Ist’apxam (Listen!): Hearing Aymara Hip Hop in El Alto, Bolivia

Karl Swinehart, (PhD) Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville, will give a talk on the role of music in processes of Indigenous language revitalization in highland Bolivia.

Karl Swinehart


In this talk I examine music of Aymara rappers from the city of El Alto, Bolivia to consider questions concerning Indigenous language revitalization, music endangerment, and language ideologies of race and region in a majority Indigenous corner of the Andes. Aymara is among the handful of Indigenous languages of the Americas with more than a million speakers, with any where between two and three million speakers depending on how one counts a speaker. Despite its many speakers, trends towards language shift to Spanish persist among younger generations of Aymara Bolivia. The largest number of Aymara Bolivians by far live in the La Paz metropolitan region, including El Alto where they constitute the majority of the population. 
For some decades now, hip hop has become a seemingly universal musical genre with local scenes in nearly every nation on the globe. As an arena of cultural production, global hip hop also exemplifies the tensions between homogenization and heterogenization within contexts of advanced capitalism. As a musical genre with verbal art at its core, it has also become a vehicle across diverse Indigenous and minority language contexts for the buttressing of linguistic vitality against language shift towards dominant and colonial languages. Scholars of Indigenous hip hop have noted how hip hop has served as a means of positive self-expression among Indigenous youth and as a vehicle for countering stereotypes of Indigenous culture as anti-modern. In the Bolivian context, I argue that, by resisting the “whitening” effect of urban residence and Spanish language dominance through the use of Aymara language and dress, and also through embodying a musical genre understood as proximal to Blackness, hip hop, Aymara artists likeNación Rap and others not only transform the genre, but, in the process of doing so, they also counter semiotic ideologies tying Aymara language to the countryside and older generations. In examining the professional trajectories of two Aymara rappers I consider the opportunities musical performance, and hip hop in particular, present for speakers of Indigenous languages to position themselves as Indigenous language media professionals.

About the lecturer

Karl Swinehart (external link) is an assistant professor of social semiotics and coordinator of the Linguistics program in the Department of Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. He most recently co-edited a special issue of Signs and Society, “When Time Matters.” His research addresses linguistic diversity and popular culture, particularly in Bolivia where he has conducted ethnographic research with Indigenous language media professionals and educators since 2006.


Haley De Korne
Published Aug. 14, 2019 10:33 PM - Last modified Oct. 15, 2019 3:57 PM