When Grammy-nominated group Los Rakas started performing in Oakland in 2006, they’d draw crowds of Black and Latino youth. The diverse audience – a rare sight in the Bay in those days – spoke to the unique ways the hip hop duo used the sounds of their Afro-Latinx roots to connect people across diasporas. Ten years later, Los Rakas is still making music and pushing boundaries. I met with Raka Rich to talk about identity, trendsetting, and “Tiene El Control”, his upcoming release with INTL BLK (produced by Chief Boima & Broso).
Before we get started, congrats on the Grammy nomination.
Thanks. The Grammy award was confirmation that our style of music isn’t foreign anymore.
You were born in California, but you grew up in Panama. Where do you tell people you’re from?
I tell people I’m a proud Black man who speaks Spanish and English, and I am Panamanian from California.
A lot of people still don’t think of Latinos as also Black. How do you think most people see you?
Look at my hair. [He laughs.] Look at my family. I got from the darkest to the lightest. I get treated like an African. I consider myself an African. I’m just Black. I’m proud of it. I see it, understand it. I feel like we’re the underdogs, like we get mistreated. So, however they see me, I love to represent the culture because I feel like we’re tired of getting bullied. We’re trying to stand up, especially in the Latin industry.
Tell me more about that. How does the Latin music industry treat Black people?
As far as urban music in Spanish, you don’t see many Afro people representing the genre. A lot of people don’t think, or don’t know, that there are Black people who speak Spanish, who live in these places, because the spotlight is on the guys with lighter skin. They make you think there’s no Black people in these places, but there’s Black people all over the world.
It sounds like there’s an intentional erasure of Black people. Natalia Linares and Francisco Perez recently wrote about the relationship between race, class, and reggeaton, specifically. Why do you think Black artists are being kept out?
I don’t know if it’s intentional or if it’s racist or if people are just programmed to think that everything that’s white is just beautiful. I don’t know. That’s what it is. Who is going to change it though? It’s got to be people like us that go mainstream.
How are you changing that?
You can just hear it. You can hear it because you can’t compare our music to any other Latin music that’s out right now. But if you compare it to what African artists are doing, there’s a relation there.
In America, in the US, pop culture is Black culture. But in Latin America, it’s different. And by us representing that style of music, we’re changing that. We’re pioneering. And everyone will want to do it. But they won’t be able to do it. You know why? Because they’re not African. It won’t be authentic.
I feel like if I go to Africa, I’ll fit right in musically, for sure. That’s where I belong. And that’s where the music comes from. The drums, the singing. All the way to Panama. In Panama, we got the congo. It all comes from Africa.
Tell me about “Tiene El Control”. How did that song come about?
I hadn’t seen Chief Boima in hella long, and he came thru one night. He was leaving that night, so we met up in San Francisco and we knocked the song out. It was something that just came naturally. He’s one of those producers, you know. I let him take the lead and I just follow. He guides me through this.
What’s the message you wanted to relay with the track?
It’s basically saying that she has the control. She’s the showstopper when she’s on the dance floor, and she knows it. I was just bigging up the ladies.
How would you categorize the track? Does it fit into the larger afropop scene that’s going more and more global?
I was trying to think about that, but no. It’s just feel good music. Honestly, I wouldn’t even know how to categorize it. But, as a matter of fact, that whole afropop thing, we’ve been doing that. We did that in 2011 with Chief Boima with Chancletas Y Camisetas Bordada. We’ve been doing that. But in Spanish.
What does international black mean to you?
I think we’re doing amazing things all over the world, and people have to start acknowledging it. It’s hard being Black. Black people struggle all over the world. And I’m not just saying that; I’m speaking my experience. And I know that we’re doing amazing things all over the world, too. Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Panama, Brasil, Cuba. These are places that are doing African music but with twists from their own country. You go to Europe and you’ve got Black French artists rapping that are dope. You know, it just keeps growing. The Dominican Republic has a lot of different styles of music that come from – you can hear it – African background. The influence is everywhere.
And from that international perspective, what do you see as the future of hip hop?
I think people are just going to be more open-minded. Stop labeling everything. People are going to want to hear different types of music because if not, life would get too boring.
Download “Tiene El Control” by Raka Rich and produced by Chief Boima and Broso here, or pre-order the high quality version on iTunes.
Article by Nora Rahimian:
Nora helps creatives use their platforms for social impact and project-manages people’s dreams so they achieve their goals. She first heard afrobeats in clubs in Liberia, where she was managing a hip hop artist.
Share your favorite songs with her on Twitter or Instagram at @norarahimian.