Ana Tijoux discovered hip-hop while growing up in France but as she tells Gonçalo Frota, it was only after arriving in Chile that she was able to develop a true identity for her life and her music
Having travelled frequently to the US these last few years, Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux began to wonder why her music wasn’t reflecting the same kind of wonderment in rediscovering her musical roots as she noticed with her Afro-American friends. They felt so close to their own jazz, blues and soul. Tijoux began questioning her role as a musician from Chile – and not anywhere else. It didn’t take her long to realise that among her generation – be it heavy metal buffs, hip-hop maniacs or hardcore jazz fans – they all shared a common and almost irrational love for local folk heroes like Víctor Jara. “And then I understood why it brings us together in such a powerful way,” Tijoux says. “It’s music that we listened to in our childhood, it’s part of our historical and biographical legacy.”
Born in Paris, France, in 1977, where her parents were exiled during the Pinochet dictatorship, Tijoux was brought up in a very particular family environment, where political discussion was no stranger to the dinner table. She was still a child when she came across the first musical revolution in her life: ‘Construção’, a song by the Brazilian Chico Buarque, describing in a realistic and shocking way the death of a worker on a construction site. He falls agonisingly and dies on the road, while nobody seems to notice him. “That was the beginning of my learning to write a song,” Tijoux acknowledges. “Because it combines a deep and poetic meaning, a very real and social resonance, and a beautifully crafted music cathedral.”
Soon however, hip-hop would grab Tijoux’s attention in an intense manner. It was its “anger,” she says, that first attracted her. “I believe that in my neighbourhood, and a few others around the world full of migrant parents, hip-hop became our country.” Not quite able to identify as a French girl and never having been to Chile at that time, Tijoux found in hip-hop a solace common to a lot of youngsters who felt country-less. “It was a way of dealing with that distress,” she says.
By the time Tijoux finally crossed the Atlantic with her parents to start a new life in a country she had only heard of, hip-hop was already like a second skin. Arriving in Chile was, however, a bit of a shock. She grew up fantasising about a distant land made of promise and an overly-politicised country, and instead she found a profoundly nostalgic and poetic place, albeit shaken by social movements she playfully compares with Chile’s seismic activity. “People survived the dictatorship with a heavy weight on their shoulders – the way they dressed, the music they listened to,” she says. “But as I’m still in love with that nostalgia and that contradiction, I didn’t go back to France.”
Tijoux’s music would then grow up to be hugely focused on social commentary, pointing her finger in the direction of wherever she found injustice. Her big breakthrough came precisely when she raised her voice and joined the students’ continuous protest with the crumbling education system in Chile. ‘Shock’, included on the 2011 album La Bala, quickly became a popular anthem for a whole generation fed up with the ruin of Chile’s democratic dream. The inspiration came from the rapper’s reading of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, where the author argues on the promiscuity of liberal capitalist strategies with various national politics. The fact that Klein uses Chile as an example of an experiment of this capitalist model immediately resonated with Tijoux, as she identified with the description of policy based on fear, mass control and practices of repression and torture.
The tricky thing was that from the moment Tijoux was able to rip through the silence and put her political points across, she suddenly became aware of the inherent risk of turning into the one thing she feared the most – becoming a brand. As if being a revolutionary singer could deviously be reversed by marketing tactics and discredit her speech by labelling her as a ‘revolutionary singer.’ “That’s why I don’t know if the music I make is perceived as inconvenient or if it can be distorted by marketing,” she stresses. “And the only way to fight it is killing myself artistically over and over again. It’s quite dangerous when our speech can turn into a slogan or a logo. So I question my work all the time and try to be surrounded by people that do so as well.”
This very idea of renewal and rebirth is the driving force behind her recent album Vengo. After dealing with her own biography on 1977 and picking up on a more political tone in La Bala, with Vengo Tijoux finally finds a way of freeing her music from the mandatory samples of American jazz as a primary source to her songs. She looked for material all over Latin American folk music and insisted on building a new cultural identity. It was an obvious solution to her need to make music that is based on the fact she is a primarily Chilean artist – and not just another indistinct hip-hop artist.
Working on and slowly resolving her personal contradictions through music, Tijoux adds her usual social and political concerns to the distinct Latin American hip-hop sound: the feeling of being part of a national lineage (‘Vengo’); her refusal to abide to a male tailored society (‘Antipatriarca’) and the absolute need to always speak out in face of injustice (‘Somos Sur’), on which the Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour makes a symbolic contribution.
This is what’s so reassuring and infallible in Ana Tijoux’s music; there is not a single word that comes out of her mouth without sounding as if she would give her life for it. Like some sort of musical daughter of Violeta Parra and Víctor Jara, the Chilean tradition of breeding fearless critics is clearly in very good hands.
Vengo is released on Nacional Records.
Top photo: performing at the FMM Sines Festival in Portugal, 2015, by Mário Pires.
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