In Rap, The Mexican South Has Got Something To Say
With an excellent debut mixtape, Atlanta rapper Kap G shows why his Mexican-American experience applies to everyone. And opens up a new audience for major labels.
19-year-old Atlanta rapper Kap G looks like a high school homecoming king — tall and trim, his black hair dipped in blonde at its tips. At first glance, you might peg him as a kid that would want to take a nap on your couch and eat the snacks in your fridge, which is why it's so thrilling when, halfway into his debut mixtape, he confronts racist cops.
Kap's song "Fuck La Policia" isn't riotous or loud. Over a pan flute-embellished beat that sounds like a day that's sunny and humid, but oppressively so, Kap sounds dejected but firm. He tells a story about being young and mistreated by police — "I know what you thinking / Think I got no Green Card" — that's no less relatable because it comes specifically from the perspective of a Mexican-American. Kap wrote the song the morning after being pulled over in Atlanta suburb Forest Park. "They always pull people over," he told BuzzFeed last week. "They didn't have no probable cause and I didn't like it. They were abusing their power."
There's a lot of story packed into "Fuck La Policia." Kap charges cops with assuming he's not an American citizen, or that he sells drugs, or that his friends must be in gangs. But the song's overall tone is one of general frustration and dissatisfaction, not tidy accusation. "All this happened last night / I don't need your advice / I don't got my pistol on me / Quit flashing your flashlight," Kap raps, like a spokesperson for any kid who's ever been fed up with authority.
Kap G's parents emigrated to Georgia from Mexico in the '90s, when the population of Mexican-born immigrants in Georgia and the U.S. was growing rapidly. Kap isn't fluent in Spanish and his parents aren't fluent in English; he says their support has been a crucial part of his success, but that they can't analyze his lyrics. Kap was born in Atlanta, and raised in the city's predominantly black College Park neighborhood. He recently graduated from Tri-Cities High School, the same neighborhood school attended by the members of OutKast, the rap duo who helped legitimize Southern rap nationwide and encouraged listeners to embrace being different in the '90s and '00s. "It was always: Mexicans sit with the Mexicans, black people sit with the black people; that was just how it was," Kap said, describing the Tri-Cities cafeteria. "But I was the one who was probably sitting with the black people."
Kap played basketball and met a lot of people who were into music. He started rapping when he was 14, putting together a makeshift studio with a neighbor from his apartment complex. "At first I was just talking about things like looking nice, girls, regular stuff. I was always proud of my culture. But I never really spoke about it at first. When I tried I was like, this don't really sound cool and I know for a fact people are not gonna really like this," he said. But as he practiced and developed skills, he began to push his Mexican identity to the foreground of his lyrics. "When I got better, it got easy for me to talk about my life," he said. "The things that mom and dad have been through, I just like talking about it. There's a lot of stereotypes about Mexicans, things like cutting grass, being trapped in the house or like being illegal, all that. But it's not like we just do all that for fun — there are reasons why. I know some people don't understand that. There's a story to tell that people haven't told yet, and I feel like it's very needed right now in hip-hop."
Musicians like Miguel and Selena Gomez sometimes talk about the significance of Mexican culture in their lives, but Kap G unabashedly pushes his experience as the America-born kid of Mexico-born immigrants to the center of his mixtape, which is called Like A Mexican, an intentional flip of what's often a derogatory term. He talks about standing alongside immigrants outside Home Depot looking for work, says he has trouble trusting federal authorities, and brags that he's got a girl who makes him chorizo in the morning. He talks about relatives that reside in the U.S. illegally, too, but grants that his experiences with deportation have been largely secondhand: "I was the younger person in my family, so I was never the person who would be talking to the person who got deported — they would be older than me." A generation later, though, he acknowledges the emotional toll that non-citizenship can take. Talking about a relative, he says, "He has a family here, he's started a whole life. But he don't got no license so every day he wakes up paranoid."
If he aims to amplify the voices of Mexican-Americans, Kap insists that he's also talking to everyone else: "I wanna go everywhere. I would definitely love to tour in Mexico, but I wanna be diverse. I wanna be accepted by everybody." And he thinks his message of determination is universally appealing, because "everybody has to work." Kap raps about working hard and not bothering with designer shoes because they cost too much, then admits he buys too many Jordans, then prays he'll never go broke. "When OutKast first came out they was just youngins, rapping about how it was in the South," he says, drawing a line between himself and his hometown's heroes. "I'm rapping about how it is to be a youngin, too," Kap said.
The music industry has noticed, and in Kap G's triumphant first-generation story, sees an opportunity to reach a new, profitable audience. Major label Atlantic has signed him and put him in the studio with big-name producers like Pharrell. "Pharrell was saying I'd be the voice for the Mexicans," Kap said. "The Mexicans who work at the hotel, who do the housekeeping, who work in the kitchen, he's like, 'You're putting on for them, the people who get disrespected who gotta wake up and do that every day.' He was telling me like, 'They gonna love you, cause you're really speaking out for them.'"
Note: A mischaracterization of Georgia city Forest Park been corrected. (h/t @michaelN404)