Peruvian Singer & Rapper, Renata Flores, Helps Preserve Quechua with Viral Hits on YouTube

Ten years ago, a study by David Har­mon and Jonathan Loh showed that in 30 years’ time, the world had seen a twen­ty per­cent decline in lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty. Indige­nous lan­guages and local dialects have con­tin­ued to dwin­dle, in the U.S. and around the globe. “There are a lot of pres­sures in the world that are entic­ing or even forc­ing peo­ple to switch from gen­er­al­ly small­er, more geo­graph­i­cal­ly restrict­ed lan­guages, to larg­er lan­guages,” Har­mon told Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, “espe­cial­ly glob­al lan­guages like Man­darin Chi­nese, Eng­lish, or Span­ish.”

This pres­sure has been exert­ed on indige­nous lan­guages for cen­turies. Yet hun­dreds have sur­vived, includ­ing Quechua, a fam­i­ly of lan­guages descend­ed from the Inca, and spo­ken by almost 4 mil­lion peo­ple in Peru alone. With many more speak­ers in Bolivia, Argenti­na, and else­where, it is Latin America’s most wide­ly spo­ken Indige­nous lan­guage.

It may seem to be thriv­ing, but Quechua speak­ers are wide­ly treat­ed with con­tempt in Peru, though they make up rough­ly 13% of the pop­u­la­tion. They are the country’s poor and ignored. Quechua has been gross­ly under­stud­ied in acad­e­mia and until recent­ly has had almost no major media pres­ence.

The language’s absence from cen­ters of pow­er has made it less acces­si­ble to new­er generations—whose par­ents would not teach them Quechua for fear of stig­ma­tiz­ing them—and more like­ly to die out with­out inter­ven­tion. It became “syn­ony­mous with dis­crim­i­na­tion” and “social rejec­tion,” says Hugo Coya, direc­tor of a recent Peru­vian news pro­gram entire­ly in Quechua. Coya aims to change that, as does Peru­vian schol­ar Rox­ana Quispe Col­lantes, who defend­ed the first Quechua doc­tor­al the­sis last year. Their work will sure­ly have sig­nif­i­cant impact, but per­haps not near­ly as much as the debut of a 14-year-old Peru­vian singer and rap­per, Rena­ta Flo­res, who had a viral hit five years ago with her Quechua cov­er of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” (top).

Flo­res, now 19, has fol­lowed up with a string of songs in Quechua that have “brought huge suc­cess,” writes Vice, “mil­lions of views on YouTube; fea­tures and inter­views in Peru­vian media and for­eign press like The Clin­ic, Tele­mu­n­do, El Paid, AJ+ Español, CNN, and BBC; fans in Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Argenti­na, Guatemala, Domini­can Repub­lic, Cos­ta Rica, Puer­to Rico, Mex­i­co, the Unit­ed States, Spain, Italy, Chi­na, Alge­ria, and count­ing. And with it, Flo­res is chal­leng­ing the very way peo­ple val­ue lan­guages, espe­cial­ly indige­nous ones.” Her music may speak the lan­guage of a spe­cif­ic region, but does so in a glob­al idiom, com­bin­ing “trap, hip-hop, and elec­tron­ic influ­ences with Andean instru­ments.”

Flo­res’ suc­cess in bring­ing such wide­spread atten­tion to Quechua shows anoth­er major cul­tur­al shift of the past few years. Inter­net cul­ture, once assumed to be ephemer­al and of lit­tle last­ing val­ue, has become the coin of the realm, as aca­d­e­m­ic human­i­ties strug­gle, polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions implode, and jour­nal­ism fails. The joke so often goes that his­to­ri­ans of the future will have to fill text­books (or inter­ac­tive vir­tu­al real­i­ty lessons) with tweets, posts, and memes. Viral YouTube stars like Flo­res are also mak­ing his­to­ry, their videos pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments of how a lan­guage that is mar­gin­al­ized in its home coun­try reached out and found mil­lions of fans around the world.

“The mes­sage con­veyed to Quechua speak­ers” by most treat­ments of their cul­ture in Peru, “is that their iden­ti­ties are part of the region’s past,” writes Julie Turke­witz in a New York Times pro­file of Flo­res. Har­mon makes a sim­i­lar con­nec­tion: “there is a strong pos­si­bil­i­ty that we’ll lose lan­guages that peo­ple are using as their main vehi­cle of expres­sion, which they may regard as one of the linch­pins of their self-iden­ti­ty.” When nation­al nar­ra­tives, media, and edu­ca­tion rel­e­gate a con­tem­po­rary lan­guage to a pre-colo­nial past, it tells mil­lions of peo­ple they essen­tial­ly don’t exist in the mod­ern world. Flo­res, who grew up with Quechua, coun­ters that mes­sage with style.

Flo­res and oth­er Quechua singers not only reaf­firm their cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, but they put their lan­guage in con­ver­sa­tion with con­tem­po­rary pop music and polit­i­cal con­cerns. Tak­ing on “female pow­er, gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion, war and inter­na­tion­al pop cul­ture polemics,” writes Turke­witz, Flo­res con­tin­ues a lega­cy her one-time musi­cian par­ents helped launch decades ear­li­er, a Quechua-lan­guage blue-rock move­ment called Uch­pa. Now her fam­i­ly helps her record her own songs in their music school. But like most young artists she began with cov­ers. See her play a Quechua ver­sion of “House of the Ris­ing Sun” as a 14-year-old con­test win­ner, fur­ther up; see her very first con­cert, at the same age, in her home­town of Ayacu­cho, below. And see what she’s been up to since then in the videos above and on her YouTube chan­nel.

via NYTimes

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Peru­vian Schol­ar Writes & Defends the First The­sis Writ­ten in Quechua, the Main Lan­guage of the Incan Empire

Opti­cal Scan­ning Tech­nol­o­gy Lets Researchers Recov­er Lost Indige­nous Lan­guages from Old Wax Cylin­der Record­ings

200+ Films by Indige­nous Direc­tors Now Free to View Online: A New Archive Launched by the Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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