By Anya Shukla
Aurelio Valdez-Barajas values meaningful artistry. The Seattle-born rapper incorporates his passion for social justice with his music career: Valdez-Barajas’ verses are steeped in Mexican and Mexican American history. Even as he expands his skillset to include directing and education, Valdez-Barajas continues to use his artistic talents to make an impact.
Q: What draws you to hip-hop?
A: Especially in terms of social justice, the culture that we live in today is super dope. But we tend to withhold knowledge about history and colonization; I want to make that knowledge more accessible. I think rap music is super accessible. You have people from all over the world listening to hip-hop; hip-hop is more popular than rock music in the United States. And I think hip-hop is such a beautiful outlet for expression.
Q: Can you give an example of how you’ve used hip-hop as a form of expression?
A: We had a song called “Venas Abiertas,” which translates to “open veins.” That's a direct inspiration from “Open Veins of Latin America,” one of the books that changed my life. The book talks about the pillaging and the modern history of exploitation of Latin America. The song follows that history through the expression of rap music.
It's not a cliché rap video, where the rappers are in front of the camera, and they're just talking about guns and money. I’m not knocking that. But I try to go beyond that by combining music and visuals. The song talks about gentrification, and I wanted to hit several themes through the video: the importance of the arts, the importance of youth and young people, and the polar divide of the community.
Q: How did you first become passionate about the intersection between hip-hop and social justice?
A: I have to first acknowledge that hip-hop, historically, is a Black genre. It originated in 1973, in the Bronx, by Black and Afro-Latino people. So now here comes me, a kid, nowhere near New York. I grew up listening to hip-hop. But when I was younger, there were no artists that resonated with my personal struggle. There weren’t really any Latinos or Chicanos making the music that I wanted to make—rapping but integrating that with their culture.
Hip-hop, overall, is just about having fun. As a teenager, I would rap battle at my lunch table in my high school. That's no different than what I'm doing now: we're just having fun at the end of the day. But we're also battling hundreds and hundreds of years of suffering, and holding it down for our respective people.
Q: How has your artistic practice changed since you were a teenager?
A: It was so different when I was 16 because I had some level of a safety net. Now, there’s more pressure. I gotta eat; I gotta pay bills. Either I catch up, or I'm left behind.
It's one thing being the rap king in your high school, but then you're expanding it to the music scene in Seattle. And then you look around and think, “Oh, wow, he’s a better rapper; he’s a better performer.” I tend to compare myself a lot. I gotta remind myself that everybody's journey is different. It took them a long time to get where they are. I gotta wait my turn.
Q: What motivates you to keep waiting your turn and continuing with music?
A: You've got to take pride in yourself for doing art. I take pride in completing the work. I take pride in the work that I put into my music. I know that by the time it's done, the product was worth it, even if it doesn’t get a huge reception.
That's the anxiety that a lot of people have in this field. Are people going to be talking about it? Are people going to repost it? Which is genuine. Numbers are sales and people gotta eat. But I just pride myself on being so happy with the art itself.
Q: What advice do you have for teen artists of color?
You’re going to be your worst enemy. Every day, I think, I should quit rapping. I should quit doing art. It's hard because you see people already making it; you see the money. But before any of that, you just got to be happy with creating art. I like writing. I like rapping. So if it's not fun for you, why are you doing it?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.