This Intersecting Lineages conversation between Black Rhythm and Chhoti Maa is the first in a series centering global cross-community connections between artists of color.
Black Rhythm: I was conducting a beatbox workshop in Casa Cultura Ruth Hernandez, and my friend Sofia asked me about my work. Once she heard that I was a beatboxer, she immediately talked to me about you, Chhoti Maa. She told me you were a rapper from Mexico and that you planned on coming to Puerto Rico to do an artist residency.
Chhoti Maa: Yeah, Sofia was really excited for me to meet you. So I came to PR for the third time in September 2014 to Patio Taller. I talked to Sofia who invited me to UPR, the state university of Puerto Rico where you and I met. I remember we connected immediately and started freestyling.
BR: Yeah! It was like “Hi” and in the next second we made a video together rapping, singing, and beatboxing.
CM: I remember that UPR was for the most part empty, aside from Sofia’s Contact Improv session and the mosquitoes. I remember that older “Donita” was really impressed by our quick collaboration.
BR: After we connected, we started to talk about how we got into our respective art forms.
CM: How did you start to beatbox?
BR: Well, I’ve been beatboxing since May 2012. Back then, I watched a YouTube video of Joel Turner, a beatboxer from Australia; it was a performance for Australian Idol. I did not know beatboxing existed before this. I always liked listening to music, but I never would have imagined that I would eventually be the one making it, let alone using my own body to do it. So this video amazed me and blew my mind because I could not believe that people could do this using just their voices. When I was younger, I did not show any particular interest or skill in the arts. I was an athlete in high school and college, playing basketball.
But after watching a couple more videos of other beatboxers I had became convinced that I wanted to learn the art form. I started practicing via beatboxing tutorials on YouTube. I would practice the sounds and beat patterns in my room. Been doing it ever since. How did you start?
CM: I think that is really interesting that you started by watching a video on YouTube. I think that goes to show not only the expansive nature of Hip Hop, but also the importance and power of utilizing the internet as an educational tool. I started listening to Hip Hop in Mexico, during the 90s repression. Molotov and Control Machete were coming hard with rhymes that criticized the system … so for me that was when I was 6-7 living in a recession in Mexico City.
Once my family migrated again to the North, we ended up in Texas and I started to be surrounded by Hip Hop on the radio, tv, at school … I didn’t speak English, so I would say Hip Hop was a tool that enabled me to connect to my new environment. The first Hip Hop album that I remember formed me at that time in 1999 was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Outkast, and the R&B group Destiny’s Child. Basically what I am trynna say is Hip Hop was my English, Gender, and History teacher. But it wasn’t until many years later and a few migrations later through the south (Georgia and Virginia) that I actually started converting my writing into raps, which was back in 2007. So I have been rapping since then, but I didn’t become Chhoti Maa until a few years later while I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a city with a booming cultural scene particularly when it comes to music, activism, and art. I definitely recognize that my experience as a child migrant living through southern states shaped my understanding of the United States, but also my understanding of music as a liberatory practice.The first raps I wrote described my dissatisfaction and my frustration being a young womyn within a patriarchal Mexican culture, struggling to find peace with my father. I performed my first raps and songs in protests, schools, community gatherings, so I understood Hip Hop as medicine.
Hip Hop started as a Black and Brown liberatory practice in the 70s in the ghettos of New York, and, decades later, you and I connected through it, and in our own ways, we are utilizing it to connect to our people and build bridges of understanding in different communities.
So Edgar, I know that Reggeaton came out of Puerto Rico and I know Hip Hop’s DJ roots go back to the Caribbean in Jamaica before those artists migrated to NY and were part of Hip Hop’s birth. How is the Hip Hop scene in Puerto Rico now? And how do you see that Hip Hop is being used en tu tierra?
BR: The Hip Hop scene here is growing. I’m currently teaching in the Time Machine Squad School of Hip Hop, the first hip hop school in Puerto Rico. It’s a space where DJs, MCs, break dancers, graffiti artists, and beatboxers have come together to teach the various art forms to the next generation of Hip Hop artists. So there is definitely a group of Puerto Rican artists that are using Hip Hop culture as a way to empower Puerto Rican youth to stand up for social injustice and bring about positive social change within their barrios and communities. At the same time, there’s Rap artists in Puerto Rico that use hip hop to humiliate, or how we say in the island, “la tiraera.”
CM: … which over here in Cali, we would say “talking shit” or “throwing shade.”
BR: And how would you describe the Hip Hop scene in California?
CM: Well, I have been based in California since 2012, so my understanding of Cali’s Hip Hop scene is very centered in the Bay Area which includes Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and San Francisco. The Hip Hop scene in the West Coast has always had its own lil thang going on, the grand majority of that music I listened to while living outside of Cali in the East Coast and in the southern states. So migrating here has definitely allowed me to better understand and appreciate the subtle differences in the form. Also, I got here just as Kendrick Lamar blew up with the classic Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, which in my opinion reinvigorated rapping in a different way, pushing others to step up their game.
Here in the Bay, E40, Mac Dre, and Dre had huge influences on Hip Hop as a whole, introducing thick bass lines and a funk aesthetic. I think also Chicano, Mexican, and other Latinx cultures influenced Hip Hop here … which has allowed for space for people like me to participate in the community through Hip Hop, even though I mainly rap in Spanish. Folks here who don’t speak the language always give me hella love and share the mic with me. I often perform in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, and what I love about the Bay is that there are always Hip Hop gatherings going on, from the Zulu Nation to Sister Cypher at Qilombo. There are a lot, a lot of female MCs here and that is beautiful and inspiring to me, particularly because the representation of Hip Hop in American Media has tended to be male centered, patriarchal, violent, and misogynistic … and when womyn are included they are often put in a hypersexualized position … additionally, it seems that only one womyn can take the stage at a time, as if there wasn’t enough radio, tv, and internet space for more womyn, yet there are hella many male MCs who are over-represented. I do think that the internet has allowed [more people] to be exposed to the work of underground artists like myself.
In my experience of Hip Hop, I have come to understand it as a global movement that is centered in trying to gather, trying to create a common ground, trying to strengthen the collective, the community. I have also come to understand Hip Hop as a set of principles that can help guide individual’s day-to-day life towards healthier living. How do you understand Hip Hop and how do you use it in your day-to-day? How has it changed your community and your life?
BR: I understand Hip-Hop as a socio-political movement that seeks to give a voice to the outcasts of society. Through beatboxing, I seek to give people an outlet for self-expression and a way for people to make visible the everyday challenges that people have to overcome within their communities. I use it as an education tool, an empowerment tool. I’ve seen how my beatbox students have become more assertive, creative, and confident though the process of them becoming beatboxers. I also think that beatboxing has been something of an existential metamorphosis for me, because it allowed me to discover a set of character traits, strengths, and creative capacities that I didn’t know I had and nobody around me thought I could have.
CM: Damn, das wasup. I feel you Edgar. I think that rapping, another element of Hip Hop, also showed me emotions and skills I didn’t know I had; a power I didn’t know I had. Everytime I perform, I do feel that I expand my soul, I expand my energy and share my craft as medicine, as a catalyst. I know that freestyling and rapping, writing verses is a medicinal process for me, it helps me chew out, spit out the traumas of my life. In Mexican culture, and particularly being conditioned as a womyn, we are expected to be silent about many things, to keep hidden many thoughts, so my first Hip Hop battles were within my head, within my house, with my family’s and culture’s traditions. One of my firsts songs, “Oye Mi Mujer,” talks about my emotions living in patriarchal world.
Aside from helping me process my life, Hip Hop has also helped me connect with folks through my political, social commentary. From the very beginning of my time as an MC, I shared my music at protests and community gatherings that organized for migrant rights, for a just education for people of color in the United States, and against the prison industrial complex. In this way, Hip Hop many times and in different spaces has allowed me to start or to continue dialogue with folks … and many times, people from different communities I run with continue to ask me to come share my words at community gatherings. I feel that is a huge response-ability, in a similar way to what you shared. I feel that when I have utilized Hip Hop in different classrooms, it has strengthened the collaboration, and from time-to-time it became a window for someone who needed a little push para sacar la voz.
BR: Wow that is awesome! So what are some of your upcoming projects in 2015?
CM: Well, I am very excited and nervous about this, but I am releasing my 5th musical project titled AGUA CORRE in the summer. I haven’t released an album since 2011-2012. I have released many collaborations and singles, but not a work. This new project, I feel, sounds a lot more mature; I am singing more and it goes from Hip Hop to R&B to folk to some genre I don’t know what to call. It is a collaboration with two dear friends, beto guapoflaco and Keith Avelino Hernandez. Aside from that, I have shows every week in the Bay, but I am scheming a long tour for next year. How about you, Edgar? You recently performed with Puerto Rican Hip Hop artist Ivy Queen, one of the most important female MCs of all time. What other surprises do you have for us?
BR: Well, aside from performing in Ivy Queen’s concert in January, in April, I performed at the Univision Miami TV channel. Univision is the biggest Latin American Channel in the U.S.A. Also, I was the opening act for the Dominican-American artist Amara La Negra in her concert in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. Additionally, I performed at the Musica con Cultura Fest in Bahia Urbana, Puerto Rico as a member of the Urban group Time Machine Squad. I am very excited to announce that I am the new beatboxer for the a capella cusic group NOTA, winners of the Sing-Off and one of the best a capella music groups in the world. This is the first time ever in Puerto Rico, and in all of Latin America, that an a capella music group has a beatboxer. I will be going to Orlando to perform at the ARTS EXPO Showcase December 16th-20th, 2015. I am currently working on the development of a beatboxing curriculum that will allow students to learn to beatbox more efficiently. Lastly, I plan to release an EP this year called La musica no se toca:se siente. It’s called that because people have the idea that music is made by instruments that are outside one’s own body. So with that title, I want to put in perspective that I don’t play an instrument, I AM THE INSTRUMENT.
Born out of a tradition of migrants in Guanajuato and forced by the Mexican post NAFTA exodus,Chhoti Maa’s raps and songs have roots in her grandmothers’ recitation. She developed musically through the music of the Bajio, through writing poetry, through gospel high school choir in Georgia, and then established herself as a rapper in Richmond, VA in 2007. She deepened her lyrical skills in Trujillo, Peru where she began to freestyle in 2011. Chhoti Maa’s music deals with love and the daily struggles towards a de-colonial queer identity. As an artist, musician, and teacher, she harvests her migrant swag all while she reconstructs and honors her ancestors and elders’ traditions. Chhoti Maa will release her 5th musical project, AGUA CORRE, this summer.
Born and based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Black Rhythm is a beatbox artist, performer and educator. He’s the President of the beatboxing community on the Island, Beatbox Puerto Rico. This organization is devoted to the spread of the art of beatbox throughout Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. He gives talks and beatbox workshops in various schools and college campuses in Puerto Rico. He was heavily influenced by Hip-Hop culture as he started out beatboxing, and eventually his style evolved to Afro-caribbean music such as Reggaeton, Reggae, Socca, Calypso, and Dancehall, as well as Techno, Electro, Dubstep, and Drum and Bass. With a flair and skill that characterizes his musical style, he mixes these elements of music to create an original beatbox array of beats and songs. Black Rhythm will release his first EP, La musica no se toca:Se siente, in late 2015.