Three generations of Colombian women rap to transform Medellín
Medellín—Margoth Yepes has a rapper persona as fiery as the red shock of hair that spills down her shoulder. Since she started spitting rhymes seven years ago, the 45-year-old mother of two has been better known among family, friends, and neighbors as La Mamá Rapera (the "Mommy Rapper").
When Yepes took on the moniker in 2011, her family and community had been grappling with gang violence in their hillside slum in Colombia’s second-largest city Medellín, where turf wars had taken root in the years following the most infamous urban military operation of the country’s five-decade conflict. Yepes' family managed to survive the displacement and other traumas that had left hundreds of their neighbors injured, killed, or disappeared. Then, her teenage son began losing friends to gang rivalries, and he was contemplating revenge. What they needed was "a form of resistance."
The Yepes family call their style "conscious rap," which they describe as a tool for all disadvantaged Colombians to share their lived experiences, raise awareness of the issues facing their community and suggest alternatives. Their songs range from empowering anthems for women's rights to reflections on the conflict.
Although hip-hop used to have a bad rap in Medellín's marginalized neighborhoods, perceptions had shifted in recent years as local rappers began to work with young people, encouraging them to stay away from gangs and take action in their communities. Luis Fernando Álvarez, who goes by the rapper name A.K.A., stood out among the emerging leaders. As the founder of what he calls an "agrarian hip-hop collective," Álvarez looks just as comfortable tending the soil as he does laying down tracks in the studio with his signature style of baggy jeans, big earrings, and a bandana draped across his head. When they met seven years ago, Yepes was intrigued by A.K.A.'s style and started taking her son to spend time with the collective, which was later dubbed "AgroArte." A.K.A. was outspoken about the injustices of the conflict, as well as the gangs now battling for control, which inevitably led to death threats and his displacement. "But the movement got stronger," Yepes says. "Now there was resistance. We realized we were doing something good with the kids. So, I started to support them."
Soon after, she introduced her nephew to the collective. Then, her mother, daughter, sister, and nieces all joined too. Yepes' sister Flor Yepes Ramírez, who has seven children of her own, joined with her daughters 15-year-old Sofia and nine-year-old Ana, who perform with their aunt and 12-year-old cousin Melany. "I wasn’t just a mom anymore," says the Mommy Rapper. "I was a mother who did things, who tried to help the kids reflect and gain strength. I was trying to change their minds about what a mom is or what rap is."
"Our pain and what happened to us made us think in a stronger way and decide to change things," says Yepes' sister Flor Yepes Ramírez.
The pain of displacement
During the height of Colombia's conflict, Flor and Margoth's mother—who is also named Margoth but is affectionately known as La Abuela Rapera (the "Granny Rapper")—lost her right leg to a landmine, forcing her out of the rural mountainside and into the city. There, her family survived the atrocities of Operation Orion, Colombia's largest urban military intervention, only to have their lives threatened again by paramilitaries and by drug traffickers, whom the Yepes sisters say are the direct descendants of Escobar's Medellín Cartel.
The first time Flor and her children were displaced, they were living on an "invisible border" delineating the territorial control of rival gangs. "The gang in that area came and told me my two oldest sons were of age to pick up arms. I said, 'I'm sorry, but I'm the mom here. I’m the one in charge of this household and my sons won’t be picking up any arms. So, no,'" she recalls. She'd succeeded in keeping her sons out of the gang. They lived. But a barrage of death threats forced them to flee.
Flor and Margoth's family has been displaced several more times since then, due in large part to their outspoken role in the community and their refusal to allow their children to be recruited into gangs. The pain of displacement dominates their lyrics and has haunted them for decades.
Taking root somewhere new
Now, the extended family of 14 lives together in a compact brick house in Pablo Escobar's namesake neighborhood. Although the sisters say they've found it particularly difficult "starting from zero," they’ve decided to channel their "frustrations, rage, and powerlessness" into transforming their new home. Over the last five months, the family has created a new identity: oriundas ("natives"), an ironic nod to their displacement and that of many of their neighbors. "The idea is that no matter where we go, we’re going to plant our seed, our essence, and value the place," says the Mommy Rapper.
In their new neighborhood, the Yepes family has already attracted more than a dozen young people, with ambitions to reach "the whole nuclear family" and build community. The Granny Rapper, who describes herself as "respect, love, advice," remains a draw for community members, young and old, who seek counseling and help writing rap lyrics. She remains firm in her belief that young people hold Colombia's future in their hands and that community action will turn peace-minded youths into leaders. "They kill leaders every day. It makes your heart hurt," she says through tears. "They are giving their lives. But we have to do it."
On a recent tour of her old neighborhood, the Mommy Rapper guided a group of youths past flourishing gardens, vibrant murals and the purple house where the Yepes family used to gather with their collective. The kids' eyes lit up, she says, with dreams of transforming their own community.
Through their persistence, the Yepes family hopes that the image and reality of Medellín will evolve away from its violent reputation, "to show children that we can have a different city."
More articles by Category: Feminism, International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Colombia, Conflict, gang violence