Ana Tijoux’s Radical Crossing of Borders

Interpreting Displacement and Transnational Justice

by | Dec 14, 2017

Ana Tijoux. Photo by Jay Connor.

This summer, I was an intern in Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, the museum dedicated to the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Since I was in Chile, I decided to take my chances and try to contact Ana Tijoux, the world-famous French-Chilean contemporary musician—an acquaintance had given me her manager’s e-mail. He responded quickly. She only had a few days in Chile before leaving on a tour in Europe: “we’re trying to avoid the Chilean winter and head to the European summer.” Thus my only chance to see her was at a rehearsal she had before her last concert in Santiago. A few days later, I was told to come to Juegos Diana—a popular indoor amusement park in Santiago. As her manager walked with me to a small room in the back with a few vaguely unsettling old-fashioned children’s games and rides in faded colors, I could hear jazz music increasingly louder. I didn’t give it much thought at first, because I knew Tijoux always sang rap, but when I got to the practice room, I found her in front of a full-scale jazz band.

You could barely hear her usually very powerful vocals as they were covered by the sound of saxophones, trumpets, guitars and basses. I was genuinely surprised. I knew her musical expressions were diverse, but I had never heard her take her songs to an entirely different genre. When I came in, they were playing Tijoux’s autobiographical “1977.” After hearing it a few times, as they perfected their synchronization, I reexamined my reaction. As they went on to one of her most recent songs, “Somos Sur,” I realized that in the context of Tijoux’s work and life, what I was hearing should be far from surprising. Indeed, every jazz song I heard and sang along to, every jazz instrument and every variation from the originals I otherwise knew by heart made complete sense. Ana Tijoux does not follow the borders imposed by genres, just as she doesn’t follow the borders between countries and cultures.

Displacement seems to be at the core of Ana Tijoux’s crossing of borders and genres. The Chilean singer manages to use displacement as an opportunity rather than a burden. Her parents were in exile in France since the start of Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1973. Tijoux was born there in 1977, although she says she never completely fitted in. The most interesting effect of her upbringing in France, as she recalls, was her intercultural exchange with different immigrants in the country. “They were Algerians, Canadians, Moroccans who were in the same situation as me: I’m French, but I don’t look French”, she states in an article in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera.

In interviews, she often rejects France and says she wouldn’t want her children to live in such a “decadent” country, yet she praises her upbringing for putting her in contact with Africans and their cultures in France. During her childhood, hip-hop played an essential role in coping with this constant feeling of not belonging: music became a land “for those who felt landless.” Tijoux believes in hip-hop’s power to make the displaced feel restored. It is thus displacement which brought her to hip-hop in the first place and made her music truly transnational. It is enough to look at some of her latest albums to notice collaborations with singers from all around the world. From the Uruguayan Jorge Drexler in “Sacar la Voz” to the British Palestinian Shadia Mansour for “Somos Sur,” the influence of her childhood becomes evident.

The dictatorship ended in 1990 and Tijoux was able to go to Chile, her parent’s homeland, and, in a way, her own. By the time she turned twenty, she became the only female rapper in the hip-hop group Makiza. Apart from hip-hop, what connected the group was that all of its members had grown up in different countries: Gastón Gabarro had grown up in Canada, Seo2 was raised in Switzerland and Dj Squat had spent a lot of time in Africa. As a group, they would sing social protest songs, often against Pinochet and his dictatorship.

One of their most famous pieces, “La Rosa de los Vientos,”(the Rose of the Winds) speaks particularly about displacement. The intense feelings of being torn between two places on earth, not belonging to the place where you were born: all these are present in the song’s lyrics: “If you knew what it means/ to be divided, not to know what your land is”; “Sometimes I wish I had wings like a bird/ fly in time where Lautaro [one of the leaders of the indigenous Mapuche resistance against the Spanish colonizers] was/ And forgetting, for some time, that half/ Of my family is very far away”. While proudly urging people to remember their one’s origins, the song clearly has a transnational sense inspired by displacement itself—-a sense of a unity of countries and cultures beyond traditional concepts of borders: “When someone asks me what district I represent?/ I tell them that I truly do not understand/ The feeling of being tied to a neighbourhood.” “Rosa de los Vientos” and Tijoux’s Makiza period seems nothing more than the logical continuation of her childhood: a loud affirmation of her origins, of the impact of displacement and of a transnational identity.

After leaving Makiza, it wasn’t just national borders that Tijoux crossed; it was also jobs, aspirations and musical genres. For a while, she went back to France. She worked as a secretary in an advertising agency, a high-school inspector, a nanny. She then wanted to spend time in China, yet finally decided to go back to Chile, where she released her first solo album, Kaos—a mixture of pop and rap. Her next two albums, 1977 and La Bala, seem to focus more on her own process of growth as a person (1977) and on Chilean problems (songs like “Shock” and “Desclasificado” talk about education and the socio-political situation in Chile).

These two albums seem gradual steps towards the more large-scale, global issues she addresses in her latest album, Vengo, released in 2014. “Antipatriarca” could serve as an international feminist anthem. For its video, Tijoux asked all the people she knew in feminist and women’s organizations around the world to send videos of themselves dancing and singing her song. The result is both a celebration of diversity in women’s voices and a call for justice. Its lyrics “Not submissive, not obedient/ A strong insurgent woman/ Independent and valiant/ Breaking the chains of indifference” represent the worldwide struggle for women’s liberation.

On the same album, the song “Somos Sur” encourages the countries of the Southern Hemisphere to unite against oppression: “Dream big so that the empire falls/ […] Africa and Latin America are not for auction.” In this song, Ana Tijoux and Shadia Mansour call for all colonized countries to fight against their colonizers, in the most active and immediate way possible: “This is not utopia, this is a joyful dancing rebellion.” And breaking the borders seems the only way to succeed in this collective struggle. This song is perhaps an epitome of her biography and work. It includes her parents’ desire to escape the authority of the dictatorship; her childhood connection she values so much with the African immigrants in France; a symbolic connection between Latin America and Africa; her going back and forth from Chile to France and thus experiencing both Europe and Latin America; the feeling of displacement and the empowerment of rap which connected the members of Makiza; her transnational social justice work against all types of oppression.

When viewed in the proper context, the fact that Tijoux was singing jazz that day in Santiago shouldn’t be a surprise. Her music is about crossing borders and genres. Whether she sings rap, jazz or pop, her music is about uniting people to fight against oppression. It goes from solving national Chilean problems to worldwide women’s liberation. In this sense, Ana managed to turn her experience with displacement from alienation to a constructive deeper, global understanding of the world, its issues and its people. And whether next time it is in Juegos Diana or another old amusement park in a city on a different continent, I know that if I see her rehearse or sing in concert again, her constantly evolving music might be different, yet it will address the same essential, transnational issues.

Winter 2017Volume XVI, Number 2

Luca Istodor is a sophomore at Harvard College studying Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and a queer activist from Bucharest, Romania. His work in social justice often intersects with his passion for filmmaking, art and literature. 

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