Some of Raka Dun's (pronounced "doon") most ardent American fans can't understand what he's saying. He doesn't have the emotive mumbles of a James Brown or the fast-paced flow of a Bizzy Bone. But, as one half of the bilingual Oakland-based hip-hop duo Los Rakas, he's been on three U.S. tours that have taken him to some of the country's least diverse enclaves and he raps almost exclusively in Spanish.
Consider this one of the byproducts of America's broken immigration system. Raka Dun, 26, came to the United States from Panama when he was 14 and only began rapping when a family friend urged him to write down how he felt. He spent the next 12 years without papers trying to get a performing career off the ground, but he was unable to travel to Spanish-speaking countries.
Long before the harrowing tales of unaccompanied Central American minors began to flood the U.S. media, Raka Dun shuttled between relatives' homes in Bay Area suburbs before finally landing in the care of his Spanish teacher at Oakland High School. He and his rap partner, Rico, managed to channel their own experiences into two serendipitously timed videos on childhood migration. In the first, "Sueño Americano" we meet a protagonist played by Dun who's found himself in prison facing the death penalty. In the second, "Chica de mi Corazon" we learn about learn them backstory of a poor boy growing up in Panama who leaves in search of his mother, who has already left for the states. Both are tracks from their major-label debut album from Universal Latino, "El Negrito Dun Dun & Ricardo." Their music is a politically fused blend of hip-hop, reggaeton and dancehall that's put them on stage alongside the likes of Erykah Badu, Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg.
I spoke with Raka Dun by phone about how his music is influenced by his politics and vice versa.
Tell me about how you guys formed Los Rakas.
We were just rapping individually and then, through youth programs, I did a song called "Mi Barrio" and put Rico on it. Then we did "Bounce" and we'd perform the two songs together and people would ask us all the time if we were a group. So we tried it. We got booked in L.A. for this event called the Hood Games--a skateboarding event--and they were like, "We want you guys together." We thought we'd give it a try.
We went to L.A. and were coming up with names. My cousin said Los Rakas and we started laughing. Los Rakas in Panama would be controversial; they would call people from the hood rakas in a negative way. A yayo is someone from the upper class who dresses nice and looks nice, so a lot of people from the 'hood would try to be yayos. When we heard Los Rakas we liked it because we could show that being from the 'hood wasn't a negative thing.
How did the idea for the immigration series come about?
I was undocumented for 12 years, so basically on that song I was just venting about how I thought life in the United States would be compared to how it is in reality, especially as a young black man from Panama. In the videos, I was showing the different emotions that young people go through. I wanted to showcase what can happen when you're a frustrated young person who's living in the U.S. while undocumented. But I also wanted to show that frustrated youth can make the right decisions because if they decide to sell drugs or rob people, there are consequences.
The second part of the video is "Chica de mi Corazon," which is talking about my mother. A lot of people who leave their countries never get the chance to see their moms or their families or their countries again. I just wanted to bring that emotion into the video. In "Soy Americano" [the protagonist] goes to jail and faces lethal injection, but this part of the video was demonstrating what happened before all of that. He's in jail remembering his mother, his country, the things he'll never get to see again.
Were you in Oakland? San Francisco? Did you move around?
I was in Oakland and wound up living with my Spanish teacher from Oakland High and her husband. When I was with them I started learning about the Black Panthers and Malcolm X and all that. I was really grateful to live with them for a couple of years because they taught me a lot. They're the reason why Los Rakas are Los Rakas now.
Tell me a little bit more about growing up in the Bay. Theres's not a big Panamanian community there. Can you tell me a little about how you developed your identity in the Bay, as an Afro-Latino?
When I was in high school I would kick it with all the Mexican cats. I would kick it with American black people and folks of other races, but mainly Mexicans because they're the ones who spoke my language. And then I met up with my cousin, with Ricardo and my other cousin and I started kicking it with them all the time.
Everyone's talking about unaccompanied minors crossing the border. It's a really big political issue now. What do you think is the power of your music to interject in the policy talk that's happening?
To tell you the truth, when I was writing those songs I wasn't thinking about trying to send a message. I was just really telling my own personal stories and [stories about] the people around me. Obviously, talking that stuff, a lot of people can relate. That's something that goes on every day in the United States. I think we fit it with speaking the truth, speaking from the heart, and people automatically gravitate to that.
How did you grow up?
At first I was in Vacaville; that's way different than Panama. My aunty lived in the suburbs and even though the living situation was way better than it was in Panama when I was one of seven kids living in one room with my father and stepmother, I wasn't feeling the vibe. There weren't too many people of color. But when I came to Oakland to visit my other aunty, I felt a little more at home.
I think my experience for the most part was cool. But the part that was not was when you graduate from high school and want to go to college but you have to get a job. That's the hard part. Even with my music, I couldn't travel to places like Mexico or Argentina. That really limited me and got me frustrated because I felt like a prisoner.
How are people receiving your music?
We were independent for seven years and just released the last album ["El Negrito Dun Dun & Ricardo"] through Universal Latino. It's a big-label release but we started in Oakland with the youth programs like Youth Speaks, Youth Movement Records, Youth Together and Youth Uprising. We really took advantage of all that. They taught us not just now to make music but also how to deal with the business side of making music. We were grinding at a young age, we were 19, 18 doing our own shows. Most of the people who came to the shows didn't even speak Spanish. We've already done three different tours in the United States. One was with Grouch and Brother Ali; it was more of a hip-hop tour. The second one was with Collie Buddz, a big reggae artist. We've been going to places in the States where people don't even speak Spanish and people are receiving the music well. They feel it more once they come see it live.