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Can Hip Hop Help Stop Gang Violence in Latin America?

Hip hop culture has long been associated with gangs, violence and vandalism. But a wide range of actors in Latin America are attempting to work past longstanding biases and challenges to experiment with these art forms as alternatives for at-risk youths who might otherwise engage in criminal activity.

Three young men dressed in baggy clothes and snap-back baseball caps are rapping to a homemade beat on a portable microphone. They’re in a small house in Comuna 13, one of the poorest and historically most violent neighborhoods of Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín.

But the house isn’t a gang hideout. And the teens aren’t rapping for a party of “pandilleros” (gang members).

The Casa Morada (the Purple House) is a community center frequented by locals of all ages looking for a safe space to express themselves through a style of hip hop centered around peace and social justice.

The residents of Comuna 13 have long faced conflict and gang control, but many locals say that hip hop has helped change the neighborhood and its young people for the better.

Abuela Rapera looks on at young rappers in Casa Morada.jpg
Margoth Yepes, known as “La Abuela Rapera,” or the Granny Rapper, watches a rap performance in the Casa Morada community center in Comuna 13.

Although many residents initially associated hip hop with gangs and crime, their perceptions have been reshaped after nearly a decade of seeing hip hop used as a “tool for social transformation,” said a local hip hop teacher and community leader who goes by the rapper name Kbala.

“Seven years ago, rappers and graffiti artists were seen as delinquents,” he said. “But that has changed so that we are now recognized in the neighborhood and lots of people approach us asking, ‘Help me with my son. Take him to your classes.’”

Throughout Latin America, governments and grassroots groups have attempted to harness the popularity and energy of hip hop as a tool for preventing violence and crime, particularly among young people.

Scant anecdotal evidence suggests such projects may be effective in terms of providing at-risk youths with alternatives to criminality, but there have been very few systematic evaluations of these efforts, and programs face various obstacles to successful and sustainable implementation.

Read the rest of this regional analysis at InSight Crime.

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