Less than four months after completing my Next Level DJ residency in El Salvador I found myself back at La Casa Tomada in San Salvador, our team’s home base for the first half of our trip. I met up with half a dozen participants from the our program, including MC’s Blaze Uno, dancers Stimpy and B-Girl Mangandi, and Ivan “DJ Lebanjy” Velasco, who ended up co-teaching a group of teenagers with me during the second half of our residency in the city of Soyapango. We were joined by our videographer Jose and Fran, who runs the music studio at Casa Tomada. We had an informal lunch, discussing hip hop, reminiscing on Next Level, and talking about Salvadoran life in general. A highlight of the trip was with Lebanjy, who was helping to organize a “Social Circus” event, which promotes peace and community through circus arts such as acrobatics. It brought together a great cross section of the community to one of San Salvador’s most impoverished communities.
Soon after finalizing my travel plans for El Salvador we found out that Carlos “Cue Bass” Godinez was selected for the Global Next Level program back in the States, during the exact time I was returning. Although I was thrilled that he was selected, I was a bit disappointed he was not around, as he was one of the people I had bonded with the most. Beyond his skills as a DJ and producer Cue Bass is a very thoughtful and caring guy. Prior to me coming out, we had discussed doing an event, such as a performance or release party for a zine that the NL El Salvador team’s been working on, but due to scheduling conflicts we decided to keep things informal.
I also found out that my in-laws, both Salvadoran natives currently residing in the U.S., would be in the country. With this new development, my plans for a Salvadoran hip hop immersion tour were balanced with family time, which led to a well-rounded trip that gave me more insight to Salvadoran life and the role of hip hop in the country.
Prior to meeting up with the NL crew my fiancee and I spent a few days two hours west of San Salvador, near the Guatemalan border. Unlike the chaotic feel of the sprawling capital, the smaller towns and villages we visited were much calmer with stronger tradition, including indigenous and African influence. I had to chuckle when I saw the moto-taxis zipping around, reminding me of the “bejajs” I saw during a trip to east Africa last summer. Sure enough, they were the same models of the Indian-based Bejaj motorcycle company, serving as a reminder of the many forms that globalization takes. Besides the people, I enjoyed looking at the number of murals dotting the landscape. Many reflected traditional village life or religious beliefs while others documented gang conflicts. On the downside, there weren’t as many opportunities for youth to learn about hip hop culture or the arts, in comparison to San Salvador.
While I’ve become enamored with El Salvador over the course of three visits the violence or threat of violence is all too real. During Semana Santa, the holy week that precedes Easter, dozens of people were killed and nearly every Salvadoran I know in the country or in the U.S. has been directly touched by the violence, including the loss of loved ones. Unfortunately, one of the key topics during my conversation with the NL participants was the disappearance of Emilio “Milo” Bolaños one of El Salvador’s top b-boys, instructors, and a tireless promoter of the local scene. Rumors swirled, but ultimately nobody knew what happened to him. Determined that he wouldn’t be relegated to being just a statistic, Milo’s friends and family used social media to bring attention to his disappearance. Throughout Central America, people began painting murals commemorating him. When I returned to Oakland I immediately contacted my friend Desi, the founder of the Community Rejuvenation Project, a mural making and activist organization. Without hesitation he agreed to do a piece. Unfortunately, after five months there is still little information about Milo, but the mural was enthusiastically received in El Salvador and Milo’s mother reached out to Desi, thanking him for his work and solidarity.
Since its inception, hip hop has given marginalized people a voice, served as a positive stress release through creativity, and created opportunities for entrepreneurism. One of its greatest strengths is bringing people together, with Next Level helping connect us at a global level. Yet traveling around El Salvador and leaving the hip hop bubble, reggaeton, bachata, and cumbia dominated the soundscape contributing to questions of how hip hop will continue to evolve, what will fall under the umbrella, and how it can maintain its relevancy to the community. But ultimately, the question for me is what role can hip hop play in social change, addressing issues such as classism, racism, violence, and homophobia. Having the opportunity to return to El Salvador and build on the foundation provided by NL gave me a broader context to help address that question. Hip hop’s been around long enough to have traditions yet remains dynamic enough to reflect and adapt to the needs of the community. I look forward to continuing this work!
Daniel Zarazua is a DJ, educator, publisher and Next Level Alumnus. For more information on his work, visit his publishing company, Pochino Press.