Colombia: Agrarian Hip-Hop against Violence and Injustice

Af Louise H. F. Møller

Since August 2015 I have been conducting a fieldwork for my master’s thesis in Anthropology in Medellín, Colombia. The initial idea was to investigate how youth in one of Medellin’s most turbulent neighborhoods, Comuna 13, use hip- hop to try to change their everyday lives for the better.

My research led me to become a member of the collective Agroarte, that use both agriculture and hip-hop, especially rap and graffiti, as resistance against the violence and injustice that has been and still is the rule in some parts of Colombia. An interesting combination they have named “Hip-Hop Agrario” i.e. agrarian hip-hop.

 A Place to Learn… 

On a big screen in the common area a documentary about a massacre that took place in one of Colombia’s other regions in 2002 is playing. We are about fifteen people in the room, primarily young boys and girls. Some are taking notes and the room is quiet except form the voices in the documentary, describing the massacre and the following displacement.

It is Saturday the 22 of August 2015 and I am participating in the weekly Saturday rap workshop that takes place in a house called La Morada in the center of Comuna 13. Ghido, who is part of Agroarte and runs the workshops every Saturday, takes the word when the documentary is over. He says that it is important to know the history of the country and points out, that the people killing each other; guerrillas, paramilitary, military etc. and the victims are all Colombians – “Brothers” he adds – emphasizing the absurdity of the conflicts in Colombia.

Even though it is far from every Saturday a documentary is shown, teaching youths about the part of Colombian history that is not included in the normal school curriculum is an important part of the workshops and of Agroarte. More importantly, it is a part that the teenagers themselves describe as important, pointing out that remembering the past is necessary to avoid re-living it and saying that most of the things they learn here, they never knew before.

… and a Place to Express and Resist

After the documentary all the boys and girls spread out to work on their lyrics. Lyrics, that relate to everything from their own everyday experiences to issues on a societal level. They come to Ghido for advice from time to time and then return to working on lyrics or practicing. This is followed by practice time in the sound studio with mics and proper sound.

Before the workshop, every Saturday begins with planting in and maintaining Agroarte’s flower beds outside La Morada. It is also outside La Morada that “Plantas de Memoria” (“Plants of Memory”) can be found on the wall of the cemetery around the corner. An installation of plants where names of lost family members and friends are written on the bottles in which the plants grow, to remember loved ones trough new life.

In this way, Agroarte is a place where everyone interested can come and learn how to express themselves through both rap and agriculture. In my 4 months with Agroarte I both learned to rap a little myself, even though my poor Spanish skills were a bit of a barrier, and went with the collective to various concerts where all the rappers of the group got the chance to perform their songs on stages of varying size, everything from the local library, to stages in one of Medellín’s biggest theatres to a big stage on a public square in en heart of the city. Concerts where group members of all ages, bubbling with excitement, got to improve and show their skills and share their messages with big crowds.

Becoming Agroarte

Agroarte was formed 8 years ago by the rapper El Aka, in a part of Comuna 13 located in an area that was, and still is, marked by violent conflict. It grew out of a need to defend the territory in relation to rights over water and armed groups, and to create awareness of all the people that are missing due to forced disappearances. Rap was not initially a part of Agroarte, but youth in the area wanted to learn to rap and do graffiti so Aka started to teach them. Today rap is the verbal counterpart to the more symbolic resistance done through planting.

Agroarte consists of a large group of people from all parts of Medellín and of all ages. Youth in ages 12-18 make out the largest part but others like “La mama repara”, a woman rapping with her daughter and niece, “La abuela”, the grandmother of the collective even though only biologically tied to some members, and many other adults are also part of what most refer to as the family of Agroarte.

After becoming a part of the group I have seen more times than I can remember how people come to each other for advice, not only in regards to their music, but with everything, good and bad. How people pay attention and care for each other and keep each other on track if needed. You are missed if you are not there and if you appear to be needing a bit of guidance – you will get that – want it or not. Just like in a family.

Uniting Districts

The workshops every Saturday are in Comuna 13, but Agroarte does projects in different parts of Medellín and all members agree that creating ties and sharing experiences in-between different districts of the city is a very important part of their resistance and of creating change. Going to events and just hanging out with people in La Morada you cannot avoid noticing the importance of this aspect as many wear Agroarte t-shirts that read: “Union Entre Comunas”,  or en English “Union Between Districts”.

“Seeds of the Future”

Another initiative of Agroarte is “Semillas del Futuro”, “Seeds of the Future”. The young people participating in the rap workshops are all a part of Semillas del Futuro. In La Morada on Saturdays you can always hear a beat playing somewhere. If you look outside, in front of the big purple facade or in the brightly colored courtyard you will most likely find a group of boys and girls from Semillas either improvising or practicing their lyrics.

The young rappers in Semillas del Futuro do not just write songs and practice. They perform in different events and every year Agroarte makes a Semillas del Futuro-CD so they get the possibility to record their music in a real studio. Generally, the aspiring rappers in Agroarte can find a lot of help in the collective in whatever they need – be it recording in Aka’s house or trying of new lyrics etc.

Gardening Rappers

On a hillside that connects two of the curbing roads of the mountainous neighborhood of Las Peñitas, hip-hop beats flow from a little portable radio that Aka has hung on the shaft of one of the work tools. It is the end of August and my first day working with Agroarte. Aka is cutting down the tall grass on the mountainside with a machete so we can make terraces to plant a combination of corn, lettuce, onion and other crops. With his big, baggy pants, oversize T-shirt that is partly covered by a Celtics Basketball jersey, his orange headband and hoop earrings, Aka doesn’t look like a farmer. He is a very charismatic person and the big smile that is glued to his face and his laid-back attitude makes you feel at ease right away.

Around me a couple of young guys and a mother and her kids, all from the area and part of Agroarte, are working on cutting down or planting things. Jokes and funny remarks fly through the air over the hip-hop tunes and the atmosphere is great even though we started early to beat the sun to the hillside. At first glance I didn’t understand how this was resistance but a phrase that I heard various times in my time in Agroarte sums it up pretty well.

For decades Colombians have been forced to leave their lives in the countryside due to violent conflict. They have migrated to the cities where many live displaced lives in the periphery. Creating spaces where people can work the land, is a way to give people back what was unrightfully taken from them while saying “we refuse to forget”. Furthermore it creates a space where neighbors, that have lived in fear of each other, not knowing who will say or do something that might get you killed, can meet and share experiences. Sharing these experiences contributes to creating a collective history that has often died with its owner and is not taught in school. In this way, the agricultural endeavors are a counterpart to rap in resisting to accept the life conditions trying to create a better future.

How I will continue working with Agroarte and being part of their family from Denmark I have yet to figure out, but surely these four months have only been the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Get to know everyone in Agroarte a little better in these videos or take look at the other videos on their youtube channel Barrio Bajo Producciones.

Read this blog entry in Spanish: Rapeando Resistencia y Semabrando el Futuro

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About the author: 
Louise H. F. Møller is studying the Master of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. She is a member of Agroarte and hopes to continue working with political hip hop in urban contexts around the world.

"Hip hop is street [calle] and beneath the street is soil. And the soil, contains our history"