Hip-Hop Artistry Knows No Borders

Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux has a style and sound that crosses borders. The daughter of Chilean exiles, Tijoux was born and raised in France and that's where her love for hip hop began. Host Michel Martin speaks with Tijoux about her unique life story, and her new album, "1977."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We always say that music is a global language. And while hip-hop has become a sound and a style recognized the world over, many artists still build reputations by keeping their lyrics close to home, literally, with rhymes about the city, their neighborhood, their block. So when a rapper's upbringing crosses oceans, borders and languages, just what does keeping it real mean? Maybe it sounds like Ana Tijoux.

(Soundbite of song, "1977")

Ms. ANA TIJOUX (Musician): (Rapping in foreign language)

MARTIN: This is "1977" and it's the title track from Tijoux's sophomore album. The French Chilean rapper is already one of the hottest MCs in Latin America and now she's reaching for an even bigger audience as she tours North America. Ana Tijoux joins us now from our studios at NPR West. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. TIJOUX: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So in addition to being the title track of the album, "1977" was also the year you were born. What's the story you're telling in the title track?

Ms. TIJOUX: Yes, it was a long time ago that I wanted to make a song about, like, a little biography of myself. But I didn't make it before because I was thinking that it was so egocentric. So it's, like, no, forget about that.

MARTIN: Ever since I'm sorry, I'm still trying to wrap my head around a rapper who doesn't want to sound egocentric. And I just I'm sorry, I'm, like...

Ms. TIJOUX: It's complicated.

MARTIN: What of that...

Ms. TIJOUX: No, but it's complicated even for to be on stage. It's more than a rap, I think. It's about ego is everywhere, it's not only about only in the hip-hop, I guess.

MARTIN: Oh, yes, of course. Going to your unique biography, you were born in France in 1977, as we said.

Ms. TIJOUX: In 1977, yes.

MARTIN: Both your parents are Chilean.

Ms. TIJOUX: Yes.

MARTIN: And they were accurate to say they were in exile there, right? Did they see themselves as living in France in exile from Chile?

Ms. TIJOUX: Yes. I mean, like, you got to understand also, like, the political situation that was led in Chile and not only Chile, you know, other country in Latin America like Uruguay or Argentina even. So what happened, like, in '73 we got this dictator that happened with Pinochet. And my parents, like a lot of young people that used to be at that time all in university, was fighting at the government and they was in jail. And it's not even exile themselves, they put them in a plane and they got to come to France.

MARTIN: So, tell me, what are your earliest memories of hip-hop?

Ms. TIJOUX: I've got to be honest, like, I began really to listen hip-hop thanks to my mother because my mother used to be she's a sociologist right now, you know, like, making social work.

MARTIN: Social worker, yeah. I think we would use the term social worker.

Ms. TIJOUX: Exactly. So at the time I used to have, I don't know, like, eight or ten years old and my mother used to take me at work sometimes because I couldn't stay by my own at home. And like a lot of kid, I was arriving to the work of my mother. And all these young guys and young women used to be so hip-hop. And for me it was, like, wow. That was so amazing because I was feeling like very much like them because of them was from Algeria or Morocco, Tunisia or Africans. But they was born like me in France with parents from Africa. So I could feel the parallel and I was feeling very...

MARTIN: Sort of a little bit like an outsider?

Ms. TIJOUX: Exactly. Exactly that. So when I see those people making the music or painting, it was, like, yes, I feel the same stuff. Like, this contradictory stuff that is happening to me. Like, I was born in France, my parents are not French. They really don't want to be here. Like, they want to come back to the country. But I love this country also, you know, like, all these contradictory that can leave a kid almost like the Mexican that was born here, but they are not American, but the parents are Mexican, you know.

MARTIN: Sure. Whats your first language, by the way? 'Cause I'm hearing the French and I'm also hearing but you rap in Spanish and beautifully and very well.

Ms. TIJOUX: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And so, what's your first language?

Ms. TIJOUX: I couldn't say because my parents used to speak me in Spanish and I used to answer everything in French. It's like, I don't know I think I've gotten these both language in my head.

MARTIN: Well, three, three, because youre speaking English as well...

Ms. TIJOUX: Yes, but I dont speak so good. Like, I'm trying to do my best.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, let me just say, your English is better than a lot of peoples French, and so...

Ms. TIJOUX: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: You do rap in French on this album, in 1977.

Ms. TIJOUX: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Let play a little bit of Ooh La La, and then you could tell us a little bit more about it.

Ms. TIJOUX: Okay.

MARTIN: Okay. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, Ooh La La)

Ms. TIJOUX: (Rapping in French)

MARTIN: Okay, help me out with this one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TIJOUX: Its a song about friendship. Its a song that I write for friends of mine, that we grow up together. So its almost the same story that I was saying like before. She was born in France like me. Her parents was from the Congo, so also I like to go to her house and have all this African tradition, and she used to stay a lot at my house and with all the (unintelligible) tradition, and I made that song that its talking really about the friendship and about the distance and about crazy, the way that we have been pushing away and that we are so close as the same time.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me a little bit about that whole keeping it real thing. I mean, here in the U.S., as in other places too, it has to be said, one of the crucial things for rappers is supposedly keeping it real, representing...

Ms. TIJOUX: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...the people you grew up with, the place youre from, and I'm interested in what your relationship to this whole keeping it real idea, given that you grew up in France and you were there but not always there. You were in it but not always of it, and that sense of that. What is real for you? Whats the real place for you? And then you went back to Chile, right?

Ms. TIJOUX: I mean, yes, yes. I come back right now. But I mean, more than that its like this concept about to keep it real, it has been so manipulated, I guess, like, by the system. I think there is nothing better for the system to separate to each other. So its almost like the world is a ghetto, so the codes that you can see in a ghetto in L.A. or New York or in Paris or in Russia or in Chile or in Tanzania are most of the time the same. Its about your block, your people, and the other stuff is about to fill this feeling of the land, that its very capitalist also, you know?

MARTIN: How do you feel youre going to fit into the scene here then? Do you feel that, I mean some have made it the argument, not for the first time and not recently, that hip-hop has lost its way in this country. Some have gone so far as to say that hip-hop is dead. Do you agree?

Ms. TIJOUX: No. I'm not agree, because I think that here in I think in North America you get amazing people, because you get a counterculture amazing. I mean, all the music that I listen also comes from here. Its about the response to that. So the only thing weve got in this world is the faith about changes. And when I say change about - when you say to me what are you expecting for perhaps with this public and with this audience, first of all, I will say you this, I didnt came here to conquer anybody. Do you understand what I mean? I just came to show another face of what is happening. And I feel a lot of very similar faces here and very similar sensibility and humanity. And I think that if we feel that we are lost with that vision of the world, we are lost like a society. We made this society.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with rapper Ana Tijoux. We're talking about her latest album, 1977, and whatever else is on her mind.

Well, lets talk a little bit about your outreach to fans here in the U.S. In the song, Sube, you team up with the Detroit rapper Invincible. Lets play a little bit of that and then you can tell us about it.

(Soundbite of song, Sube)

Ms. TIJOUX: (Rapping in foreign language)

INVINCIBLE (Rapper): (Rapping) To go higher first. Got to dig the depths of the Earth. We got the root to evilness and its like a hex of course. Plant the seeds and the fertile soil of assistance. Theres the full speed and we return back to dirt. Its (unintelligible) what you start. Heres the tears, sweat and blood. Simultaneous (unintelligible) to birth. Full cycle like a merry-go-round all (unintelligible) to the burial ground from the bottom up. We're horizontal. They chop down, hit them like a million raindrops. Hit them with a Poncho. More than organized forms where (unintelligible) go.

MARTIN: Tell me a little about this.

Ms. TIJOUX: About the song?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. TIJOUX: Well, I meet Invincible through MySpace. And the first time I listened to her, I see her music in YouTube. And to be honest, I was like wow, shes amazing. Shes amazing, shes amazing. So I was like a fan, like speaking to her in MySpace like, oh I love your music and I would love to have you in this album that I'm making. And she responds immediately like, I send her like the song with the record and I translate everything that I was writing. So she liked the idea of the song and she send me back what she record. And thats whats so natural. I mean, I really admire her and like a human being, like an artist, like a woman. She's really amazing.

MARTIN: You know, I was interested in this in part because some of the, what do I want to call it? The first generation women rappers, like Queen Latifah has recently said...

Ms. TIJOUX: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...you know, wheres the next generation coming from? And in part, you know, her career was in some ways in opposition to what was going on in her day in the sense of the hypersexual content and the kind of hyper-masculinity and all - that some people were putting out at that time. And there are a lot of people who still think that contemporary hip-hop still pushes women into a corner. Its either you embrace, you know, being a sexual being and being kind of hyper-sexy or you push it the other way and that theres no middle ground for women. Whats your take on that?

Ms. TIJOUX: Well, I'm agree and I'm not agree, because in my case, like, I couldnt say and it will be very hypocrite if I say that it's been more harder because I'm a woman. And I will tell you why, because I begin to really making rhymes and to write thanks to guys, because they was all my friends. And I think that in the music even if this industry wants some kind of sexist and blah, blah, blah and sex and of sexy, I really think that it exists a crowd and exists a public that wants to listen to different stuff and that exists. This society is not so stupid like the way that we, what we think. Its more that its like the societys sleeping. You know what I - I dont know how to explain very much what I'm trying to say, but...

MARTIN: Oh, I think youre doing fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TIJOUX: Oh well, thank you. Thank you, mommy. Thank you.

MARTIN: How has your reception been in the U.S.? How have you found your tour so far?

Ms. TIJOUX: Very good. Very good. Very good, because I was not expecting nothing. My vision and the vision that was saying to me from people that I like, some friends of mine will say, Ana, dont make any expectations about what is going to happen. So I say, well, we are going to see whats going to happen, you know? Like I'm not expecting nothing. And its not about to conquer the market of the entire market in North America. Its about expression, because if I was a painter it would be more easy right now in that sense about the expression and the language.

MARTIN: Oh, I see. Yes. You'd have all the colors assessable to you, at youre yeah, in your...

Ms. TIJOUX: Yes. Its about that, its because some people say, oh, shes rapping in English (unintelligible) rapper. I'm not close to rap in any language. Its not about English, its about all the language.

MARTIN: Well, thats interesting, just because there are some artists, like Juanes, for example...

Ms. TIJOUX: Yes.

MARTIN: ...who refuses to record in English, even though he speaks English very well, and he's making a statement with that.

Ms. TIJOUX: Yes. I mean, his vision, its about my vision, its different in that place because - I mean for me, I've got to be honest. Like, North America always has been this contradictory country because the country that make all the dictator in my country and in Latin America is the country that make war right now and is going to go Iran, Afghanistan. And in other places the country, I dont know why you got all the soul, the Motown, the rap, so its very contradictory, this vision with North America.

MARTIN: Speaking of just home and wheres home and wheres the new place too, you were just back in Chile this past February during that massive earthquake that many people followed. If I could just ask, you were there. What was it like when you were there?

Ms. TIJOUX: Well, I was going to perform. I was waiting for because it was 3:00 in the morning, so and finally I was thinking that people was like jumping, so I say wow, the people are crazy here.

My first reaction, like, wow, its doing well, wow. And after a while we're like whoa, whoa, whoa. Apparently the people are not jumping. And after a while like, everybody was shaking like samba. And, of course, like the light cut off. And I've a kid, so my first reaction like a mommy was wheres my kid, my kid. I want to see Lucien Luciano. And I will tell this like...

MARTIN: Where was he, by the way? Is he okay?

Ms. TIJOUX: He was very fine. He even like, they didnt wake up him. I think hes the only person that was sleeping during the earthquake. The first reaction that I had, and I think that it was the reaction that all the country got, is about, where are my people? Like you begin to call your mother, your father, your kid. Its about love. Its about the needing of, and I know its so clich´┐Ż, but at the end, what do you want to have at that moment is to have your family and say, okay, you are all well. You are all alive. Okay. Whew.

MARTIN: Well, no, I know. I take your point, but people still are concerned so I did want to ask. But before I let you go, whats next for you? Whats on your mind? What are you working on?

Ms. TIJOUX: Right now I'm continuing with the promotion with 1977 and I'm beginning to write the lyrics from the next album. I'm thinking about that right now.

MARTIN: Do you have a title yet or is it secret?

Ms. TIJOUX: I've got a title. Tt-tt-tt.

MARTIN: Is it secret?

Ms. TIJOUX: Its not a secret because perhaps I will change, but I can say the concept. Its about 2012. Its about the Mayans.

MARTIN: Oh.

Ms. TIJOUX: Its about the sun, I will say like, what is going to happen with the manifestation of the sun.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thanks for that. What should we go out on?

Ms. TIJOUX: Well, first of all, thank you for the interview, and I always enjoy good conversation because they're not interview.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible)

Ms. TIJOUX: Most(ph) conversation than interview. And I would like to dedicate this song about all the people that are listening, that this song is called Partir De Cero. That means to begin everything again. And I would just say that its talk about when sometimes your self-esteem is down. Its about to begin everything again, most of all.

MARTIN: All right. Ana Tijoux latest album is "1977." She was kind enough to interrupt her North America tour to join us at NPR West.

Ana Tijoux, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. TIJOUX: Thank you much, mommy. Ciao.

(Soundbite of song, Partir De Cero)

Ms. TIJOUX: (Rapping in foreign language)

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