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Ana Tijoux successfully crosses hip-hop’s language barrier

Rapper Ana Tijoux was a Parisian teenager when she and her exiled Chilean parents returned to their homeland after democracy was restored there.

Rapper Ana Tijoux was a Parisian teenager when she and her exiled Chilean parents returned to their homeland after democracy was restored there.

Sooner or later, all ambitious rappers have to reassert the famous dictum of rap godfather Rakim: “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”

It’s hard enough to do that vertically, as rising stars struggle to maintain street cred from their penthouses. But hip-hop’s fierce local identity also hampers MCs from moving horizontally across regions, borders, and most challenging of all, language barriers.

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No foreign-language rapper has managed that movement more enticingly in the past few years than Chile’s Ana Tijoux, who brings her light, quick, and sumptuous raps in Spanish to the Brighton Music Hall on Monday. Against expectations, Tijoux has garnered more international attention even as her music has become more deeply rooted in Chilean particulars.

Her third solo album, “La Bala,” which translates as “The Bullet,” is partly inspired by what she calls “the bomb of energy” set off by recent Chilean youth activism. Throughout the country, university students have tried to stem the privatization of the public sector by protesting against exorbitant tuition rates.

In September, tensions turned violent when a police bullet killed 16-year-old protester Manuel Gutierrez Reinoso, an incident that was eerily mirrored in the fatal fictional title track from “La Bala,” which Tijoux had recorded a few months previously.

“After, when I listened to it, it was like, this looks like it’s a song for him, you know?” Tijoux, 35, says by phone from Chile’s capital, Santiago.

If anything, the coincidence only reinforced her philosophy of art, which also asserts the local over the global, in true hip-hop fashion.

“Every political situation that happens in a country, historically speaking, always influences art in general,” she says. “The artists, we are just like, I don’t know how to say it, but it’s like the poetry of the politics, in some sense.”

Tijoux’s poetry bears hearing, however, because she largely mixes it up thematically and musically — that is, she lets the global flavor the local, and vice versa. Some songs on “La Bala” are purely topical, like “Las Cosas Por Sus Nombres” (“Everything by Its Name”), which chops and mixes Chilean vulgarities in response to a wrist slap Tijoux received from the minister of culture for her expletive-laden Twitter posts.

But a number like “Shock” could apply as easily to life in Greece or Spain, countries roiling from economic austerity measures. Other tracks simply ruminate on the nature of friendship, or the hours spent waiting for a new lover to return. And almost all of them make their mark with plush orchestrations and catchy, singsong choruses that play against the pitter-patter raps, whatever the words’ literal meaning.

To North American ears, the light R&B crooning, scratched beats, and earnest vocals might sound vaguely reminiscent of everything from A Tribe Called Quest to Lauryn Hill. As Tijoux and other Chileans are fond of repeating, their country’s name means “the ends of the earth.” Much of “La Bala” feels like our own old music bounced back from those distant ends, with its innocence returned intact.

“I love old school hip-hop, I’ve got to say,” Tijoux enthuses. “I’m not so trendy.”

It’s tempting to conclude that Tijoux’s music works because she mastered border crossing early. Born in France to exiled Chilean parents, she was 14 when her family returned to their homeland after democracy was restored. By Tijoux’s admission, she didn’t speak Spanish very well, but she began freestyle rapping anyway.

“I would always feel like an outsider, even in France,” Tijoux says in an accent that still sounds more French than Chilean. “Hip-hop was the perfect language to talk about how I was feeling.”

Over the years, Tijoux’s remarkable prowess as a rapper increased her fame throughout Latin America, first with her crew Makiza and then on her own. But it wasn’t until her second solo album in 2010, the autobiographical “1977,” that she crossed the language line. Suddenly, Tijoux found herself with a Grammy nomination and a debut North American tour, including a Los Angeles performance with the Roots as her backing band.

“I think there’s a vision so strange in this industry about trying to conquer the new markets, you know?” Tijoux says. “And in my situation, I’ve been rapping for 14 years and I’ve lived through so much stuff that I’m just enjoying what I’m doing.”

In the background, her 7-year-old son could be heard playing as the pair made their way to a barbecue at her father’s house. In the next week, she would be heading for her second North American tour. Judging from her poise and conviction, where she’s from and where she’s at are for now one and the same.

Franklin Soults can be reached at fsoults@gmail.com.
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