Female MCs are shaking up South America’s macho rap culture. Claire Rigby meets the hip-hop collective taking feminism to the streets – from Quito to the Bronx
oja was 16 when she had her hip-hop epiphany. “I was already rapping,” says Roja, the MC from Quito, Ecuador, whose real name is Mariela Salgado. “I was part of a Quito crew, Zantalianza, where I’d always felt included. I’d been writing poetry since I was 13, so when I found hip-hop, it felt perfect.” But as she watched the improvisation battles unfold, it dawned on her that there wasn’t a single woman involved.
“I started to register some of the rhymes they were trading: insults based on having sex with the opponent’s mother, sister, aunt; or calling each other by the names of women’s sexual organs. It was bizarre: they were managing to totally objectify women, and at the same time make us invisible.” Roja, now 28, is one half of the female hip-hop duo Rima Roja en Venus. “When you start out as a rap freestyler, the first thing that happens is they try to shut you up,” she says.
Guatemala City rapper Rebeca Lane has a similar experience of the Latin American hip-hop scene. In her 2012 song “Bandera Negra” (“Black Flag”) she takes a swipe at Latino MCs who use misogynist and homophobic language to insult one another, or who make puerile boasts about their huevos (eggs, meaning balls): “I’ve got a million eggs in each ovary. That doesn’t make me any more of a woman, or you less of a man,” raps Lane. “The level of gender violence in freestyle rhyming battles, and in mainstream rap, can be horrific,” she adds.
Lane and Roja are part of a new generation of Latin American female MCs whose lyrics touch on some of the issues facing the region’s women – and celebrate the resilience and sheer huevos it takes to exist as a woman at all. The issues in question include a deep-rooted lack of equality; inadequate access to healthcare, sex education, contraception and abortion; human trafficking; domestic and public violence, rape and femicide. In Brazil, 15 women are killed each day, according to President Dilma Rousseff. In Argentina, the death in May of Chiara Páez, a pregnant 14-year-old murdered by her boyfriend, allegedly with the help of his mother and stepfather, sparked a nationwide protest movement, #NiUnaMenos (“not one less”), in which thousands took to the streets.