Kombilesa Mi (Credit: Fernando Decilles)

How hip-hop is saving a dying Colombian language

In Colombia’s historic town of San Basilio de Palenque, hip-hop is helping resurrect a local language in danger of dying out.

Greatest hip-hop songs of all time

Rap folklórico palenquero represents the voice of the people, says Andris Padilla Julio, leader of the Afro-Colombian hip-hop group Kombilesa Mi. The crew rapidly switches between Spanish and another language – but it is not English, the international language of hip-hop.

The other language is Palenquero, one of the two creole languages native to Colombia. There are 68 indigenous languages in the country, and many of them are under threat of going extinct from “pressure to assimilate” or Colombia’s long-running internal conflict with drug cartels and paramilitary forces.

Palenquero traces its linguistic roots to the Bantu language family native to sub-Saharan Africa, and includes influence from several romance languages as well. It is centuries old, and hip-hop might help it survive further into the 21st Century.

“At one point, Palenquero was considered poorly spoken Spanish, and because of that, people felt bad and decided not to speak it,” says Padilla Julio, who goes by the name Afro Netto. A grassroots revival in the latter half of the 20th Century sought to fight these negative stereotypes while at the same time re-establishing the language among the town’s roughly 3,500 inhabitants.

Similarly, Kombilesa Mi places an emphasis on language and identity through its music, partly making Palenquero words and phrases accessible to audiences. “If we want people to learn how to say goodbye, we do it by singing, adding some rhythm, and people enjoy that,” says Padilla Julia. This common didactic approach also explains why, for Padilla Julio, hip-hop is such a natural foundation for a rap version of  folklórico palenquero: “With hip-hop, people can dance but they also listen, and since I’m interested in delivering a message... hip-hop allows me to do that and that’s why I love it.”

Adapting the rhythmic elements of hip-hop to traditional Palenque music and instruments cements it into the community. Though ultimately, it is hip-hop’s legacy as a form of social protest that gives rap folklórico palenquero its sense of immediacy. “People see in us [Kombilesa Mi] that courage, that voice of support, that voice of protest, struggle,” adds Padilla Julio. “And the way that we’re using hip-hop, we’re not just protesting, but making ourselves stronger, too.” This is important given both the social context and history of San Basilio de Palenque, a town of 3500 people at the base of the Montes de María and the home of Kombilesa Mi.

For centuries, San Basilio de Palenque has been a symbol of resistance, one that manifests in its language, culture, and identity

Kombilesa Mi (“my friends” in Palenquero) was formed in 2011 and boasts nine members. The group released their debut album Así es Palenque in 2016, recording in San Basilio de Palenque’s first and only music studio. Along the way, they’ve forged relationships with Afro-Colombian groups doing similar work in other cities across Colombia, such as Rostros Urbanos in Buenaventura and Son Batá in Medellín. Kombilesa Mi also has a strong presence, says Padilla Julio, among the Palenque diaspora in the capital Bogotá. In addition, the group has toured abroad, establishing rap folklórico palenquero not just as a musical genre, but a broader social movement connecting past to present for audiences both inside and outside Palenque.

For centuries, San Basilio de Palenque has been a symbol of resistance, one that shines through in its language, culture, and identity. The small town is known historically as the first free settlement in the Americas; escaped African slaves bound for Colombian plantations settled the town in the 17th Century and were granted their freedom in perpetuity in the 18th Century after nearly a century of fighting Spanish colonialists. It's the only settlement of its kind that survives into the present.

As a result, In 2005, Unesco recognised San Basilio de Palenque by adding it to the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Kombilesa Mi have dedicated themselves to preserving this legacy, in the same way it was passed on to the group’s members. “That’s what our teachers used to tell us, that Palenque culture goes from generation to generation,” says Padilla Julio.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, workshops on language, hairstyling, and community identity are held. On the remaining weekdays, the groups offers music and dance classes. “We do this so that the kids can grow up with a solid identity,” says Guillermo Camacho, manager of Kombilesa Mi. “Our work is to strengthen Palenquero identity through music and language has always been an element that’s allowed us to strengthen our community.” The group also works on community murals, which often feature phrases in Palenquero.

This is what the town’s residents have been looking for a long time – Padilla Julio

Rap folklórico palenquero is at the heart of these initiatives. As such, hip-hop has been embraced into the community in a big way, especially among the youth, says Padilla Julio. This, he explains, is a byproduct of its fusion with Palenque culture and tradition rather than prior attempts to imitate hip-hop from other countries, such as Venezuela, Cuba, or the United States. Above all, rap folklórico palenquero has helped the community learn that hip-hop is a genre that encourages its listeners to “raise your voice and protest”.

For Camacho, this ability to question the status quo resonates with the lives of Palenque speakers, from poor water and electric systems to cultural appropriation. “What does it mean to be free when you don’t have access to education, to healthcare, to good jobs?” he asks. “What does freedom mean when they discriminate against you because of the colour of your skin?”

Though longstanding, these systemic issues – to an extent – are magnified following the 2016 peace accords, which ended a 52-year insurgency by guerrilla rebels from the left-wing Farc. “The problem isn’t just the guerrilla,” says Camacho. There are other forms of violence wrought against the community, racism and discrimination notwithstanding. Camacho adds that the ongoing murder of social activists and leaders in Afro and Indigenous communities – hundreds since the 2016 deal – is nothing new. “It’s better to take away our path, because we are awakening other communities, other leaders,” says Padilla Julio. That is why music has become such a powerful tool.

Kombilesa Mi are currently preparing for the release of their second album, entitled Esa Palenquera. A celebration of women and their contributions to Palenque, the album was recorded in the mountains of Minca, at the studio of producer Cristián Castaño.

The change of scenery coincided with an overall shift to a more organic sound. There are no guitars, nor digital instruments, just rap folklórico palenquero in its purest form, with tracks named for traditional dances such as Mapalé and Pica Pica, or a popular traditional beverage in the case of Ñeque. Others, such as No Más Siscriminación, carry an explicit social message. Los Peinados, in turn, takes a didactic approach, instructing the listener on the history of routes braided into the hair of escaped slaves, with a reference to Los Montes de María where the first palenque settlements were established.

In the end, each of these kinds of tracks fulfills the purpose of rap folklórico palenquero. “This is what the town’s residents have been looking for a long time,” says Padilla Julio, “a way for the younger generation to guarantee, in part, the future of San Basilio de Palenque’s traditions.”

More on BBC Music’s greatest hip-hop songs of all time:
The 25 greatest hip-hop songs of all time
What critics had to say about the top 10
Full list of critics who participated – and how they voted
Trends and surprises in the poll (not available in UK)
Why are there so few women in hip-hop polls?
Playlist of the top 25 songs (Spotify)