism and the Black experience in the context of Latinamerica, and producing a documentary discussing these topics was a natural progression that established itself as a narrative in first person due to my own experience as a person of Indigenous and African descent.
There are a few things I noticed in Nana Dijo that I’m curious about. The first is that the majority of the film is in Black and white. Why is that? And also, the locations you interviewed people seem intentional; many people were interviewed in churches, some in their homes, and others simply on the streets. Were you intentional about the locations you chose to conduct the interviews?
Boca: My friend Cambiowashere (who co-directed the film) was in charge of the photography and helped materialize lots of the aesthetic elements. I wanted to do it in black and white as a metaphor for the invisibility of our bodies as people of color. Cambiowashere did a great job with the camera and editing, giving the project a type of aesthetic that takes a whole different route in comparison to lots of projects that deal with “Afrolatinidad” from a very anthropological perspective. As for the locations, we were intentional in not placing them during the interview because I wanted to let the body of the oppressed itself be the one to determine its conditions and not the geopolitical borders that the state-nation structures impose. I believe that the utilization of terms such as “afro-Mexican” or “afro-Honduran”, etc. is aligned to an assimilationist agenda that still attaches itself to Latinamerican nationalism which happens to be, at a foundational level, clearly anti-Black and anti-Indigenous.
Given our current political situation in the US with the Black Lives Matter movement taking the forefront of creating conversations on race and racism, Nana Dijo also feels timely and important. Since the film examines anti-Blackness within Latinoamérica, how do you see Nana Dijo within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Boca: As colonial subjects under the frame of Latin-American nations, our conditions of existence as Black and Brown people all over the Americas share a lot of historical processes with the Black-US population. Black Lives Matter is relevant and fundamental beyond the US borders because it represents a model of political organization that brings intersectionality to the table. It also learns from the past but clearly redefines the narrative of Black militancy from previous generations which is very necessary when trying to appeal and connect with young people today.
It’s important to remember that the effects of anti-Black racism are global, and affects Black people all across the diaspora. The Black identity comes into question in Nana Dijo and the viewer gets to see what “Black” is in different countries. Do you see patterns and similarities in regards to anti-Blackness across Latinoamérica, and across the African diaspora?
Boca: Yes, anti-blackness is everywhere although it is manifested in several different forms depending on the local context. Surprisingly, whiteness in lots of Latin American countries feels more belligerent and unapologetic than in the US. There are very few political structures that can effectively counteract whiteness. Some of the most problematic and violent representations of the Black body in popular culture are justified by the nation-states through arguments that appeal to “local identity and humor.” Since most of the “intellectual” sectors are very eurocentric and colonial as well, there is little room to be critical towards Latin American nationalism from a Black and Brown non assimilationist standpoint.
In one of the scenes in Nana Dijo, a Black woman talks about not filling out her census information because she didn’t feel there was a racial category that properly described her. However, in January 2016, for the first time ever, the Mexican government finally recognized its 1.8 million citizens of African descent on a national survey. Does this seem to show a positive change and a step in the right direction? Also, how much does it really mean that the Mexican government is just recognizing Black people, while Black people are still being oppressed and facing strong anti-Blackness?
Boca: I understand it as a pyrrhic victory. It opens a window for negotiation, which is useful and will make room for other narratives to be heard, but it’s just the very beginning of a long journey. First of all, those government initiatives are just a strategy to legitimize Mexico internationally as a multicultural and diverse society in which “democracy” is applied in full effect. A little make-up to cover the grotesque political, social and economical scenario that Mexico has been going through specifically in the past 10 years. Those initiatives are not questioning or even pretending to deconstruct official history or mexicanness, which is embedded and founded on the exploration and erasure or Black and Brown bodies.
My favorite thing about the film is that it doesn’t attempt to answer anything, or give a resolution. It allows the people’s words and testimonies to frame the story, then it leaves the viewer to come to their own conclusions. I’m sure this was an intentional, artistic choice on your end, right?
Boca: Definitely, we were not trying to impose one particular narrative. We let the body talk and let the audience figure things out and come to their own conclusions. People’s testimonials are constantly conflicting through the film, as an evidence of the complexities behind our racial reality. The objective is very clear; create a different platform for discussion that can be part of a larger political movement. Visibility is not the ultimate goal; empowerment, self-determination, autonomy and financial reparations is.
Last question. If you could let the world know anything about you, your artistry, and about being Afrolatino, what would it be?
Boca: If you are really into decolonizing knowledge and your own cultural consumption, come close to other experiences. There are amazing and relevant projects being released all over the diaspora right now. Check some of the work that we do either on film, music, literature, theater, etc.
Bocafloja is based in the Bronx, and is currently touring showing film screenings of Nana Dijo at different universities and film festivals. To find more information about his projects, you can go to emancipassion.com/ and you can find him on Twitter @bocaquilombo.
* Devyn Springer is an Atlanta writer, activist and photographer who currently studies African Diaspora at Kennesaw State University – @HalfAtlanta (Twitter) Website: https://medium.com/@DevynSpringer