MEDELLÍN —A boombox blasts a beat as a few young rappers pass around the mic, taking turns freestyling verses in the community center’s patio.
Behind them, a giant mural depicts a single surviving artist in a sea of dead bodies.
“They can’t shut me up. I’m a rapper. I represent the people. I’m a reporter of what happens in the neighborhood, of what happens in the streets,” one teenager spits before passing the mic to the little boy next to him.
Warm afternoon sunshine fills the outdoor space where the young rappers are gathered at “The Purple House,” an activist meeting space in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Medellín.
Carved into the side of one of the mountains surrounding Colombia’s second largest city, Comuna 13 is well known as a site of government neglect and urban violence linked to the country’s five-decade internal conflict.
But Comuna 13 is also the birthplace of a unique blend of activism that combines rap music, social protest and environmental projects.
“We call it ‘agrarian hip hop’ because we’ve synchronized hip hop with agriculture,” explained Luis Fernando Álvarez.
For the past 10 years, Álvarez, who goes by the rapper name “A.K.A.,” has promoted this approach to community engagement as the leader of AgroArte.
“AgroArte is a process, it’s a philosophy that weaves together the community,” A.K.A. told me after a morning of pulling weeds and planting vegetables in one of the six community gardens the group has set up in Comuna 13. “The agriculture attracts a lot of older people, while the hip hop attracts a lot of younger people.”
There are nearly 700 hip hop collectives in the 19 neighborhoods that make up Comuna 13. But A.K.A.’s collective is unique in the way that it embraces agricultural traditions and promotes community action.
“We teach through action, not just discourse,” A.K.A. said. “If you want to join us, you have to work.”
The community projects have helped transform the image of hip hop in Medellín. Hip hop was born in the streets of New York City in the 1980s, but it's become something new as it spread through Latin America, A.K.A. said.
“Here there’s more green than there are buildings,” explained A.K.A. “Migration from rural to urban areas has brought farm traditions to the city.”
The creation of “agrarian hip hop” happened organically. Although A.K.A. was already a rapper when he founded AgroArte, he initially set out to teach young people in his community agricultural skills and the value of the earth below the streets, which he believes holds their memories, stories and struggles.
“Since he dresses in such a particular way and he’s a rapper, the kids started telling him that they wanted to rap too,” said Margoth Yepes, who goes by “La Abuela Rapera,” or Grandma Rapper.
“He was resistant at first, but one of the boys started to write and it convinced A.K.A. to start to teach them and guide them,” said Abuela Rapera. “He’s cultivated a lot. The seeds he planted weren’t just in the soil, they were in the minds and hearts of the youth. Now there are lots of rappers, some of whom have gone abroad.”
Residents of Comuna 13 once considered hip hop a form of delinquency. But A.K.A.’s engagement of the community through AgroArte has changed that perception.
The rap that has emerged from Comuna 13 focuses on social issues, emphasizes nonviolence and has not been heavily commercialized.
“Conscious rap has come out of Medellín,” Abuela Rapera said. “Here we’ve found a way for young people to express themselves without being vulgar and without vengeance.”
Rap music is now seen as an outlet for expression that can keep young people positively engaged and prevent them from being recruited into one of the criminal groups that have tormented their neighborhood for years.
In 2002, an illegal paramilitary group entered Comuna 13 alongside official security forces in the most infamous urban military operation in Colombia’s 50-year war. Hundreds of residents were injured, killed or disappeared in the week long military campaign, dubbed “Operation Orion.”
Almost a decade and a half later, residents are still seeking justice and answers about what happened to loved ones disappeared during the operation and in the years after.
“We feel pain, that’s why we don’t forget and why we fight,” said Abuela Rapera. “The rappers write their stories, they express what they feel. It’s art, it’s poetry, it’s truth. It’s something really deep.”
But AgroArte’s socially conscious message has put the organization at risk.
Criminal groups that emerged after a failed 2006 paramilitary demobilization continue to battle over control of Comuna 13, marking the neighborhood with invisible borders and targeting anyone who opposes their activities.
Young rappers who opt out of joining the criminal groups and actively speak out against them quickly become targets.
“So many hip hoppers and rappers have been murdered,” said Luz Elena Galeano Laverde, a prominent human rights activist from Comuna 13.“Others have had to leave their homes because of the denunciations they make in their songs. They saw an outlet to express themselves through culture. But there’s a lot of stigmatization of youth.”
At least a dozen rappers have been murdered over the past four years. Among them was 14-year-old Juan Camilo Giraldo Mazo, a member of an offshoot group of AgroArte known as Seeds of the Future, who was shot to death in January 2014 by three members of a criminal group.
Dozens more have been displaced from their neighborhoods. After a series of threats, A.K.A. himself has been forced to move out of Comuna 13.
Residents of Comuna 13 suspect that criminal groups are threatening, murdering and displacing young rappers with support from local police. But AgroArte has refused to stop their community organizing.
“The more they hurt us, the more we’ll struggle,” said Abuela Rapera. “This is part of the war and the country that we’re living in. Art is a great way to protest.”
In spite of the threats to their safety, the collective has expanded their reach to teach young people other art forms associated with hip hop, including graffiti and breakdance. The group has even taken their approach beyond the borders of Comuna 13, implementing their projects in other Medellín neighborhoods and in other parts of the country.
“Now we’re starting to systematize and figure out how we can turn over our philosophy to other communities, so they can replicate it,” said A.K.A. “We have a recipe, but the ingredients in every neighborhood are different. The conditions in terms of climate, people and violence are different in every territory.”
These conditions have been further complicated by the state of limbo created after an Oct. 2 plebiscite vote narrowly rejected a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
More than half of the country’s eligible voters did not participate in the vote, which has encouraged A.K.A. to continue promoting his pro-peace message.
“Those who voted ‘Yes’ and those who voted ‘No’ have already decided,” said A.K.A. “It’s the ones with doubts that we have to work with. That’s our task.”
In the face of political polarization that has long fueled the conflict in Colombia and divided communities, A.K.A. firmly believes that bringing communities together through “concrete action” and respect for “human dignity” is the way to finally achieve peace.
To get there, A.K.A. said his organization will continue promoting community unity to find strength and safety in numbers, building networks across their neighborhood, their city, their country and eventually across the world.
“Our greatest revenge is to unite,” said A.K.A. “As Latinos we need to keep ourselves alive, so that we can get out of this loop. As long as we’re alive, the philosophy will continue.”
Angelika Albaladejo is a freelance multimedia journalist focused on human and women’s rights, security, gender-based violence and social protest in Latin America, with an eye on U.S. policy and assistance to the region.