It’s a very interesting time for gender equality in music. Women’s voices have never been louder, but at the same time the forces working against them have never been stronger.
As part of Noisey’s continued effort to support and advance the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women, we are using International Women’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate progress while also addressing the ongoing issues affecting communities across the world. You can follow all of our International Women’s Day content on our hub here, featuring interviews with Peaches, Little Simz, and Robyn, an essay on Sia by Brooke Candy, a look at the Icelandic rap crew Daughters of Reykjavik, life as a female rapper in Guatemala, and a documentary about Zimbabwean rapper AWA, who has forged a career as a hip hop artist against all odds, in the face of sexual blackmail, domestic violence, and industry sexism. Happy International Women’s Day!
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Telling people at home that you have decided to live and work in Guatemala usually gets a pretty confused response. Writing about a place which is irrelevant to most Brits doesn’t make that much sense to some, and appears simply stupid to others.
For most people, this country of some 15 million souls is just another one of the small nations that can be written off as "somewhere near Mexico". Others might have read about drug running, gang wars, or the time the country elected a former black face comedian as president. Some of your mates may even have got drunk here in a hostel during a gap year trip, or others may have had the fortune of visiting the incredible lake of Lago de Atitlan, or the jungle plazas of Tikal. But one thing that almost certainly doesn't spring to mind when you think of Guatemala is trailblazing female rap artists.
Guatemala City is a traffic-choked metropolis which moves to the beat of reggaeton and big band, brass-heavy ranchera. Music is everywhere, blasting from cars, shops, and phones. Listen hard enough and you might be able to make out some Spanish-language rap from the likes of Tego Calderon or Don Omar, but by-and-large home grown artists struggle for exposure.
Moaning about the popularity of reggaeton one afternoon to a friend, he told me about an angry feminist rapper called Rebeca Lane who was garnering a hardcore following. I tracked down some of her material, and while “angry” and “feminist” may be fitting epithets, there seemed to be far more to her work. Alongside the raw, aggressive hip-hop tracks were more soulful R’n’B numbers, and the crux of each song always boiled down to a core message; one that deals with the many aspects of what it is to live in Guatemalan society.
If she’s not rapping about justice for the victims of the violence that rocked the country during the 36-year civil war, she's singing about the freedom to love whoever and however you want despite what a conservative Catholic society may say. Lane is a feminist, yeah, but she is also an anarchist, an activist, and the voice of a generation of Guatemalans that are dealing with the country’s dark past, and the violence and discrimination which lingers on today.
Evidence of these problems are all around. In my time here, not a day has gone by without a story of a grisly shooting, or body parts left on doorsteps. Almost as shocking as the crimes themselves is the fact that after two years here I now barely bat an eyelid. This normalisation of violence is one thing that Lane is trying to fight against, especially given the fact that the victims of these crimes are disproportionately women and members of other minority groups.
“It's really hard to be a woman in Latin America, but in Guatemala we have this heritage from the violence of war,” Lane tells me when we meet. “A lot of the social violence that we are living now is a consequence of the violence that the army implemented in society during the war, especially on women.” That violent legacy is one explanation for the fact that more than 1,000 women have been murdered in the past 2 years in Guatemala. Even more disturbingly, 98% of femicide crimes go unsolved. Machismo maintains a strong grip on Guatemalan society, but Lane is driving a movement to improve the life of this nation’s women.
That doesn’t mean going into politics or petitioning the authorities, but speaking directly to the women and girls that she wants to empower. Using her talent to inspire women who are confronted by a patriarchal society every time they leave the house is no insignificant feat. “These things that I used to write about in my room, trying to cheer myself up, are now helping other people feel better about themselves,” she says.
This influence is obvious at a busy show in Guatemala City, when hundreds of women in the crowd sang along to “Mujer Lunar”, probably Lane’s most famous song. “Whenever the chorus starts I just hand out the microphone because it’s their song, it’s our song. It’s really powerful,” Lane says. That power runs through her music, and she has a knack for writing choruses which sound like a call to arms, willing the crowd want to join in her music and her struggle.
Lane’s family history goes some way to explaining the radical path she has chosen. Her parents were activists during the 36-year Guatemalan civil war which left around 245,000 people dead or missing, and in 1981 her aunt was forcibly disappeared by the army for her political beliefs. In a country still divided by civil war-era rivalries, dragging the skeletons of the past out of the closet as Lane does is not without its dangers.
Before she got hooked on hip-hop, Lane was an activist in the social movements which pressure authorities for better treatment of women and minorities. It was here that she started to realise the potential of music as a tool. “We grew up with it, even in the protests. A friend of ours brought a hip-hop CD from Los Angeles, full of protest music. We started listening to it and realised it was the same as our parents’ music but in our language,” she says.
While Lane grew up socially conscious, it was a troubling personal experience that drove her creativity. The rapper started off doing theatre and poetry workshops after summoning the strength to leave an abusive relationship, an experience that shines through in her music. She started going along to hip hop events years ago, but never thought she would end up rapping herself. "I would go to everything trying to learn, but back then I didn't see myself doing anything because there were no women doing any of this stuff,” she says.
After breaking into a male-dominated scene almost by chance, Lane was shocked by the level of sometimes unwitting discrimination that she encountered. Rap battle insults in Guatemala run the gamut from insulting your opponent’s mum to questioning the size of their balls, or huevos in Spanish. This particular slight drew Lane’s ire in her song “Bandera Negra,” when she tells the listener:
“Tengo millones de huevos en cada ovario / No me hace más mujer ni a vos te hace menos macho”
(I’ve got millions of eggs in each ovary / it doesn’t make me more of a woman or you less of a man)
Educating fellow rap fans about the use of language is an ongoing battle for Lane. “I'm really trying to get through to the hip-hop culture because there are a lot of macho themes and attitudes that we need to change,” she says. Unfortunately, her label as a feminist rapper means that some men dismiss her music as anti-male before even listening to it. "I'm trying to get away from the feminist rapper label because in a way it's helped me grow, but in a way there are guys that say they won't listen to my music because it's feminist,” says Lane. "It's been making me not communicate with a whole bunch of people I want to communicate with."
Another issue is a lack of airtime on major radio stations, but Lane is happy to let her audience grow organically. "We aren’t getting as much attention as some artists would like but I have the attention I want because I want to work with these people. I want to work with the people that are making a transformation in society,” she says.
Right now Lane is doing just that as she travels from Panama to Mexico on the “Somos Guerreras” tour, which brings together female hip-hop artists from across Mesoamerica. Along with Mexican rapper Audry Funk and Costa Rican artists Nativa and Nakury, Lane is making sure that people are taking notice of women - not just in hip hop, but across society.
“It's very frustrating living here and trying to transform your society when so many things are against you,” says Lane. Despite plenty of challenges, Lane strikes a positive tone when talk turns to the future. “It's hard to feel alone when you see another girl like you fighting and struggling.
A movement is stirring in Guatemala, and by taking her influence across the region Lane is inspiring a new generation of rappers, breakdancers and beatboxers. From sheer force of will and the ability to make people work together, Lane and her partners are creating a community of conscious, independent women that will resist the violence that they face every single day.
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