“And I don’t fuck with suckers, I’m from the Bay and I fuck with real motherfuckers like Los Rakas.” That’s E-40 on Panamanian Bay Area hip-hop duo Los Rakas’ “Pimpin’ Smokin’ Dro.” The hump of non-English-speaking hip-hop can sometimes be hard to climb over for English-speaking only dummies like myself, so an E-40 shout-out like that helps. Then again, so does a song as evocative and immediate as “Hablemos Del Amor,” which you can stream below.
“Hablemos Del Amor” begins with atmospheric police sirens while rainy synths and a touch of melancholy Auto-Tune add some melodrama. The raps builds to a “one love” chant on the hook, invoking Bob Marley and Nas. In its final moments, the song simmers back down to pay tribute to Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and as the group explains below, Panamanian reggae artist El Kid, killed at age 23. The end-of-song R.I.P.s brings to mind ST 2 Lettaz’s rap on “We Are the People,” off his recent R.E.B.E.L. mixtape: “Everybody talking about Trayvon, guess we forgot about Sean Bell…” ST bemoans the hashtag protest culture that sweeps up Twitter and leads to lots of Facebook likes and digital signatures but tends to turn murdered people of color into brief buzzwords. Los Rakas seem to be acting on the same frustrated impulse as ST, locating the latest injustice inside of a larger continuum of violence, and not an isolated incident that will soon be ignored for another isolated incident. I reached out via email to Raka Dun and Raka Rich of Los Rakas, while they were on tour, and they collective answered a few questions, giving some context for “Hablemos Del Amor,” and their global approach to hip-hop.
Discuss the mix of influences on “Hablemos Del Amor.” The “one love,” hook recalls in hip-hop listeners’ minds, Nas’ song of the same name. Also, Bob Marley, of course. At least, that’s what I’m hearing.
We didn’t think of Nas specifically when we wrote this song, but that’s an interesting observation. Nas was talking about someone in prison, reading a letter to them. In that way, we’re really influenced by Nas and you can hear that in the first verse of “Hablemos Del Amor,” and a lot of our music (like the songs “Cueria” and “Vengo De Panama.”) Also, in “One Love”, Nas talks about minds being “incarcerated.” The parallel with our song is that we’re calling for people to free their minds of what’s expected of them. That’s what the whole Raka movement is about anyhow: Though, you may be considered a Raka (“Rakataka,” or a gangster) by society, flip the word and rock with it. Be proud of who you are and where you’re going. Essentially though, the song touches on unity regarding race. We see it closer to Bob Marley as far as direct influence.
Can you also explain your relationship with Reggaeton and dancehall?
Just in terms of music, Jamaica and Panama are parallels to each other. Reggaeton music, which came out of Panama on its way to Puerto Rico, began when Jamaican migrants working on the Panama Canal brought their reggae sounds to the culture. A whole style of music in the late ’80s came out of that movement which is called “Plena.” The first big artist to have a hit in Panama was actually a Panamanian of Jamaican descent, Renato (father of Panamanian fallen star, El Kid, who is referenced in “Hablemos Del Amor” alongside Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin). Essentially, Renato was rapping in Spanish over a reggae beat. Later on, El General won a MTV Video music award in 1992 for his reggae-infused worldwide hit, “Muevelo.” All that’s to say this: When you hear Los Rakas over a Jamaican riddim, it’s just closing out a continuous musical circle that’s been swirling for decades in the Caribbean. And we’re proud to rep that here from Panama to the Bay Area and out to the world. Our music has no limits. And the way we mix rhythms and style is a message unto itself beyond lyrics. Music has no limits. You have no limits. It’s time to open it up a lot more in hip-hop, for more women, different languages, cultures, all of that — to co-exist in the space.
How much do you consider your listeners who speak only English and as a result, miss the specifics of your lyrics?
“Hablemos Del Amor” is translated here. We try to translate all of our songs. More and more, we’re making an effort to build lyrics into our videos too (see “Bien Ribetiao”). We always try to throw a hint of English into our music, because it’s natural — we live in Oakland — and though we express ourselves in Spanish, it’s only natural the English seeps through. On “Hablemos Del Amor,” since we know already that a lot of our audience doesn’t speak Spanish, we consciously put in “One Love” to pique peoples’ interest. We hoped people would immediately connect Bob Marley’s message of unity with our message of positivity and love; it’s a timeless message and it’s more relevant than ever.
Let’s talk about “message music” versus well, just making music.
We wouldn’t feel comfortable in our responsibility as artists to continue to create and not reflect on what we’re seeing in our own city. Not just in Oakland, where there’s a huge wave of gentrification happening right now, kicking people out of their homes, coupled with racism and police brutality happening around the country. But also what’s going on with our families back in Panama. This is a worldwide thing. The rap game can’t just be focused on the false hopes of materialism and glamorization of violence, because the reality is, shit is fucked up and lots of people have lost close family and friends to all the violence. It’s our job is to talk about all the dimensions we’re facing as a people. A lot of artists chose to be ignorant and silent on certain things and a real Raka wouldn’t do that — it has to stop! We’re in a world where a lot of different types of people are taught to hate each other. We feel everybody should fuck with everybody! People talking to other people, hearts speaking to other hearts, different styles speaking to other styles. Love over war — that’s the main message of “Hablemos Del Amor.”