With hushed, prayer-like delivery, Oakland rapper Raw-G looks at the basics in "Sangre." A highlight from her first album, Esperanza, the track does away with her usual intricate lyricism and complex production in favor of a distilled sound that befits her subject matter: blood. The word sangre, or blood, recurs as an opening murmur to lines in the first verse. Threaded through a supple melody hummed by collaborator Nikila, Raw-G (aka Gina Madrid) raps in both English and Spanish about how blood flows in everyone. The lyrics exude a sense of the sacred: We pray let our people breathe/We pray for our people to survive under the flames.
Madrid's lean flow on Esperanza foregrounds her fierce politics. Topics include poetic voice, structural violence, and peaceful rebellion. In her hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, Madrid discovered hip-hop through tracks in English, which she couldn't understand at the time. Regardless, she felt determined to master it. In Mujeres Trabajando — an international women's hip-hop collective founded by her homegirl Ximbo — Madrid met likeminded MCs, found support, and blossomed as an artist in her own right.
Esperanza, which means, "hope," is Madrid's middle name. "My father named me Esperanza saying I was his last hope," she said. "Obviously I wasn't his last hope because then my little brother came after me and then my other little brother so it's like, okay there's more hope coming up here."
Madrid moved to Oakland at the age of sixteen, just before the birth of her son, and with very little knowledge of English. The title of Esperanza reflects her struggle as a Latina immigrant and her ability to repeatedly make light of difficult experiences. When she began looking for a job a couple years ago, Madrid came across two signs in a new restaurant on Grand Avenue. One advertised in English for a managerial position, and the other a call for dishwashers in Spanish. "That was like, really, you're separating it like that?" she said, shaking her head. Ultimately, Madrid found work as a manager and a talent buyer at Parish Entertainment Group. This year, she finished building a recording studio.
Meanwhile, Madrid also toiled as a community organizer. "I've always been very strong about the [topic of] immigration," she said. At Beyond Dreams — an event focused on the artistic contributions of immigrants that she recently co-hosted at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley — one account in particular stood out to her. A panel participant recalled an encounter with the police in which he was jailed and threatened with deportation. "Whether you're illegal or not," observed Madrid, "[you're aware] of what's gonna happen if you get stopped. You know we're treated differently just because of race."
The absurd and arbitrary nature of national borders clearly frustrates Madrid, who hasn't returned to Mexico for almost seventeen years since she came to the United States. "We're people, we're just tryna survive," she said. "When you have a family and you can't see them because of all these walls. ... It doesn't seem human." For that reason, proceeds from Esperanza are benefiting Oakland International School, which serves newly immigrated children, many of whom arrive without their parents.
Moving beyond divisive walls in "We Are One," Madrid and local singer Naima Shalhoub set breathy, leisurely phrases against a saxophone backdrop. For Madrid, collaborating with her family and friends is an essential element of her process. Her son and his dad assisted with much of the production. Madrid's production company, Steelo Entertainment, acts as a booking agent for several of the artists featured on Esperanza. Madrid's independent demeanor is conveyed when she explains her reasons for establishing Steelo: "I hated to come to people and be like, "Can I perform? Can I do this, can I do that?' I just can't."
The final track and showstopper of Esperanza, "Ready," explodes with electric guitar riffs, scratches, and cymbals, birthing an alternative dimension to the album's sound. The track title comes from its closing phrase, Ready to fly, a repeated promise that Raw-G's first studio album will be one of many. Spitting like a chopper propeller, Madrid rises to her nom de plume, Raw-G, deepening her voice and adopting a rapid cadence.
"I always been different from the rest," Madrid said, adding, "I've always had that little bit of aggressiveness."
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