Bocafloja: “James Baldwin is my all time favorite rap artist”

Aldo Villegas’ words are his weapons. He uses them everyday to convey his ideas and theories, to give voice to subjugated cultures and people, and to speak out on many different platforms, from classrooms to theaters. But it’s the stage, before fans who show up for his rapid fire delivery of poetry and truth, that has kept him going for so many years.

As Bocafloja, he’s addressed a spectrum of problems affecting Mexicans, Latinos and people of color in general – all with substance and style. He’s analytical, intellectual and highly articulate. I can assure you, Bocafloja is one of the headiest and most opinionated figures in hip-hop the world over, and one who is a crucial conversation starter.

Both in his native Mexico City and later his adopted home of New York City, Bocafloja has been dabbling in many creative pursuits – but it’s his passion for hip-hop that gives his narrative motion, and that is leading him back home to play NRMAL festival at the end of the month.

We spoke with Bocafloja about the true origins of hip-hop, the culture industry and the transgressive nature of his college lectures.

What made you interested in rapping about social issues in the first place?
I think it was the consequence of recognizing the possibilities of rap beyond the traditional boundaries that the cultural industry established for it. When I first started rapping I was a 16, 17 year old kid; I was pretty much fantasizing about cars, money and hoes. But then I got to a point where I started to politicize myself and become more aware of my social responsibility and shift towards a different path with my art.

My music is not “rap mexicano” or “rap en español.” I don’t embrace any of those labels on an artistic level.

How much has your art and work been influenced by your move to NY? Has your perspective on the world changed?
Before moving permanently to NY, I was already touring in the US and Latin America, so somehow, someway I’ve been focused on the “global hip-hop” circuit from a very early stage in my career.

The cultural offering in NY is one of the world’s most rich and diverse, so that fact by itself besides being inspiring, forced me to maintain a certain standard in my artistic production that would allow me to be relevant and aesthetically competitive within the independent artistic in the U.S.

You have been doing this a long time. In what way do you feel you have evolved the most? How do you feel your music has been refined?
It’s a different me, therefore I’m a different artist. I’m 36 years old and my life is quite different in comparison to the average Latin American rapper with visibility that is in their early twenties. But more than anything, in addition to being a rapper I’m an academic, working on film production, theater, etc. My music is not “rap mexicano” or “rap en español.” I don’t embrace any of those labels on an artistic level. And I don’t embrace any nationalist affirmations on a personal level either.

Lyrically, I’m a way better writer that what I used to be when I started. My delivery as a rapper is considerably different from 6 years ago, and musically, I think I finally reached that level where I could become a fan of my own project.

You have dabbled in poetry. How do you think it influences it your verses and vice versa? Do you think you could be a poet if you weren’t a rapper or the other way around?
There is an inherent poetic exercise in most rap lyrics. In my case, from my very first demo back in the late nineties I had spoken word tracks in it; I can’t detach one experience from the other. Of course when I’m talking about poetry I’m referring to a poetic experience that is a resignification of the hegemonic and legitimized formats of poetry. My poetry has icons like Amiri Baraka as referents and not the Spanish golden age.

James Baldwin is my all time favorite “rap artist.”

What inspired you to form the Quilomboarte collective?
It started as a necessity. Being part of one of the first generations of rappers in Mexico City made us create our own platforms of cultural production because there was no one else bringing the artists we wanted to see or producing the type of cultural-political content that we embraced. The Quilomboarte project is 10 years old, but before Quilombo there were some other collective efforts of cultural production that we were part of since the late nineties.

Through Quilomboarte, you have been very much involved in art. In the beginning of hip-hop, the art world, beyond poetry, was very interested in the genre and it incorporated many attitudes and ideas from that world as well. What do you feel is the relationship between art and hip-hop?
I think hip-hop is part of a huge conglomerate of artistic disciplines that feed each other on permanent bases. One of our premises is to constantly deconstruct the idea that hip-hop can only be manifested through four artistic forms. That “hip-hop was born in the late Seventies” narrative is convenient to the white power structure since its disconnecting hip-hop from all the previous historical, racial, political and social processes that set the conditions for its emergence. That’s why I constantly say that James Baldwin is my all time favorite “rap artist”.

You have been giving lectures on the university circuit. What has that experience taught you?
It represents a transgression. Lecturing and being a key note speaker at Colleges and Ivy League Universities through the experience of a colored body that doesn’t hold a formal academic background is still uncomfortable for certain power spheres; for me, it’s absolutely strategic. Colonialism, be it external or internal, invalidated our narratives and knowledge production, so it’s crucial for a person like me to be there in order to discuss, visibilize and empower black and brown decolonial thought.

Internal colonialism is powerful, alive and deep in our psyche.

In the beginning, hip-hop addressed many social situations but at some point stopped being a popular topic. I mean, like you mention, the state of mind reaches back to before Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, but it’s an attitude that’s in large part absent. Why do you think it has taken a backseat? Will we ever see an era again when this again will be the norm?
It’s part of a process of co-option and neutralization promoted by the cultural industry. The narratives and iconic representation of artists like N.W.A, Public Enemy or Tupac Shakur had a direct articulation on the front lines. Agendas of political organization and direct action were in connection with some of this artists. That was definitively not convenient for the power structures; the cultural industry being a branch of the same tree immediately pushed a radical shift on what’s being visibilized and what not.

Hundreds of groups with a more politicized approach have been there constantly producing relevant material, they never ceased. But the cultural industry through mass media outlets makes it almost impossible to reach certain levels of exposure. I feel like the strategy today is to find some of the windows that the system opens every now and then at platforms of massive exposure. Some of the artists that are already popular worldwide matured their discourses or politicize themselves and used their access to mass media outlets to speak up, so I think that is crucial.

You have been pretty outspoken about the many atrocities that have happened in the world lately. I would like to ask you what do you think needs to happen so injustices like these stop or at least become less frequent and tragic.
Well, that would require a really complex analysis that doesn’t have one absolute answer since oppression its constituted by multiple layers. Resistance has to be intersectional, and in that sense we are doing our job by creating platforms of discussion and political participation through art.

What do you think it’s the artist’s duty nowadays?
I think it’s a debate that turns sterile easily due to its high level of subjectivity. For black and brown artists, our responsibility has a historical connotation that is shaped by our conditions of existence, so personally I understand art as a vehicle that has much more potential of communication than just a personal creative satisfaction.

On that note, what do you think is the role of hip-hop in the world?
Hip-hop is one of the many artistic materializations of black and brown diasporic experiences, so that fact has inherent conditions that determine its role. Unfortunately, co-optation is almost inevitable, and it goes from legitimizing Iggy Azalea or even certain narratives of whiteness that could be aesthetically “well executed” as a rap form in the case of Action Bronson, to the U.S department of state using Muslim American rappers to push the liberal democracy political agenda by making them tour as cultural ambassadors of the U.S in the Arab world. Our role is to be critical towards this processes and keep up with cultural production that could balance the equation as much as possible.

Lastly, what do you think about the current Mexican hip-hop climate?
I’m not entitled to talk about it from it’s core since I don’t consider myself part of that movement anymore, but I definitely have an opinion from an external standpoint. Alternative culture in Mexico is mostly white oriented, therefore most of the narratives produced in the Mexican rap scene are the fulfilled fantasy of the criollo morality. Internal colonialism is powerful, alive and deep in our psyche, so if an artistic expression reifies some of those colonial values it becomes really problematic. There are some good producers, some technically solid emcees, and clever kids that are developing a small independent industry that starts to be profitable in that local economic context, so I find that positive. Sterile endless discussions on “realness” as the only criteria to validate acts, plus hyper masculinity and myopic nationalism are conditions that need to be eradicated in order to position rap produced in Mexico on a healthier climate