By Alma Olavarria Gallegos
On September 21, 2013 in Red River, New Mexico, my friend Alina Taveras Shelley and I saw Los Rakas, an Oakland hip hop band with members of Panamanian heritage. Alina and I were able to talk with the band members on behalf of Generation Justice before the show.
The band is made up of cousins Raka Rico and Raka Dun, who met in Oakland, California. Their style is a mix of hip-hop with reggae, dancehall, and other influences.
How did you first become interested in music?
Dun: At first I just used music to talk about how I was missing my family and other stuff that was really going on, like a diary. I used to rhyme in it and then later, I put in instrumentals, and I liked how it sounded, and that’s how I started.
Rico: Just experimenting and messing around with my friends in a basement. That’s how it started; it was all just playing around.
Did you have the same kind of style that you have now?
Rico: No, but some of the topics that I used to talk about are the same.
How would you describe the style of music you do now?
Dun: We just kept the same method, the same formula from when we started. We don’t really think about it. If it sounds good, if it flows right, do it. If it doesn’t, we just save it, think about it, and come back to it later.
Do you think that Spanish and being bilingual has affected your success in the US?
Rico: Yeah, everybody just raps in English, you know? We rap in Spanish, and it’s better for us because we create our own thing. It’s opening peoples minds, opening new doors that the industry has never opened before. I mean, what other languages do you see over here in Red River, you know? It’s all English. You don’t see those big mainstream Spanish artists doing stuff like this. It’s pretty much American people are speaking in English, and in Latin America, they are doing everything in Spanish. It’s been a long road, I’m not going to lie to you. I mean I’ve been like mowing laws with machetes but its good at the same time because we’ve been opening doors for other artists who do the same things as we do. Opening doors for more music instead of just rap and R&B in English. For some people it’s like opening their minds like, “Oh it’s cool to listen to all kinds of different other music,” you know.
How do you feel the audience and the public receive the message that you put in the songs? Do you think that the people, your audience, understand the points you make?
Dun: Well yeah, I think our fans get it. We put slangs and stuff that only our fans or Panamanian people, someone from the bay, will know you know but, for the most part, people get it. And for the people that don’t get it they eventually will. They just got to log on to us and follow the movement.
Rico: It’s a slow process. At first they don’t know. At first they think, he’s out there just rapping and that’s about it. When its really not just rap, it’s a movement.
Are there any specific messages that you generally try to send through your music?
Dun: Well yes, you know, we don’t think we’re perfect or nothing. We are just trying to send a positive message out there. The message we usually send is to be you. Be proud of who you are. Like some people come to a different country– not necessarily America– and they don’t want to speak their language anymore so they forget who they are, stuff like that. That’s an example of just do you, be you. Be proud of who you are. That’s the main message that we send.
How have the differences in culture in Latin America and the United States, influenced you and your music or your perspective?
Rico: It’s opened up our minds. We’re not like trapped in the box, you know. We’re just open-minded and we just like to experiment with different things.
Dun: And being from Panama and Oakland, it’s going to tell us different points of view. Like Oakland has got a lot of good things but it’s got some negative things. Panama got some good things and got some negative things. So being from different parts of the world gives you two different perspectives. That has influenced our music a lot. In Panama for example, people don’t read a lot. I mean that’s something we learned over here in Oakland. We read about our culture and where we are from and stuff like that. Then Oakland got some negative stuff and Panama, we don’t like that type of stuff, you know what I mean?
Rico: It’s different values.
Dun: Yeah exactly.
Rico: But at the same time you can’t judge because you don’t know what position that that person is in. Oakland is a whole new world compared to Panama. Like the whole pimping, that’s part of the Oakland culture. You know some people don’t want to hear it but it’s the truth, man. To this day you see prostitutes walking over there and that’s something that we talk about in our music. That’s where we grew up. The reason we’re talking about it is because we went through it. Were not just going to make something up like that and we’re not trying to offend anybody. We’re just doing what we know.
Dun: Yeah, that’s why we’re saying we’re not perfect, you know. We might send our message and that might not relate to you. We are just talking about what we have learned.
Rico: Yeah like, “Ta Lista” is a whole different song than “Hablemos del Amor.” “Ta Lista” is one song that is very controversial. A lot of people — a lot of girls particularly — get offended by it but it really happens. That song is true, you know what I’m saying. Now, in “Hablemos del Amor,” or “Let’s Talk About Love,” we are telling a story. The first verse is talking about a kid who got killed by a cop. The second verse is “the poor stays poor, and the rich stays rich.” But I’m like “Yo, the message is lets talk about love.” Even though it’s hard and you’re going to see things that make it hard for you to smile, let’s talk about love because everyone is talking all this ruckus and all this violence. Some artists out there are forgetting to throw in a little love, a little message, you know, that comes from the heart. I mean for us, we just come from the heart because we really feel like that.
Dun: We were also influenced by the Black Panthers and that movement. So when we talk about stuff like that it’s not like, “let’s go to the studio and make a positive song today.” No, that’s about how we feel at the moment. It really came from the heart.
Rico: Like Dun just said, we must have been going through something. What we lived is fucked up.
Dun: Yeah, right around when we wrote that song there was a thing going on with Oscar Grant over there, you know. So we felt like we had to talk about that, at that moment.
Rico: And in the hood a few friends of ours in Panama got killed you know. So it was all that tied in at the same time it was like, yo, what’s going on? What’s going on, man? Everything just happened at once… And then in Latin music you don’t hear people sending out messages. That’s another thing. You know these Latin countries they don’t know better, so brain washed by the fucking TV. They don’t know better, you know what I mean? They just get on TV and they’re just receiving what you’re giving them.
We would like to thank Los Rakas for a great interview and performance. To hear their music you can go to their website, http://losrakas.bandcamp.com/, or buy it on iTunes.