Interview: Alika, From Foul-Mouthed Femcee To Roots-Tugging Rastafarian [ARG]

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Last time I interviewed Alika was in 1996. Back then I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a music journalist. I was just a nerdy college student, a hip-hop aficionado who simply wanted an excuse to talk to the only two girls active in the minuscule hip-hop scene of mid-90s underground Buenos Aires. Alika was one of these two girls, but her name was still Alicia. Her partner was Malena and together they formed Actitud María Marta, a pioneer hardcore rap duo of angry, foul-mouthed girls with a very politicized message.

Almost 18 years had passed since that early, amateurish interview and here we are again. This time, both of us residing in the United States (she temporarily, myself permanently). Since we last talked she had managed to become the biggest solo female artist to ever come out from that Argentine scene, gaining recognition throughout the continent after adopting reggae and Rastafarianism, along with her new identity. Myself, I kept on writing about music, and using it as an excuse to talk to pretty girls.

In 2012, the Uruguayan-born femcee surprised us with a great single and a mind-blowingly epic video to go with it. “Jengibre” made it almost to the very top of our Best Videos of 2012 and the song is now included in Mi Palabra, Mi Alma, her sixth official album as a solo MC/reggae toaster.

I won’t ask you to fill me in on everything that happened in your life since our last interview in 1996, cause it’d take forever. So, just tell me the most important milestones of your post-Actitud María Marta bio so far.

Wow, it’s been that long? It’s amazing that we’re still alive! The most important…well, this project: Alika & Nueva Alianza. We released a bunch of albums, we traveled to many places, we’re able to continue doing music after so long. Other than that, in my personal life, I had a daughter. She’s 12 now and she’s sitting here, next to me, doing her homework.

How and when did the transformation from Alicia to Alika take place? Was it right after you left Actitud? I remember you were gone from the scene for a while, and then, all of a sudden, you reappeared with this new name and a whole new concept.

I didn’t disappear; I was still working, behind the scenes. I realized I needed to do my own thing, so I kept looking for different studios and beat producers until one day a demo from a Chilean reggae artist named Boomer (from Sindicato de la Danza) fell [into] my hands. So I went to Chile to find him. It was in Chile that I formed a band and named it Alika & Nueva Alianza. I chose Alika because it’s like the historical root of my name and because reggae music has a lot to do
with roots.

So this transformation from Alicia to Alika coincided with your switch from hip-hop to reggae?

I always made whatever felt natural at the moment. If I was feeling more reggae, I did reggae, if I’m into hip-hop at the moment and I feel like doing a hip-hop song I do it. At the time when my solo project started I was mainly focused on reggae.

At that point Nueva Alianza was your band in Chile, but then you left Chile and changed producers and band members and you kept the name.

The name Nueva Alianza had to do with doing something new and I wanted it to show that it was a collective project with many different artists. In the first album there were a lot of Chilean MCs, a percussionist and a DJ and they all had their own parallel projects. The allies keep changing, but the name remains. I’m still in contact with the original members from Chile and we have played together many times when possible, but with the distance it’s very complicated. In my new album one of them plays in one song titled “Gracias a Jah.”

Many Latino reggae artists focus mainly on the music and aesthetics but disregard the religious aspects of this culture. Others have a deeper commitment to it. How seriously do you abide by the Rastafarian philosophy?

My commitment is to the fullest. I wouldn’t be talking about it if I didn’t really feel it. I think that what you do in your music has to reflect what you do in your life, if you’re preaching something. When I was in Chile I got really deep into it with the local Rastafari community and now I’m in contact with Rastas from all over the world.

DJ Stepwise is an Argentine-born, Bay Area-raised reggae selectah and he’s currently a member of Nueva Alianza, touring with you through the U.S. and the world. How did you connect with him?

I was in Salta and a girl gave me one of his mixtapes. I didn’t know who he was. I listened to it and loved it and right around that time I was finishing recording Educate Yourself and I thought it’d be great to add his mixtape format to that album. Just by chance he was touring Argentina at the time and we connected and it came out like that. After that, we kept on collaborating constantly in many other projects.

Outside of the Latin hip-hop and reggae scenes, lots of people here found out about you thanks to your cumbia tracks and your collaborations with ñu-cumbia luminaries like El Hijo De La Cumbia. How did those came about?

My interest for cumbia emerged during my time in Mexico. I used to tour Mexico a lot and stay at friends’ houses. One of these friends had a sister who was really deep into cumbia—she blasted cumbia all day! After a while, spending time with her I got interested in it, I started buying albums, Mexican cumbia mainly but also a lot of Colombian cumbia, of course. So that started to filter into my music naturally. My first cumbia was “Dem got no love,” then there was the remix by El Hijo De La Cumbia and after that it became more established as a constant in my sets.

Your new album, Mi Palabra, Mi Alma, includes three cumbia tracks. Two of them are collaborations with cumbia villera artists La Liga and El Traidor (formerly of Los Pibes Chorros), the other one is with female reggae legend Dawn Penn. I bet there’re some interesting stories behind them.

I could never imagine doing a cumbia with this lady! That happened thanks to DJ Stepwise who was touring with her through Argentina. When I saw she was coming I said to myself I gotta record a song with this woman, she’s like the biggest one in reggae. At that moment however I didn’t have a reggae riddim, I was working on that cumbia track and I showed it to her, she said she liked it because it had soul and she recorded the vocals in the closet of a friend of Stepwise’s home.

What about the collaborations with El Traidor and La Liga?

I was touring in Rosario and I was on the bus while the rest of the band was doing sound-check. The bus driver started playing some cumbias and I was listening, and I said to myself out loud, while looking out the window, “One day, I’d love to do a collaboration with El Traidor.” The driver turned around and said, “He’s my friend!” and he hooked us up. The one with La Liga was arranged via Twitter.

Talk to me about “Jengibre.” I personally think that’s one of the best Spanish hip-hop videos of all time.

Jujuy is one of the places I like the most in Argentina. I think that’s one of the few places in Argentina where you can appreciate the roots of our people the most. The indigenous cultural heritage is very visible. I thought it would be very interesting to show that while contrasting it with urban music. All the dancers and the parkour kids are from Jujuy. And visually, Jujuy is already magical, you don’t need to change much for the video.

On a song on this new album you basically grant permission to your fans to download, burn, and share your music for free. At the same time, the album is available for sale. How do you explain this?

That’s the way we’ve always distributed our music. We release our albums and we hope that those who can buy it and want to contribute do it. But also, culture has to be accessible for everybody. If you’re working hard and you barely get by with your wages, you probably won’t be spending 10 bucks on an album. So that’s how it gets disseminated, by passing it along to your friends, lending it.

Download Alika’s Mi Palabra Mi Alma below: