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Isa remembers hip hop arriving at family parties where live salsa bands played. "Old guys would start playing bomba and singing plena songs during the holidays," she says, "mixing it up with salsa and Motown and boogaloo—because my parents are from the civil rights era of the '60s. And then we have my cousins comin' from New York, the Bronx, and they're breakdancing."
Her most obvious inspiration was Los Nativos, rappers from her neighborhood who co-founded the Rhymesayers and have mixed traditional Mexican costume and percussion with revolutionary politics for a decade. Los Na's Felipe Cuauhtli, who is of black and Chicano descent, views the rise of reggaetón with the skepticism of a veteran independent.
"What I don't like about reggaetón is the same thing I don't like about Top 40 hip hop," he says. "I don't like the cookie-cutter, industry-influenced piece of it all."
As Cuauhtli points out, the phrase "Latin hip hop" always contained an element of redundancy. JULIO 204 was one of the first graffiti tags to appear in New York, and Puerto Ricans gave breakdancing its second wave in the late 1970s. One of the first rappers, DJ Hollywood, had a young Latino named June Bug behind him on turntables, and the list of pioneers goes on—from Whipper Whip and Devastating Tito to Sa-Fire and Fat Joe. Here in Minnesota, the Capital City Breakers, a predominantly Mexican American crew from St. Paul, were b-boy battle champions, and Latinos have been active in the scene ever since. The difference with Los Na was largely a matter of identification.
"When I first knew Felipe, 'Latin hip hop' was him," says Isa. She was 14 the first time she saw Cuauhtli rap in full traditional feathers. "I couldn't go to clubs, but I could go to Cinco de Mayo," she says. "They always held down the Boca Chica stage on lowrider day, and it was controversial because it's hip hop, and people thought they would get gangs. I'm like, 'No, man, they're rapping in Aztec costumes. The only gangs they're going to get is the spirits.'"
Isa recorded some of her first tracks in Cuauhtli's studio, and he encouraged the bomba influence. "Her brother called me one day after a song she wrote and was like, 'Dude, what'd you do to my sister?'" remembers Cuauhtli. "I'm like, bro, I just told her to be honest and true. I told her she's someone that I want my daughter to look up to."
To Isa, Cuauhtli's initial suggestion that she focus on singing rather than rapping was a challenge. "I was just like, 'I'm going to prove you wrong,'" says Isa. "He gave me my first show at the Entry, thinking I was going to sing 20 minutes of Alicia Keys covers. I broke out doing the total opposite, and he was like, 'Wow.' I said, 'This is who I am.' And he was like, 'No, no, I wanted you to do that so you could just kick me in the balls.'"
A week after our first interview, Isa is talking with students outside her rap class for girls at Old Arizona, the Minneapolis community arts center. After Isa introduces me, I ask the students, most of them in their early teens, all of them black, "What did you learn today?"
"How to breathe properly," says one girl. "And, um, some rap history,"
"Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth," says another.
Then the room goes quiet.
"What about the baby?" says Isa.
"You tell us not to suck our stomach in," says a third girl. "To breathe normal."
The goal, Isa explains, is to assume the posture of a baby: to let your stomach out and relax so that you can breathe easily and not worry about what you look like.
The same night, Isa is nodding as Brooklyn's Cosmo Baker spins "Murder She Wrote" at the Dinkytowner. The headliner is legendary Puerto Rican DJ Tony Touch, and much of the reggaetón scene is here in the dark with drinks—Elliot Otero, DJ Pablo, Lírica Secreta's Gran Papo, Kyle Borchert. The speakers throb with salsa, Beatnuts, and Dawn Penn's dancehall cover of her own rock steady classic "You Don't Want Me (No No No)," itself a reworked version of a song by Bo Diddley and Willie Cobbs, the old feedback loop between America and the Caribbean still hot. Then the dem bow comes on.
"This music is great, I got to get down," says bearded Green Party candidate for governor Ken Pentel, and I'm relieved when he doesn't do the perreo. Soon Baker throws on a Big Pun track with Tony Sunshine singing the Puerto Rican national anthem, "La Borinqueña," and Isa waves whatever conversation she's having to a pause, and rushes to join other women on the dance floor, her hands in the air.
With her vocal class earlier, Isa had seemed years older than 19, formal and withheld in the way teachers are when just a few years separate them from their students. Now, among friends and rolling her hips, she looks like a girl again.