Tzutu Kan, Mayan hip-hop artist

The Guatemalan artist helped form an art and hip-hop collective in 2008 to teach kids history and culture


Tzutu Kan scrolled through the photos on his phone, naming subjects students in his art collective turned into paintings: a fish in a bottle; the cosmos; colonial conquest; banana companies; civil war; a woman as a guerrilla fighter protecting her town; a new generation growing flowers. “This is power,” Kan said. He helped form the art and hip-hop collective in Guatemala in 2008 to teach kids history and culture. He also holds workshops on the Mayan calendar, the impact of climate change and how indigenous artists are using hip-hop to tell stories and preserve culture. He visited Sacramento earlier this month to lead workshops at The Decolonization Project and other organizations.

How did your groups get started?

We started Cabal Cultura in 2008 to help young painters. We started with a weekend of drawing and exhibition for 10 kids, asking them to do art on their surroundings. We just found a house and all pitched in $50 so we can run an arts collective and school. Sometimes, they paint about a lake near our school being polluted by wastewater; sometimes, it’s murals on their culture or what the community wants. One midwife asked to paint herbs pregnant women should eat. All of it’s happening in the highlands to showcase our elders; to honor them; to paint them honorably as local heroes. I also helped start a hip-hop artists’ collective, Balam Ajpu, which means “Jaguar Warrior” and represents duality and how opposites complement each other. We teach kids to preserve their culture through the arts, the Mayan calendar and break dance with different animals and moves to preserve their history in their own ways.

Why hip-hop?

Our kids dance and sing in their native language. There was a wave in the ’90s of U.S. music and TV to Latin America. A Mayan hip-hop artist took off in the early 2000s. I met him and he said, “Keep doing this.” He’d quit since he needed to work as a carpenter to feed his family. We need to keep our culture alive to keep rising. There’s a growing movement of hip-hop artists performing in Mayan. In 2012, we collaborated on an album with 20 songs representing the 20 [sacred] days, or Nawals, of the Mayan calendar. Meeting with elders, we learned about the ceremonies of our ancestors. We brought flowers and incense, and started writing really fast as they spoke in trances.

We started touring after that, spreading the message of these 20 Nawals; even though most Guatemalans are Mayan, many don’t see their culture represented in the media. The calendar is naturally tied to the nine months a woman is pregnant; it’s the most natural calendar. So many bad things are happening to our Mother Earth.

We need to get more in sync with the world. And it’s working: One of our kids started singing and made a great recording. Seeing his video, I thought, “This is what needs to happen.” Now, we teach 13 programs with up to 100 students.

Hip-hop has a strong culture of resistance. We love the gospel of hip-hop. I found a statement by KRS-One on the culture of hip-hop and told my friends, “He is the teacher.” He’s a big influence. Globally, hip-hop is a platform to show our culture. In the ’90s, it was rock ’n’ roll. Now, hip-hop helps native artists express themselves from Brazil to Africa. What connects us is everyone trying to preserve their local culture and community. That’s most important.

Why involve climate change?

It’s getting hot in places where it was cold, and colder where it used to be warmer. People are bringing seeds from the coast to mitigate climate change, which we keep in seed banks. We’re losing agriculture and crops from how dry it gets.

The inequality is great in Guatemala: 95 percent have 5 percent of the land, which produces food for the whole country. But people are also planting small gardens to improve diversity, growing pumpkins, beans, even medical herbs. This is the way of native people—plant many things, maximize a little piece of land, do better by the environment.

The people who are causing climate change can pay to avoid it. Us without resources are the most affected by it. Our local government is corrupted: Oil companies give a little to the government, which takes it instead of giving it to the people. We’re seeing climate change affect agriculture, upsetting the natural life cycle of corn. It’s getting harder to grow without chemicals. Farmers here get a subsidy to grow things; farmers in my country subsidize themselves to feed the country.

Has social media changed your work?

It’s allowing us to make greater change. We’re using Facebook, SoundCloud—anything to get our culture out there and preserve it. Our work is going to universities. Professors contact us to hear our music and talk about it. We’re going on tour to LA, Chico and finding other venues to do workshops. If we spread our messages as a collective, we can change more things.

How do you see your work fitting into the history of political and cultural resistance?

We need to start looking back. Humanity is not going the right way. There are ways to live without damaging the environment. It’s also important [that] we speak our language—when I use it more, I understand more. Now, we’re living in a global world. We have hip-hop-modern and Mayan-ancient. So we can preserve our culture with others to survive in this world.