Rebeca Lane’s important contributions to art, activism and hip-hop culture

When it came to making hip-hop music, internationally recognized artist Rebeca Lane didn’t see a future for herself. The odds were against her gender-wise and mainstream music failed to align with her feminist perspective, but with the support of an alternative hip-hop community in Guatemala City, she found her voice.

Through Lane’s talent for music, activism, experience in hip-hop community building, studies of cultural sociology and much-needed persistence, she solidified her identity as a proud Guatemalan feminist hip-hop artist with fans across the world and a network of more feminist rappers across Central America.

“I know it’s a long story [when you start by] going back to the war, but its important,” Lane said in a lecture to the Rutgers University course Media and Struggles for Democracy in Central America. “I can’t explain things without explain context.”

Rebeca Eunice Vargas Tamayac, who goes by her artist name Rebeca Lane, is referring to the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War that personally affected her family and took the lives of more then 200,000 people between the years 1960 and 1996, according to The Center for Justice and Accountability. Members of Lane’s family were disappeared during the war, meaning they were kidnapped by the military and never heard of again.

Although, Lane was 12 years old when the Peace Accords were signed and therefore most her life in Guatemala was supposedly free, the horrors of the war and fears of rebellion prevailed in synthesis with problems related to neo-colonialism, patriarchy, inequality and political corruption.

“Looking back in history, young people weren’t able to organize in anyway,” Lane explained. “Many [students] were kidnapped for just having a school newspaper.”

However that did not stop people determined to make a change in Guatemalan society. Young people, typically those who were affected by the war, gathered and started using the arts as their medium of resistance, Lane said.

“I was an activist. (But) it was very hard for us to do activism, even if it was only [through] art,” Lane said, “We were just young people trying to remember our loved ones.”

Lane was heavily involved with activism in her 20s: participating in protest marches against the military (that also had a heavy influence on the government), painting street art murals and receiving death threats as a result. Lane admitted the threats were intimidating, but the benefits of bringing attention to Guatemala’s injustices outweighed everything else.

And the urge to organize began to pick up in the early 2000s in many different forms.

“The first kind of organization young people had in the city was artistic work,” Lane said. “There was the rock movement in the 2000s, the theatre movement, poetry movement, and also [the] hip hop movement — [in addition to] the activist and political movements, which I was also involved in.”

While continuing her activism work and nurturing a growing interest in the developing hip-hop scene, Lane was also working to earn a degree in sociology with a concentration on culture at the state university.

At the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, Lane focused her academic work on the emerging hip-hop scene and community in Guatemala City with the guidance of Dr. Silvia Monzón, the founder of the only feminist radio station in Central America Voces de Mujeres and feminist magazine La Cuerda.

“I started to have a more academic approach to culture, and it was kind of cool because it made me realize a lot of things about the culture that I didn’t know … I didn’t know all of the background hip-hop had,” Lane explained.

Through her academic work, hip-hops foundations in Central America were revealed to her. The music’s relationships to gangs and organized crime, the United States and a sense of community and identity in Guatemala reshaped Lane’s views on hip-hop with a better sense of understanding.

She explained that hip-hop was brought to Guatemala along with gang members who had been deported from the U.S. in 90s.

“That’s very interesting because many times now hip-hop people want to separate them — saying one thing is gangs and on things is hip hop — but for us (Guatemalans) it came together,” she said.

Hip-hop was a way for gang members to re-establish territory and identity in Guatemala as many of them struggled with police forces, particularly undercover cops, Lane said.

“It is like a social cleansing that is being done, especially (done) to young people and especially young people who look and act and dress differently,” she said.

However hip-hop culture in Guatemala, when not linked to organized crime, can unite young people in a positive way. The music and arts related to the hip-hop community, Lane argues, can provide relief for people hardened by the frustrations of their situations or stuck in gang-related activity.

“Guatemala is a very violent and conflicted society,” Lane said. “I believe that this macho culture is linked to survival in the hood. You cannot be weak if you’re walking in the hood, if you’re a girl or if you’re a boy. So you bring this macho-ness that you have in the street to hip-hop [music] … Hip hop hasn’t taken away the aggressiveness and the violence, because it’s still there, but at least you’re letting this anger out with something creative.”

Lane said her time at school was an eye-opening privilege she is thankful to have had, and her ability to approach a community that she loves with historical context and understanding was important to her, but it came with some drawbacks.

“When I started doing music, I was having a very successful career in Academia, doing these big essays and investigations,” Lane said. “I had many publications about hip hop in these very important social sciences magazines and I was like ‘yes, cool, I’m doing it.’”

That was until she shared her academic essays with her friends in the hip-hop, many of who did not have the same formal education as Lane because only about 20 percent of the country enrolls in university, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Lane’s friends said they couldn’t get through her writing and academic jargon, which made her question her method of communication. Lane then struggled with necessity to make her writing fit with the fixed-academic style in Guatemala, which in turn made it un-relatable to the audience she most wanted to reach.

“Because Academia creates this category to understand reality, I had to use categories made by white men in the U.S. 50 years ago to explain my reality here and now,” Lane expressed with frustration. “And then I realized the things I was building for Academia was for the Academy, not for hip hop. It was for me; it was not building anything (for the culture) because the people I was working with were not able to read it. I was not able to communicate with the people I wanted to communicate with.”

This realization symbolized the end of Lane’s relationship with Academia and helped urge her to fully immerse herself in the hip-hop community, now writing music of her own that still expressed the feminist and progressive concepts that were in her academic works in a more digestible way.

Lane sees it as she could write about domestic abuse and gender inequity in Guatemala or she could simply rap about her personal experiences and share it with many, many more people.

Lane said her friends first helped her to perform her spoken word poetry over music in 2012 and her first EP “Canto” followed shortly, being released in 2013.

When Lane first got involved in the hip-hop community there weren’t many women involved, and she could not imagine herself as a female artist. But eventually she did find inspiration from other Latina artists around Central America.

“I had heard Eminem and The Fugees and things we could get from the mainstream, but it didn’t click; It didn’t move me,” Lane said. “I knew that was hip-hop, but until I heard Spanish hip hop, (it didn’t) click.”

One group that did “click” for her though was an all-female group called Actitud Maria Marta, from Argentina. Their synthesis of Latin instruments with quickly spat rhymes and meaningful lyrics about the lives of women in Argentina resonated with Lane, and their influence is clear in Lane’s works.

Lane’s newest song “Ni Una Menos,” which was released this January, is a perfect example of Lane’s mission to embrace the realities of women’s lives in Guatemala in a digestible way with the same quality of instrumental excellence as more mainstream hip-hop artists.

Lane’s music never holds back the truth, a quality she’s been criticized on by show bookers in Guatemala who call her music upsetting.

“I would like to have sweet things to write / But I have to decide and I decide on the rage / 5 women today have been murdered / And at the time at least 20 women raped / That’s just a day in Guatemala,” Lane raps opening up the song.

She unapologetically sings about painful issues in Guatemala — in this case about femicide — and although it is not always appreciated by Guatemalans, it has drawn great attention in Europe, where Lane is now on a summer tour.

However feminists, activists and members of the hip-hop community can find strength in Lane’s lyrics.

“We are not afraid we do not want one less. / Call me crazy hysterical and exaggerated / But today I sing in my name / And that of all my sisters / Do not accuse us of being violent this is self-defense / We are in resistance we are no longer defenseless,” is how Lane ends the song.

These lines are a call to action, or at the least awareness. Lane’s words laced with bravery and held together by the truth of her experiences and the realities of many less fortune women in Guatemala.

Her words have resonated with many listeners and through her success, Lane has also been able to create a network of female hip-hop artists in Central America. United with other like-minded artists, Lane’s message is growing in popularity and her influence her home country is an important contribution to progress.

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