Mala Rodriguez offers a taste of Spain's hip-hop culture

by Jordan Levin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

24 July 2007


Spanish rapper Mala Rodriguez has been a bad girl from the get-go, but as far as she’s concerned, that’s a good thing.

`My aunt Rosario gave me that name - she was always saying, `the bad girl, you’re so bad,’ ” Rodriguez says by phone from her home in Madrid.

“I loved it. Because, yeah, I’m bad. And it got me a lot of attention. Also, I liked it because it has a ton of meanings. From when you’re a girl they’re always telling you that women are bad, women are the source of all evil, the worst.”

This only child of a single mother from a poor, drug- and crime-ridden neighborhood in Seville defied expectations, machista, Spanish culture and macho hip-hop attitude to become one of the most respected and popular artists in a vibrant Spanish hip-hop scene.

Transform yourself has been the mantra for Rodriguez’s own life and for her music - hard times are no excuse for her or anyone else.

“I think it can be a justification for a lot of people to lose time in their life,” she says. “Just because you were born here, or in this way, you can still work and fight for your own dream.

“You don’t cross your arms and say my father is a junkie, and my mother, too; he died like this on that corner, and my future is clear. It’s not like that. It’s like, push to say I am different, I’m going to do something else in my life.”

Rodriguez is pushing through with more changes in her own life. She has a 16-month-old son (who was heard during an interview playing in the background with his musician father), a more positive attitude in her music and her life, and a stylistically adventurous new CD, “Malamarismo.”

“A lot of things have changed in my life recently, but I think change is super-important in life,” Rodriguez says. “To change is to grow. And I try to do it in a way that’s positive and optimistic.”

Mothering a toddler while maintaining a pop music career is particularly challenging, but Rodriguez says it’s worth the chaos.

“Being a mother is - it’s like a bomb went off in my head and I died and was reborn,” says Rodriguez, 29. “But he’s the most wonderful thing I’ve got. I’m going to have a girl later. Children are the most beautiful thing there is.”

You don’t expect to find glowing maternal attitude (and intermittent giggles) from a rapper known for blunt, socially incisive lyrics and occasional controversy. But Rodriguez has never been afraid to chart her own course, whether in her music or as a woman in a genre dominated by men.

Her talent, originality and toughness have made her one of only two successful female artists - the other is reggaeton star Ivy Queen - in Latin hip-hop.

Although Rodriguez is only known to a small circle of Latin alternative cognoscenti in the United States, she’s celebrated in Spain. Her first two CDs, “Lujo Iberico” in 2000 and “Alevosiia” in 2003, have reached gold status, selling more than 50,000 copies, in Spain. She’s been on the cover of numerous Spanish magazines, had songs in the hit independent films “Lucia y el Sexo” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” and recorded with a number of well-known Latin hip-hop artists, including Puerto Rican reggaeton stars Calle 13 and Tego Calderon.

On “Malamarismo” she’s joined by Mexican pop singer Julieta Venegas for “Tiempo pa pensa,” an ambivalent ballad they co-wrote, and by Calderon on “Enfermo,” about the mentally ill.

“She’s one of the best Latin hip-hop artists among women and men,” says Boy Wonder, who included Rodriguez in his influential reggaeton documentary and CD compilation “Chosen Few.” “The fact that she’s a woman makes her stand out.”

But not because she shakes it in thongs and hooker heels - or even sports Ivy Queen’s tough-diva attitude and bejeweled nails. “She’s about her music and her talent,” says Boy Wonder. `She’s not like `I’m a woman, let me try to sell my body.’”

“Mala Rodriguez goes first with her creativity and her music, which is so powerful you want to find out more about her.”

Born in a village in Southern Spain, Rodriguez grew up with her mother, a hairdresser, in a poor, central neighborhood in Seville, filled with ancient churches, as well as prostitutes and drug dealers. A large, close-knit family clan sheltered her from the social sting of being the child of a single mother.

In her mid-teens, she discovered hip-hop, and it was a revelation. “Hip-hop arrived in my life and filled me completely,” she says. “I guess it’s because when I began to rap I felt like I was communicating with people. It let me express myself, gain an identity, a way to declare myself.”

Rodriguez began rapping in the mid-1990s, just as hip-hop in Spain was getting under way. The idea of rap in the home of flamenco may seem unlikely to North Americans, both Latino and non-Latino, who think hip-hop in Spanish begins and ends with reggaeton. But Nahum Madrid, music director of Latin music radio station Batanga.com, who’s written about Spanish hip-hop, says it’s a creative, vital world that so far has largely left out the emphasis on violence, booty and bling that often dominate U.S. rap.

“It’s the most established hip-hop-in-Espanol scene,” Madrid says. “Their market is enough to sustain a good, healthy hip-hop scene, that they don’t really need exposure in the U.S. We kind of need them to raise the bar a little bit. You can hear in the productions and the flow - it’s more advanced.”

Spanish hip-hop’s musical adventurousness and political openness helped make it more welcoming to someone like Rodriguez, who says she always felt comfortable with her male peers. “I felt pretty good among the guys, like part of the group,” she says. “They treated me well. I just felt like one of them.”

It didn’t mean she put aside her identity as a woman, but that she used it as a launching pad for her artistry.

“Of course women have another point of view, and that’s when you start to break with things from the past. I’m not a man. I have other needs and other opinions and other ways of doing and seeing things. And so what’s happened to me you can hear in my music.”

A classmate in elementary school who was a drug runner inspired her most controversial song, “La Nina,” with a video that shows a young girl distributing drugs for her parents. It was banned from Spanish television.

“That’s a real story,” Rodriguez says. “To me that doesn’t seem like an offensive story, it seems like reality. Also it’s something that’s going on, and what I try to do is offer a solution, a response.”

The title of the new CD is a play on malabarista, the Spanish word for juggler, with La Mala and the suffix “isimo” or “baddest.” It refers to the wild balancing act of her life, and also her desire to keep having fun while she keeps it real. “When everything is so transcendental and super-important, so serious, it all gets a little boring,” she says. “I want to keep having fun and laughing.”

That’s a goal she takes seriously. On “La Loca,” she warns that “Life is violent/don’t lie/you have to be brave/if your soul isn’t content, ask for revenge.”

“You have to be happy,” Rodriguez says. “You can’t live life bitter. You have to live with a dream. You need a dream to get out of bed in the morning, or else life is empty.”

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