Rap Music is the CNN of the Barrio

Af Zareen Thomas

Zareen Thomas, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, USA, is visiting RAPOLITICS in Denmark this June. Here she unveils a bit about her work with hip-hop in Latin America.

“Rap music is the CNN of the barrio,” says Don Popo, the founder and executive director of Colombia’s first hip-hop youth organization, La Fundación Artística y Social La Familia Ayara. Echoing U.S. rapper Chuck D.’s oft-cited line “Rap is CNN for black people,” Don Popo explains to me in an interview the ways in which young people in Colombia have come to use hip-hop as a way to mediate stories of violence, conflict, and loss, as well as of hope, redemption, and rights.

20 Years with Hip-Hop

La Familia Ayara was created in Bogota in 1996 as a clothing company by and for hip-hoppers. Soon afterwards, members established a cultural center in the capital city – and later in Cali – to provide hip-hop workshops to local youth. Over the past 20 years, La Familia Ayara has forged strong partnerships with local and international institutions to empower young people throughout the country to become peacebuilders and generators of social change.

Such a mission has had particular salience in Colombia, where political leaders are engaged in peace talks following a fifty-year long civil war between the government and armed forces. Against a backdrop of violence and peace negotiations, members of La Familia Ayara have collaborated with young people to devise solutions to national and local conflicts through rap debates, hip-hop productions, and formal peace proposals.

Colombia and Bolivia

I spent eight months conducting ethnographic research in Bogota, Colombia with La Familia Ayara in 2014 and 2015 as part of a larger multi-site PhD project about hip-hop and youth organizations in the Andes. My other principal field site is in El Alto-La Paz, Bolivia, where I collaborated in 2015 with the youth hip-hop organization, Khana Aru Imanthata (KAI), as well as with unaffiliated hip-hop artists in the region, to learn about how youth articulate their gender, ethnic, and urban identities through music and art, in the presence and absence of institutional support.

Despite the different social, political and economic contexts of these two nations, in both sites young people draw upon the elements of hip-hop to negotiate belonging and reconfigure representations of themselves and their communities. By challenging the roles and place of youth within mainstream society, young hip-hop artists have reconceptualized what it means to participate in their communities, assert difference and belong as citizens.


The final fieldwork phase of my project takes place in Denmark in June 2016. I have been in contact with members of the RAPOLITICS team since 2012 after learning about their work with KAI in Bolivia, and so my work here will compliment the research I conducted in El Alto and La Paz. I am spending one month in Copenhagen this summer to learn about RAPOLITICS’ projects in Bolivia (and around the world), to better understand how ideologies about youth, rights, and empowerment circulate and become localized across different sociocultural landscapes. I will spend the next several months analyzing 21 months of fieldwork, as well as 80+ semi-structured interviews, and hundreds of images and videos, to shed light on how national and international perceptions about “youth” and “culture” become grounded and locally expressed through the transnational urban genre of hip-hop.


Come and hear more about Zareen´s research in Bolivia and Colombia June 27th in Copenhagen.


About the author: Zareen Thomas is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut. Her research was made possible through grants from Fulbright IIE, the Inter-American Foundation, as well UConn’s Human Rights Institute, CLAS, and El Instituto: Institute of Latina/o, Latin American and Caribbean Studies. All views expressed are her own and do not represent the views of the aforementioned institutes, programs or the U.S. Department of State.