Buenos Aires Rap: An Interview with Filmmaker Diane Ghogomu

By Jessica Sequeira

The stereotypical music of Buenos Aires may be tango, but for the younger generation rock and cumbia are perhaps even more important. And there’s another genre that remains largely underground on the Argentine music scene—rap. Diane Ghoghomu’s documentary Buenos Aires Rap, crammed with live music footage and artist interviews, aims to take a fresh look at the Argentine capital and its Afro Argentine population. 

Ghoghomu is from Pittsburgh; her mother is from the US and her father is from Cameroon. She graduated from Harvard University in 2009, came to Buenos Aires on a Fulbright, and is still here. We chatted at a brunch spot called Malvón, in Villa Crespo. Ghogomu was tired—she’d spent the night subtitling—but full of buena onda, every now and then letting out an infectious laugh and sweeping her long curly black hair to one side.

Ventana Latina: When did you start working on the documentary?

Diane Ghogomu: Oh, Lord. It’s been too long. It was actually kind of a surprise how it happened. As an undergrad I studied abroad here and did a research project as a Mellon E May fellow. When I came I was an African American Studies major, and everyone was like “What?” I would ask, “So, are there any Afro Argentine history classes?” and people would literally laugh in my face. Talking about Afro Argentine politics and history just did not exist here at that point. So I decided to do an independent project. I started finding resources, books, and professors who were into it. And I wrote a paper my junior year, which became my thesis, looking at modern Afro Argentine identity and what’s going on.

VL: And what is going on?

DG: It’s interesting because of course the first thing everyone says here is “They all died off, the Afro population is gone; there aren’t any black people here.” Come on, you killed all of them, really? Of course there is some truth to what people say. In the war for independence a lot of black soldiers fought because they were promised their freedom. And afterwards there was a lot of sickness in the poorer neighborhoods, like yellow fever epidemics, which started decreasing the population. But there this really active Afro Argentine population still existed. It had its own newspapers, clubs, dances, social points, politics. There were a lot of newspapers; there are archives and archives and archives of them.

So the question is, why is it that there’s all this history and identity, and now the only thing it’s been reduced to is “No, they all died in the wars”? What is happening with these people now, these Argentine families? And the other question is, now that there are a lot of African immigrants coming, a lot of black and Latino and African immigrants, what’s happening with their daughters and the sons? They don’t know anywhere else; they are Argentine, Afro Argentine. What’s going on with their identities? How do they identify, do they identify, do they feel Argentine or like they’re excluded?

That’s kind of how this whole question started. So I came back to do a Fulbright on that. Before I came, I met with Marcyliena Morgan from the Harvard Hiphop Archive and told her that I was interested in looking at how the Afro Argentine community was using music, how people were using hip hop to relate to each other. And she said “Oh okay, cool, here’s some equipment. Go film.”

When I came here, I got to know this hip hop club “Lost”, which is where I would go as an undergrad to let off some steam. You’d go in and be like, “Oh, so this is where all the black people are heading, if I’d only known earlier.” Whether you’re an African immigrant, or Panamanian, Colombian, whatever, it’s hip hop that over the past 20 years has become this kind of meeting place, this nexus for the African diaspora. Here it’s the same thing, you go in and literally you feel like you’ve been transported somewhere else. “Lost” is in San Telmo; it used to be in Palermo, but recently they moved to a bigger venue. San Telmo is historically the Afro Argentine neighborhood, so a lot of times you’ll see that clubs play more black music in San Telmo. I don’t know if there are historical reasons for that, or just because it’s where a lot of the action happens. 

VL: When you say black music, do you mean from here or from the US?

DG: From the diaspora. Dancehall, dembo, recordings coming out of the DR, reggaeton, rap, a lot of those things. So once I came back here on a Fulbright, I got a camera and was like “Alright, let’s do this project.” I wanted to focus on Afro Argentine movements in the Afro disapora, how they are using music to create or consolidate an identity, what their messages are. Are they talking about being black, being Argentine, being African? Are they relating to this country or is there a stigma? And I just started going to all the events I could, breakdancing events, graffiti events, freestyle battles, anything, and filming, talking to people.

VL: And then after a while you decided to focus on rap?

DG: It’s funny, I had met this one rapper that would send me messages all the time about every event going on and what time it was. It didn’t matter what time of day, he was all “Hey we’re playing over here, hey we’re rapping over there.” And one day he said, “I know you’re doing a rap documentary, but there are other people doing a rap documentary too. And I’m their main character.” I thought, “Ok, great.” But eventually, through him and through others, I met these people. One of them was Sebastián Muñoz, a Chilean DJ, and he was working with Segundo Bercetche, an Argentine filmmaker. I met them and talked to them about what they were doing. Their project was just about rap in Buenos Aires, the ways in which people appropriate rap and make it their own.

VL: So not necessarily the Afro angle you were working on.

DG: They had no idea of the niche that I was working on. They had gone into the immigrant communities, Bolivian, Peruvian, but they had no idea that there was any type of Afro diaspora here. So we decided to merge the projects and do one documentary on rap, but make sure that what we were talking about was really contemporary Buenos Aires.

As one of the characters says, “Rap is like water.” Rap is something that can take on whatever form you want. Because of that, it’s so interesting to use as this lens to see what people think of their realities. What do people think of their identities? What do people think of what they’re living in the city? Rap is so direct. It’s “Okay, I’m gonna talk about my story, my identity.” So the documentary is about rap, but as we always say, it’s much bigger than that. It’s about repainting the landscape of Buenos Aires as a reality. Most people think of Buenos Aires and think of things that are almost relics.

VL: You mean tango…

DG: Not that tango isn’t something that works, but you ask your average porteño and they say “Ah yes, tango…” It’s not something they necessarily know how to do or interact with anymore. And then you have this other image of Buenos Aires, the “Paris of Latin America”. Right, so you have your whitest, most European people, the façades of the buildings, everything is supposed to be very Parisian and European here. Which is also a lie. And it’s a lie that’s very well constructed because you can stay in certain parts of Buenos Aires and never realize there’s another part. As soon as you leave the north, or the limits of what is Capital Federal, you find this other Buenos Aires that exists, where most people are brown, and don’t dance tango. They’ll listen to cumbia or reggaeton or rap. And most people are not going to tell you about their grandparents who just got off the boat from Italy. It’s a completely different existence and reality.

And so for me that was the most important thing about this whole project. I grew up on rap, I grew up on hip hop, but it really frustrated me that even in Buenos Aires most people you talk to within city limits don’t know the reality or history of their own city—the components of what makes it Buenos Aires and what makes them them. So you have a country that’s missing its third leg, it’s missing that last pillar, because it’s denying part of its own existence. Not because it’s the people’s fault, but because the education system has created this disappearance of people of color. Indigenous people, black people, anybody considered barbaric and outside of European. There was a very concerted effort to do this, to erase people’s existence and erase pride in the fact that that is part of Argentina, just as much as anything else.

And so for me, that was one of the most important things, to give these people creating this modern ghetto cosmopolitan that is Buenos Aires a chance to say, “This is who we are. I am Buenos Aires just as much as tango is Buenos Aires. Okay, I live in a villa in a shantytown. Yeah, maybe my neighborhood doesn’t even appear on the map. But I live here every day, I work here every day, I am just as much a part of this place as anyone else.”

VL: What neighborhoods are you talking about?

DG: We tried to get a good representation of almost every part of the socioeconomic strata. We have rappers from Palermo, we have rappers from different villas, we have rappers from the west outside of Buenos Aires, the east outside of Buenos Aires, and immigrants, people from outside of Argentina, people from the provinces who come and live here, with a whole different vision of what Argentina is and of their own identity because of that.

One of our main characters is called Milito; he’s from a villa called Ciudad Oculta. What happened in the villa is that there was often much more of a focus on cumbia. Everyone says “There’s no rap in Buenos Aires because the popular music is cumbia villera.” And what Milito says is that at first everyone laughed at him for being a rapper, but now he’s been able to gain popularity inside the region and outside. His idea of what rap is for is to tell the stories happening from the inside, so that the media doesn’t give this despicable perception of what a villa is.

If you talk to most people here, they think if you enter a villa you don’t come out alive. I can’t tell you all the times I’ve been with a camera, with equipment. I think it’s just like anywhere, people want to be humanized. You see places like Fort Apache, all these places on the news where literally they’re acting like it’s a different country, a different existence, like these people aren’t humans.

VL: So do most of the rappers have a strongly social agenda?

DG: It’s a mix. You have Milito, for example. His name in itself is very much saying “I’m here to tell our story so that they don’t tell it for us.” [His name comes from militar, to take action.] You have Asterisko, who’s another rapper from the south of Argentina, who also says “My objective here is social transformation. What I wanna do with rap is change the world. How am I gonna do that? By making people conscious of the social changes happening.”

And then you have entertainers, people who say this is a kind of music, a music that I like. We have one character from Los Pibitos called El Dog, a really bright talented kid, who studies music and produces and plays the bass really well. His idea is, “I found rap because somebody brought me a CD of Eminem and Dr Dre.” He was like, “They were cool. What they did was awesome. That’s what I wanna do, I wanna have fun, I wanna make good music, and that’s what I can do with rap.” They do this kind of funk rap fusion with a live band and have a few rappers. The idea is “I can transform into this character that I wanna be, I can talk about whatever I wanna talk about, and I can have fun and make good music. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that.” It’s interesting though, because a lot of their lyrics are actually really transcendental, like “Feel your heart, come into your soul.”

VL: But not like hot girl, sexy car…

DG: Well, we do have those rappers as well. What happens in Buenos Aires and Argentina in general is that you have two vías, two groups of people that depending on where they were looking have taken up different stories of hip hop. That’s the crazy thing about globalization now. You can appropriate something born somewhere else, from an image you’ve seen of it. Of course that image doesn’t come with the context of having lived it.

You have some people who’ve watched Public Enemy videos and are obsessed with Chuck D, and they’re like, “Hip hop is about power politics and the fight and Black Americans,” and they’ll tell you about the ’80s and theyll tell you about Reagan. Then you have other people looking at the US now, and they’re like “Yeah, it’s about bitches and hoes and bling and my swag.” Which is valid as well, you know; there’s a validity to any character you wanna be.

So I think that was also part of it, we wanted to make sure that each vision had its own validity, not that the social vision is more important than the vision of hip hop as fun, or that the vision of Public Enemy is more important than the vision of those talking about Lil Wayne. Each person takes hip hop and does with it what they can and what they want.

VL: What Im curious about is how long this tradition has existed in Argentina. Youre talking about all these influences from the US, but within the community here how long has it been around?

DG: Well, hip hop got here in the ’80s by way of a lot of the breakdancing videos. So what you’ll see is that these VHS tapes of wild styles in hip hop videos, popular in the US, started to arrive here. You had people able to visit, and these super relics would get passed around. People started saying “Oh my God, what’s happening there?” And through that people started breakdancing, and also started building on other parts of hip hop culture. They started freestyling and graffiti and all that. Very late 80s, early 90s.

VL: Within the black community or more broadly?

DG: The interesting thing is that because of how the culture formed, it actually wasn’t necessarily transmitted to the black community or poorer communities. Rap was actually transmitted to more of a middle class at first. If you look at some of the first rap artists who actually got famous here, they had the dance moves, they had the very poppy ’80s sound to their rap. The first crews that actually got recognition and were on TV were Jesse Mill, who was very much like a Vanilla Ice figure, and Mike Dee, Mr Funky, and Mr Hollywood, who are now middle-aged men we’ve interviewed about their past. But they were really about the breakdancing culture first; dance was an important aspect of what they did, and DJing.

From there you have artists like Illya Kuryaki, which was formed by [rock legend Luis Alberto] Spinetta’s son. Some people might not even call it rap, because it was this very experimental fusion of ’80s rock, and they were very popular. But what they were doing was—if you talk to Dante Spinetta now—definitely influenced by what would be the rap trajectory here. You had them, and then you started getting people more into conscious or hardcore rap, like Actitud María Marta, who were young women that are still in the hip hop game; one of them has now moved toward reggaeton, she’s now Alika. They were talking about the dictatorship and about the indultos, the pardons.

At this time people were really conscious, making it clear that those things would never happen again. I think it was part of the beginning of a movement to speak out against them; now you see it’s very common. “Never again, nunca más.” And these young women were actually very brave in the images they used, because they were putting very political images in their videos, direct archival footage. Malena, one of the members of the group, said, “When they started pardoning these people, there was just this rage in me, I couldn’t control it, so I put it in the music.” That was really what became their focus.

VL: When did rap begin to become more widespread in the culture?

DG: Well, I would say that rap has always been this side culture. Even now, if you talk to most people, they’re not going to tell you that rap is such a huge influence in Buenos Aires. A lot of people don’t even really register that rap exists. Now people are beginning to become a little more conscious of it because a lot of shows on TV have hip hop as part of the dance routine. So through dance, people are beginning to understand, “Ah, this is hip hop.” Through other forms of music people are opening up to R&B. A lot of people through cumbia and reggaeton got to rap.

But there’s little industry; most people can’t live just on rap. It’s not like in the United States where you have more buying power, you have people who are going to consume what you do. Rap continues to be one of these things that people participate in, but not because they know they’re going to make money. There are some people that have dreams of being rap superstars. But most people here know it’s about culture.

There was one group that did get international fame, the Syndicato Argentino de Hiphop. They actually won a Grammy. But it was the year that the Twin Towers fell, so there was no award ceremony. They were able to go the United States and do a tour; they had some recognition. But after the Grammy, a public here wasn’t developed. They got this high award but there wasn’t any build on it.

VL: Why do you think that rock is something that people do listen to and have much more awareness of?

DG: Buenos Aires has always been fed a lot of European culture in terms of encouraging that people look toward Europe for role models. If you go to the provinces, for example, folklore and cumbia is the music. Inside the conurbano there’s also a lot of cumbia. So you have your autonomous music. But then when you go into Buenos Aires, they’ve been fed European rock. I have sixth grade students who are crazy about listening to Euro rock and Euro pop. And if it’s not Euro rock here, then it’s ’80s pop. My theory is that the ’80s were such an important time here in terms of leaving the dictatorship and this idea of freedom and new democracy, this new light that’s gonna come to Argentina, that that’s why this type of pop became so popular.

VL: Does today’s rap community have any publications or websites publicizing events?

DG: Not really. You will see some rap artists mentioned in publications such as Rolling Stone. And just recently some hip hop magazines from Spain have been arriving here. But they’re very expensive; these imported things are not consumed very generally.

That is something I think the community really needs to work on. There used to be a few websites. For example, there was a rapper named Alep Pluz who is very much influenced by the US rap movement. He created hiphopdogs.com, a site talking about hip hop in Argentina, with events, blogs, and new artists. But it doesn’t exist anymore. Unfortunately what you find a lot of here—and I think this happens in a lot of cultural movements here, not just rap—is that there are a lot of rivalries within the hip hop community. Rivalries between groups, between crews. “I’m not gonna talk to this group because they’re not with me, I don’t like this group.” Because of that they’re missing the opportunity to build collectively.

Dante Spinetta made a good point when he said that “People everywhere else say, let’s build together, we’re in a rap community.” You go to Chile, they have amazing collectives, huge movements, huge concerts, huge socially focused events where they’re raising lots of money and getting people together and making lots of music; there’s industry. Here, no. His critique is that everybody is so jealous of other people, isolated with their own crews, that a lot of times they don’t even register what else is happening, or don’t go to an event because a certain person is organizing it, or is from the east, or the south. So you find that these rap rivalries, which the US had because of gang wars, exist here sometimes just out of capriciousness: “They’re not from my hood.”

VL: Its a shame because its such a small community. It just means that the only people who go are the ones already in the community, theyre not going to get new people…

DG: Exactly. Because of these factions there’s really a lack of organization. Because what you ask is so clear. There’s no website where I can go and say, well what shows are going on? That’s really one of the things that the community would need, to grow. But there are some artists, some groups that are starting to work on it.

Now there’s a group thats called El Triángulo, and their whole thing is “We wanna unify this community.” They’re from Gran Buenos Aires and have a studio there called El Triángulo. And even that symbol is meaningful. One of their biggest rappers is called El Núcleo. He’s like, “This is what we need to do, we need to make a community, to unify.” What they’ve started doing is holding these monthly meetings where they get the whole rap community together and talk about what things need to happen, where they need to go, what events they need to hold, how they can represent. That’s more recent though. When we first started filming, these things weren’t happening.

VL: Is there a lot of racial tension here, for example between those of black background and Bolivians?

DG: What you’ll find is that there are different worlds. For example, Bolivian rap is a whole world, with its own events, its own culture. That is understandable; these are immigrants here together, and they’re using rap as a way to build a community. But it’s rare to see an event where all these groups are integrating for one collective cause. Now, in the Afro diaspora, you have this organization called La Diafar (La Diaspora Africana en Argentina) run by Federico Pita, who is very involved in the hip hop community. His family has a hip hop clothing line called Keel Over; you’ll see a lot of people wearing the brand. And what he started trying to do last year is mix his activisms. He said “Look, if I’m trying to organize the African diaspora, why not try to organize the hip hop community at the same time, if they’re so related?

So he started holding parties last year called Black Panther parties. He would show different political materials, archives; there were reels of Black Panther footage projected on the wall. And he would also get people together to have shows. El Núcleo for example, and some of our other characters who are Dominican immigrants, performed there. It was a great effort to bring all these different things together and say “Look, let’s get together and do what we like to do, without any pretext of whose crew is better, without battles. Let’s get together to build something.”

And it’s a struggle. It’s something people are going to have to get together to work on, because the most popular events are the battles, freestyle competitions. That is where you’ll find the most people. They’re great but there’s a problem if the spirit continues to be so into rivalries and battles. They need to find a way to channel that energy into something constructive.

VL: And how do people diffuse their work? Online?

DG: It really depends on the artists. I saw one artist the other day, Shaolin Dragon, who has always made a big point of printing his albums, even in the most basic way, with a plastic cover and a little paper insert. And every time I see him, he says “Hey look, I made another CD”: I think this is his fourth now. You can download them online too.

What some rappers are doing these days is leaving CDs in different places, in hip hop or skate culture stores—there’s a huge connection here between graffiti skate culture and hip hop—so that people can buy them. It’s an expensive process for something you know you’re not going to be making so much money off of. But I know the guys from El Triángulo were going around different places the other day, all around Buenos Aires, leaving some of their discs. It’s starting to be almost this mixtape culture, which I think is really cool.

There are no discografías, record labels. But there is this culture of homemade studios, which is really cool. I remember I went to record one day with a friend, and we were in neighborhoods where there are still dirt roads, that just got running water a few years ago. But they produce music, they have record studios. A little booth, a closet, with the egg crate on the wall—maybe. They’ve got their condenser mics, they’ve got their equipment. You have these really grassroots movements where all the kids in the neighborhood are excited just to be able to come record their album and work together.

VL: So when is this thing actually coming out?

DG: It’s gonna be at the Buenos Aires film festival (BAFICI) in April. Right now we’re fundraising with Kickstarter to make sure we have the funds to finish up post-production.

I’m a hip hop head, I’m a person that has always listened to and loved hip hop. But what I see in this is just so much more. I’m also an activist, I studied African American studies; I’m interested in immigrant rights. And to me this is about an emerging Buenos Aires, a Buenos Aires that’s gonna have so many complicated identities it’s gonna have to start dealing with. This generation isn’t gonna repress it anymore. This government is interesting because President Cristina Kirchner does talk about the Afro and indigenous population. As for what they’re doing actively, I don’t know if it’s much different. But at least the images are out there, and I know they’re prioritizing these types of projects in terms of cultural funding. 

People’s perceptions are changing too, because of what they’re seeing and what they’re consuming, because of YouTube and Facebook. They’re able to look at other countries and say “Ah, the US is made up of these identities, Panama is made up of these identies, why wouldn’t Argentina be made up of the same three pillars?” You have your European culture, your African culture, and your indigenous culture. Generally any colonized nation is made up of those same identities. If we’re repressing part of what is our history, it causes grave problems in terms of how we understand ourselves, and in terms of how we can really move forward positively with our own present and our own future. Because if we don’t understand what we are, who we are, then how can we make positive changes?