Don Popo raps about a better future for Colombia’s kids.
Halfway through our conversation, Don Popo’s eyes suddenly begin to sparkle. Don’t you get it? they seem to ask. “To us, hip hop isn’t simply a music style,” he patiently explains. “To us, hip hop is a way of life. Hip hop is our freedom, the only way to express our thoughts and feelings. No one tells us what we have to do; in hip hop, we are our own masters.”
By ‘us’ and ‘we’, Don Popo means underprivileged young people in the cities of Colombia. The 27-year-old rap artist, who is gaining international recognition, sponsors workshops in which poor kids can rap and break dance, create graffiti or learn how to be disc jockeys. His longtime dream is to open a kind of hip hop academy in one of Bogot’s largest slums, where music lessons are combined with information about issues like safe sex and discrimination.
Don Popo is a bold maverick in the hip hop world because he uses acoustic guitar, violin and bass. His poetic talents touch on personal emotions as well as political statements. “I don’t want to talk about the government, guerillas and paramilitary groups. I want to talk about the little children who see their fathers murdered, about the hopelessness, about the feeling of having no future.” Don Popo himself started making music at the age of 13, two years after his father was murdered. It was the only way this silent young man could express his feelings.
He has also launched a clothing company called La Familia Ayara. He stands up to show off his pants, which are much too wide and falling off his waist – typical of the international hip hop look. Pants like these are made by Colombian rap artists and their families at home. Don Popo rejected an offer to produce the clothing at a large factory. “I don’t want to encourage employee anonymity. I want small-scale operations, not production for the masses.”
Colombian hip hoppers used to have no choice but to buy smuggled goods from North America. Now there’s an honest alternative, available in Colombian shops. So why is this clothing so important? It will help finance Don Popo’s dream of a hip hop academy for poor kids. But there’s another reason. The sparkle returns to his eyes. “Clothing gives us recognition, our own identity.”