We sit down with Los Rakas, the Oakland-based Panamanian duo who have become one of the brightest Afro-Latino acts around.
Urban Latin American music, from the moombathon of Panama, to the hip-hop in Spanish of Northern California, runs through Los Rakas' catalogue. They often take recognizable beats and base their songs around them, but with their lyrics and their energy, they take to make them their own.
Los Rakas are proudly black, Panamanian and from Oakland, a musical heritage they show in their remixes, their beats and their raps. When they take the stage, people go wild. They not so much sing as conduct a mob ready to dance. They switch from English to Spanish as swiftly as they go from dancehall to reggaetón. They are quite a sight to see live.
We talked to members Raka Rich and El Negrito Dun Dun right before their electric closing performance of the Afro-Latino Festival in New York.
Okayafrica: How would you describe the music you do?
Dun Dun: It's Raka Music.
Raka Rich: Yeah, Raka Music, because it's all kinds of genres. It's hard to tell people what kind of genre we sing sometimes, because we like to go to any rhythm. When we say we are experimental, we don't mean that we're different, we mean that we do a rhythm that has rap, trap, reggaetón, romantic style, mambo, merengue, moombathon, bachata, whatever comes, you know, there's no limit to the genres we like to experiment with.
What does it mean to you to be in the Afro-Latino Festival?
DD: It's an honor for us, because that's what we represent, to the fullest. It was an honor to be invited to be part of this.
RR: I don't know if you have seen many Afro-Latino festivals before, they are one of the first. I remember when we started not a lot of people knew that we spoke Spanish, just because of our color. Many people don't know about the existence of Afro-Latinos, about the people in Panama who are black, who speak Spanish, or the same in Central America, or even Mexico. We represent all of those people, and we are also educating people, especially those Americans who don't know about the existence of Afro-Latinos.
What is your relationship to that identity of being Panamanian and black while living in the U.S.? How do you relate to other Latinos and Afro-Latinos?
DD: We get treated the same as if we were African-American. We're the same thing here. But we feel the same, the only difference is that we are educating people and letting them know that there are black people who speak Spanish and come from different places—not only Spanish, black people speak many languages around the world.Do you include any African influences in your music?
DD: Yes, of course. Especially in our EP Chancletas y Camisetas Bordada, where we used a lot of Afro influences, because of the producer, Chief Boima. He was the one who helped us put that EP together.
RR: Yeah, Chief Boima is from Sierra Leone, so he came with that sound. And that was in 2010. So that was a few years back, but that type of music is now becoming popular here. Drake and other pop artists are experimenting with it, but that's something we've been doing for a while. And that's what I mean what I say that ours is experimental music… I don't know, people sometimes have many ideas about it, but it's not what this is really about. We add the feeling from different sources of inspiration. We don't want to limit ourselves to what people think we are.
What are those limits people think you have?
RR: Like people asking us to rap more, or to make more romantic songs, you know?
DD: Some people think we only do hip-hop, or that we only talk about one kind of topic in our music, but we talk about everything, because in life you are not just one type of person, you'd be lying if you said that you are only that kind of person. Sometimes you're angry, sometimes you're in love, sometimes you're sad, sometimes you just want to have fun, you know what I mean?
RR: To give you a better example, when you go to the movies, if you have kids you go see comedy films; if you go with your partner, you go see a romantic movie, or else you go see a scary movie. You're not going to say “I only want to see action movies," because you'll get bored.
What is your relationship with Panama?
DD: It's our country, we love our country, we represent our country until death. And thankfully we are accepted there in our country. When we go there is like if a boxer that represents the country, or a soccer player with the national team got there, that is how we're perceived there.
And what about the reception here in the US?
DD: It's been very good. This is where we started, so here is where the Rakas movement had its start, even before it got to Panama, because we started in Oakland, California.
RR: Our acceptance here has been really good, because we began rapping in Spanish and Spanglish, and the people who accepted us from the beginning were those who didn't speak Spanish: African-Americans, Filipinos, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, Polynesians, a big community we didn't imagine would love our music.
Since you are talking about your beginnings, how have you seen the evolution of your music?
RR: It has evolved a lot.
DD: Yeah, a lot, we have become better. Thankfully we get better every year. We have experimented with different sounds, melodies, voice tones…
RR: We have learnt a lot, we have worked with many producers, people that know about music and that have taught us things we didn't know before. You never stop learning. We keep growing and we'll keep getting better, and God willing we'll keep succeeding.
Is there anything you remember those producers recommending as a big influence in your music?
DD: Well, we go to a lot of parties, and always use Shazam when something cool comes up. That's how we get inspired.
Finally, do you have any recommendation of Afro-Latino music?
DD: Kafu Banton, Tego Calderón's first album, El Roockie's first album too, which is called Revelation Lyrics, also Aldo Ranks, he was more into dancehall, which in Panama is called “bultrón," but it's in Spanish and it's very tough, very street, that's the kind of music that inspired us to rap.
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