Rebeca Lane is a feminist rapper, poet, artist and activist based in Guatemala City whose art and resistance as a woman and an anarchist has been shaped by her country’s long and ongoing history of gender violence.
Heather Gies spoke with Lane while in Mexico as part of her Central American tour called Somos Guerreras, or We Are Warriors, about how her hip hop music is fighting for space for women’s issues in Central America and beyond and on how she is part of bringing women together to resist oppression and empower themselves.
Right now you are on the Somos Guerreras tour in Central America. What does Somos Guerreras mean for you as an artist and as a feminist?
Somos Guerreras is a process through which some artists from Central America have successfully linked up the art that we do with activism. And this involves processes of knowledge transmission, processes of spreading the work we are doing, holding discussions, going on television and radio programs, etcetera.
And it includes something really important for us which is events production, that is, creating spaces through which women in hip hop culture have a space to present the art that we make without being discriminated against or having less important spaces because of the fact that we’re women.
So for me it’s a space that has allowed me to connect with other women in Central America that already are working on the artistic side of activism, or that are already “activists” and want to be able to get to know each other and create bonds and networks, which is what allows more and more women to go around the region sharing music, dance, activist proposals, everything we do, strengthening our networks.
So for me it has to do with this process of opening this path and following this path of strengthening ties with other women.
How did you get involved in hip hop and did you always intend to use your art as a tool for social change with a political and social message?
Artistically, I began expressing myself when I was very young through poetry, theater, music. And definitely for me music has been, in general, a way to express what I have inside. And what I have inside has been determined by the place where I grew up, the conditions I’ve been in. And so growing up in place with a war and also having lived the aftermath of the war through my family history made me very aware since I was young of the place where I lived and the need to reclaim historical memory and to reclaim all the stories that since the peace accords have been silenced in some way to make way for a kind of false peace that has existed.
Since I was very young I also started working in activism with historical memory groups and also anti-imperialist and anarchist political groups. So art for us was always a constant to try to not just express our ideas but also to heal ourselves internally because, of course, this struggle is going to leave you with a lot of wounds and many frustrations, and you also need an escape valve. And definitely art has helped us a lot with all of this. Collective morality, poetry readings, music spaces and so on.
In this context I came across rap music, but rap with political content, Latin American rap in Spanish, like Actitud Maria Marta, Reporte Ilegal, and other groups that through word and hip hop were putting forward a political message. It was something that inspired me a lot. And later I was able to meet groups doing hip hop in Guatemala and it was a space through which I started to get involved in understanding things happening in the city that I hadn’t had to live before.
So I linked up with other groups with other ways of thinking and for me it was like an escape valve as well to be able to talk about issues that I hadn’t had other places to talk about, like feminism and my own struggle as a woman to be able to liberate myself within all these other spaces in which I was participating where maybe the specific issue of women and our demands weren’t all that important.
So I think for me (hip hop) also means searching and finding a voice for myself and my own way of expressing myself.
How has the context of gender violence in Guatemala, including the long history of civil war in which many women and above all Indigenous women were victims of the armed conflict and the legacy of violence seen through impunity today, influenced your activism, political ideas and music?
The fact that I was born and grew up in this context in Guatemala really marked me as a person, the whole conflict of living in a war zone, because we can’t say that in Guatemala the war already ended, it just has changed dimensions, changed scenarios, but we continue living a war.
So one always feels unsafe, either because you’re a woman, or you’re an activist, or simply being a young person. Having tattoos, looking different, in Central American territory, it’s a threat because you’re affecting the internal (order) and what should be, which is what militarism wants to impose on us-a single way of thinking, and this single way of thinking has to do with very traditional roles, both political and gender roles.
So I think since I was born I have had this non-conformity with these patterns and definitely this constant struggle against the system brought me to get organized and find within these spaces the inspiration for what I’m doing now.
Activism, participation in a lot of other spaces, the real struggles of comrades carrying out trials for genocide, rape and sexual slavery, forced disappearances, these are all definitely things that help me and feed me so I keep writing and keep struggling artistically.
What do you think about the Sepur Zarco case and the historic sentence for those guilty of these terrible acts of sexual slavery during Guatemala’s civil war?
The Sepur Zarco case has impacted Guatemalan society in many ways because for the first time there was a trial for sexual violence in the framework of armed conflict, of the war. This whole time crimes against humanity have been talked about as being against the society in general, but women in particular have been made invisible within this whole panorama because the human rights violations were definitely far too many.
So this has also made an important emphasis for the struggle of survivors, women who fight and who have managed to sustain themselves collectively over the years through support from other women’s groups and among themselves. Because rape is definitely a stigma for the women who lived it, but also for the communities where women were raped. They were discriminated against even within their own communities, and by living through rape many times, a woman herself feels guilty, and it creates certain internal processes that make us feel less than we really are.
I think for the first time it has been very important for women themselves to be able to raise their voice and that someone listened and that someone paid attention to what they had to say. I think for them it has been very important so that every woman may be able to raise her voice, it’s a healing process. And also they have been accompanied by women who are working a lot not only on the issue of justice but also healing and health in a broad sense.
And for all of society it has been a breakthrough in processes of justice for the war and it has put women with their specific demands within these general demands we also have.
What kind of machismo or misogyny do you face in Guatemalan society and in the hip hop industry and how do you conceive of your role as an artist in changing these dynamics?
I think that at the level of the music industry in general, women are asked to conform to a certain stereotype. First, it has to do with how you look and how you manage your image. So they demand an over-sexualization of your image, always look pretty, always be in a good mood, always be smiling, dress according to the rules of being a woman, the femininity that’s imposed on you for being a public and artistic figure.
And also at the level of the content, that the music you make be heterosexual in the sense that it showcases this topic of a woman loves a man, she dies for him, etcetera. And that you don’t inconvenience, that you don’t question, don’t talk about problems but instead keep talking about love from a heterosexual perspective and other topics that don’t make people uncomfortable.
I think within hip hop itself it is also not expected that women will have a discourse that makes people question how they work and function within society. In general, I don’t think the society, or hip hop, or the music industry have openings for women who are empowering themselves through word, dance, graffiti, and who can question the patriarchal society in which we live through their artistic expression.
I think that at first they really reject the art that we do, they don’t give it space or they critique it a lot, they ask us to be neutral, that we be humanistic, that we struggle for men and women, which shows ignorance toward what feminism is. There is a lot of violence in this sense, attacking us just for the fact that we are feminists or fight for women’s rights, saying that we hate men or want them to die and in reality this is false. We want a better society in general and for this better society to be carried out the role of women is essential.
So I think there are distinct forms of violence, that of discrediting, not giving space, not considering you an artist or part of a movement just because you touch on topics that make people uncomfortable.
However, I think women are organizing. None of these things has stopped us. Rather it has helped us to find each other and form alliances and create our own events like Somos Guerreras and other events in Central America and the region as well, through which we are giving importance to the work we do. And amongst ourselves we can give visibility to each other’s work, this is really important for us.
In the tour we’re on, Somos Guerreras, we’re filming a documentary in which we’re interviewing women in hip hop culture to understand the importance that art has had in their lives as an agent of transformation, both for themselves, their families, their communities and the hip hop community in general.
So I think the fact of being marginalized, the fact of not being given space, has helped us organize ourselves and create our own spaces. So in the end this is what makes us warriors.
What can we expect to see from you and your music this year after the Central American tour?
I have several plans this year after finishing the Central American tour. Right not I’m in Mexico, we’re going to do a one-month tour here as well. This year I have various tours in Germany, Spain and California.
And this year I’m also releasing my new album, Alma Mestiza, which I recently finished producing. Also, for this documentary that we’re making, what we hope is to be able to raise the money to be able to finish the documentary and release it in November.
So those are the biggest challenges right now, the new album and finishing the documentary so everyone can access this big work we’ve been documenting and that it be well worth worth everyone seeing it.
This interview was originally published at Telesur.