So, when I was backstage with Anita Tijoux the other night and she asked me what was my take on the US market situation for her brand of positive, smart, politically conscious rap... in Spanish, all that came out of my mouth were predictions of utter frustration and deceit. Not because I want her album to fail, because of course, there's almost nothing I'd like more than seeing her becoming a huge international act touring the US's biggest music festivals and making significant record sales so then I'll be able to rub it on all your faces and say "I told you so, bitches!" I acknowledge that she's an extremely talented artist and has infinite possibilities of success but when I confront her music with the sad reality of the ultra-segregated American music market I get depressed thinking of all the potential thousands of people that would probably enjoy her music and will probably never find out about it.
You see, ten years ago I too came to the US with the naive intention of spreading the good news of a Latin America and Spain-based movement of good, progressive, intelligent Spanish language rap. I witnessed its birth in the mid-nineties and I followed it while growing up and developing, getting its own personality, with different qualities in each country, until reaching maturity by the end of that decade. I thought moving on to the United States was the obvious next step in Spanish rap evolution, considering the ever-increasing amount of Latino immigrants and their close exposure to hip-hop culture in its place of birth.
My first big journalistic assignment after moving here was to write a whole dossier on the emerging progressive rap scene in Latin America and Spain that I was hoping would introduce the eager Latino listeners in America to a whole new universe of amazing music. Obviously, back then, I still didn't understand the segmentation of the American music market and the almost impossible obstacles to overcome when trying to sell this type of music.
My then-roommate, a singer from a local rock-en-español band, gave me my first tough reality check as soon as the article got published. "The whole rock-en-español scene (the readers of that magazine) was built upon the main idea that we are the aesthetic opposite of hip-hop. You'll never get this crowd to listen to rap, no matter how good it is."
Soon after that I had my first clash with the record industry situation when I found out that major labels had one department for rock-en-español or Latin-alternative, whatever you wanna call it, and the few rap records they released where managed by these departments whose executives, regardless of their good intentions, had no understanding of hip-hop culture whatsoever. I met the then-A&R of Universal Records Latin department and when I told them I liked rap in Spanish they said "Oh! Check it out, we are releasing the new Molotov!" Totally clueless.
Then I met with the A&R of another major label who wanted to put out a compilation of rap in Spanish because he said, he truly believed that was where the future of music was (keep in mind this was way before reggaetón crossed over). When I introduced him to the kind of hip-hop that was coming out from Spain and Latin America he backed down immediately claiming it was too intelligent and cats here wanted rap to be more ghetto, meaning ignorant.
In 2003 SFDK (if you ask me, one of the best rap in Spanish groups that there are) came to California to perform at LAMC and promote their best record ever, 2001 Odisea En El Lodo. I followed them around for three days and felt sorry at how little they were understood and appreciated by the crowd they were exposed to. Lot of Spanish hip-hop fans here know them but never even found out about the Sevilla's duo visit, when I tell them I saw them live in LA they are like, "what? they came here?!"
In 2006 I released Koxmoz's debut album, Tarde O Temprano and I sold more copies to Germans, Italians and Australians than Americans...
Eventually I ended up giving up on rap in Spanish.
These are some of the sad sad factors I enumerated to Anita when trying to explain to her the demographics and market she (or anybody trying to import progressive rap in Spanish from abroad) is gonna be clashing with when trying to get heard in the US:
- 1) Rule number one: Mainstream America does not care, at all, about foreign music (or foreign cinema or any other sort of entertainment), especially if it's sung in a foreign language. This seems obvious and totally understandable if you were born or grew up in the US, but it makes absolutely no sense in the naive eyes of foreigners coming from Europe or Latin America who grew up listening to music in different languages (regardless of their understanding of the lyrics) and from different sources, side by side, indistinctly, on the same radio stations and TV shows. Many times I had to interview Latin musicians who were on their first tour to the US, full of expectations and they all said something in the lines of "I'm not interested in playing for the niche of Latino immigrants, I wanna play for the same mixed audience who listen to... (fill in with the equivalent of "the American artist that inspires my music")." Yeah. Good luck! With only a few one-hit-wonder exceptions, Americans won't listen to a song, even if it has the catchiest beat, if they can't understand the words; and in a genre like hip-hop, which is mostly based on lyrical skills, this factor is the hardest obstacle.
- 2) There is, however, a segment of the American Anglo market that's open to innovative foreign music. Mostly college students who traveled abroad and/or studied languages. Among these, many might be open to listen to rap in a foreign language but most of the times they are only interested in this if the beats include some sort of fusion with "exotic" third-world music. They won't listen to a Spanish-speaking MC who rhymes over amazing beats that resemble J Dilla productions, because they can very well listen to the original J Dilla instead. Paradoxically, in Latin America and Spain, those artist who do blend hip-hop with those "exotic" rhythms (think Orishas, La Mala Rodríguez, Choc Quib Town) are viewed by the average hip-hopper as commercial acts, who sold out by making their music more Latin to reach crossover markets.
- 3) People in the US don't necessarily see the expansion of hip-hop through the rest of the world in a good light. Conservative Americans might feel embarrassed that kids in far away countries try to copy the worst of their cultural expressions, while liberals see it as one more sad sign of American cultural imperialism. When Anita was bragging to American interviewers about how huge hip-hop in Chile is, I was thinking "girl, they probably won't see that as a positive thing, they'd rather you kids were still playing pan-flutes."
- 4) Nostalgia plays a huge role in the music consumption of Latino immigrants in the US and as a general rule, people are nostalgic of music that reminds them of their childhood and youth back home. Since most Latino immigrants in the US left their countries before local hip-hop gained any significance, it has absolutely no nostalgic value for them. While most US-born guys of my generation and similar socioeconomic background have an obvious attachment to early nineties hip-hop (Public Enemy, Naughty By Nature, De La Soul, etc), most Latino immigrants of equivalent demographics can't really relate to this nostalgia for old-school rap because they were listening to Caifanes and Soda Stereo back then; which takes us to the next factor:
- 5) Most Latino immigrants discovered hip-hop after moving to the US. And they didn't like it. Of course, because they were exposed to the wrong side of it, to the über-commercial, bastardized version you see on cable TV and hear on the radios every day, with all its misogyny, homophobia, ignorance, racism, violence and bling-bling materialism. You can't blame them. I too would hate hip-hop if it was just that.
- 6) The rock-en-Español audience won't listen to rap music, as exposed above. That's mostly because they're stuck in the rebel rocker mentality of twenty years ago. Their parents probably came from rural Mexico or Central America listening to traditional regional music, so for them listening to rock music was a way of generational rebellion. I was born in 1976 in an environment where rock in Spanish was already very well established, in fact by the time I reached my teens, local rock was the establishment, so for kids my generation listening to hip-hop or house music was our way of subconsciously rebelling against the mainstream.
- 7) Likewise the reggaetón audience won't listen to rap-en-Español either. Reggaetón took over the market that we thought would eventually pick up rap in Spanish and there's no way back. Reggaetón is intrinsically dumb and easy to dance to. There's no need to pay close attention to the lyrics because they're simple, obvious and redundant so the main appeal of the music is the contagious sexy beat and some catchy choruses. Rap music, the good kind, doesn't always provide this and requires a way bigger effort from the listener to follow the lyrics closely to be able to appreciate them. Reggaetón listeners don't have the brain power and/or attention span needed to appreciate rappers like Anita Tijoux. Besides reggaetón oriented radios, nowadays called "urban Latino," dictate what this crowd listens to, and payola dictates what they play, and they won't play any alternative conscious rap shit.
- 8) The Latin Alternative audience are definitely more open to hip-hop in Spanish than the old school rockers and the urban radio listeners. But that's a tiny niche within a niche market and they are generally more interested in post-hip-hop stuff, the aforementioned artists that mix rap with "exotic" rhythms or those who approach it from a playful experimental ironic perspective (M.I.S., P. Mosh). They don't fully comprehend the art of beat-digging, turntablism, skillful lyricism or freestyle rapping. When Anita was performing the other day for an audience of stereotypical Nacional Records target customers, and in the transition between songs she started talking about her nostalgia for the times when she listened to Smif-N-Wessun tapes at the park with her friends, she was probably expecting the crowd to go "wooo!" but 90% of them had no fucking idea what she was talking about.
- 9) Most Latinos who were born or grew up and went to school in the US use English as main language and a lot of them don't speak Spanish at all. A very significant part of this group are very well aware of hip-hop culture and some of them even know good progressive rap and are active consumers of it... but exclusively in English. They have almost no contact with Latino-oriented media, so they never find out about cool Latin music. My girlfriend (yes, I have one!) is a classic example of this: she was born in California from immigrant parents who didn't bother to teach her Spanish. She loves conscious rap and listens to J Dilla, Quannum, Hiero and artist alike but when it comes to Latin music all she knew before meeting me was Shakira and some other crap they play on the radios. I introduced her to Anita Tijoux and she liked her a lot but she would've never found out about her music if it wasn't for me. So right there you have a whole bunch of potential customers that the Latin music record labels don't know how to reach.
- 10) A lot of Latinos born or raised in the US are into hip-hop, but the wrong kind of it. They either consume the boring-ass lowrider gangsta cholo crap of the south west or the über-commercial reggaetón-infused bullshit from the east and south. They don't know "real" hip-hop and they are too ghetto to listen to MC's dropping knowledge. At the same time, this segment of the audience gives a bad name to hip-hop culture as a whole for the rest of the less-ghetto Latinos who pretty much reject all hip-hop based on classist preconceptions against those clowns. Also, if the first thing that pops up to your head when you think Latin rap is Pitbull, I don't blame you for hating the whole genre.
- 11) Almost all Spanish rap made in the US sucks balls. Why? Very simple. If you learned Spanish just from listening to your probably-undereducated parents talk in the kitchen, you never picked up a Spanish book and all the media you consume is in English, your lexicon will be extremely limited, so how do you expect to write good lyrics in Spanish when you only know a handful of words? Ingenious rhymes, complex verse structures, witty wordplay, you can find all that in most good rap music coming from Spain and Latin America, but every time you listen to a Latino MC in the US trying to flow in their ancestors' language you're lucky if he can rhyme "en la casa" with "para la raza." Once again, all that mediocre rap in Spanish produced in the US gives a bad name to the genre as a whole resulting in potential listeners closing their ears to it before giving it a chance.
Record labels take note: Try to get the product reviewed on English-speaking specialized media. Try to get record stores to place the album in the hip-hop section of the store, not in the reggaetón or Latin pop/rock subdivision where actual hip-hop diggers will never go. Print vinyl. Once again, print vinyl! Real hip-hop listeners still cherish vinyl over all other formats. Pay for a remix from a respected hip-hop producer (Pete Rock, El-P, MadLib...) and release it in 12 inch single vinyl (most hardcore hip-hop heads will definitely buy a record based on the producer, even if they don't understand the lyrics, and that's a good way of introducing them to a foreign artist). Pay for a guest appearance by an underground respected English-spitting MC (Talib, Chali2Na, Del...). Cross your fingers from both hands and pray for a less segregated market.