Why you should care

Because many of us are looking for a soundtrack to stay woke.

Rapper Gina Madrid, aka Raw-G, couldn’t have picked a more fitting stage name. After a string of head-swaying acoustic songs at an open mic hosted at the restaurant where her mother worked — one of her earliest performances — the then-13-year-old emcee rapped about HIV, drugs and police brutality in fierce, hard-hitting Spanish. Some audience members stared awkwardly at the ground. Her mother “wouldn’t stop staring,” she says.

Maturity has cured some of the teenage angst, but the Oakland, California–based rapper’s music still cuts deep. In July 2015, she dropped her first EP, Esperanza, which tackles immigration, corruption and violence, among other themes. Sometimes velvety and incantatory, sometimes growling and aggressive, her rhymes wend through shadowy, jazz-infused melodies in a blend of English and Spanish. Raw-G wants to leave listeners feeling shaken — uncomfortable, even. “Uncomfortable is good,” the 34-year-old says. Wokeness is supposed to feel uncomfortable.

As much activist as artist, Raw-G leans into the discomfort. Last year, she led rallies against police brutality, and helped fundraise to build a free health clinic for Standing Rock protesters. All proceeds from Esperanza have gone to an Oakland school that targets recent immigrants. Raw-G’s music feeds a growing hunger for something “unpackaged and for real,” says Rickey Vincent, a DJ, funk historian and educator in Berkeley, California. He foresees Raw-G’s career riding the swelling tide of social change — and a newfound national fascination with Oakland, a city steeped in activism. “Oakland is hot,” Vincent says, with outsiders realizing that here, “people are not only woke, they been woke.” Meanwhile, a crop of emerging local artists has been gaining national recognition: G-Eazy, Kehlani and, more recently, Fantastic Negrito. “Raw-G is too talented to just be in the Bay. I see her blowing up,” Vincent predicts.

We meet at an uptown Oakland café; Raw-G has a dimpled smile and warm hug that belie her gritty look (black leather jacket, wild dreadlocks and jewel-studded nose and chin). Between sips of rooibos tea, she talks about penning poems as a child in Guadalajara before transitioning to rhyming, writing her first song for her dad after he died when she was 12. She moved to Oakland while young and pregnant with her son (now an artist and producer himself), living out of a closet at first, and taught herself English by translating lyrics by Tupac, Public Enemy, Eminem and other rappers on scrap paper.

Though “sweet” and “humble,” “she’s still a lion,” says Allison Haagensen, a teacher in Washington and longtime friend of Raw-G. “If someone says something out of pocket, she will definitely put them in their place.” That desire to defend the disempowered stretches as far back as Edgar Madrid Lopez, Raw-G’s brother, can remember. When the then-14-year-old Raw-G saw a neighborhood kid bullying her brother, “she knocked him out,” Lopez says. “She never takes no shit from nobody.” That’s important in the male-dominated world of rap and music. “Women have had to create their own lane,” says Dave Cook, aka Davey D, a hip-hop journalist in Oakland. Raw-G has “followed in that tradition.” More broadly, “that’s just the Bay Area hustle” — in a region rich in talent but scant on resources, many artists have had to start their own record labels and production companies. 

Raw-G released Esperanza through her production and promotion company, Steelo Entertainment. Esperanza— Spanish for “hope” — aims to convey an uplifting message for immigrants and people of color. On the opener, “Building Steam,” she raps about poverty in Mexico over a stormy piano melody interwoven with Lila Rose’s haunting vocals. “Sangre” sounds like an invocation: Raw-G raps in a reverent whisper: “In the name of our people, who are forced to be silent, all of those who are gone, and the ones who are fighting.”

Although Raw-G has performed with the likes of Ghostface Killah, KRS-One and Macklemore, the hustle ain’t over yet. A debut album will release this year, with plans for a few videos to be dropped along the way, starting with one for “Freedom,” a song about “how we are all moving toward our freedom and being accepted … no matter your race.” She’s also opening a community center to support youth who can’t afford music education and to provide local artists with a space for creating and organizing.

But Raw-G’s deep commitment to activism means “it might be a while” before her music career takes off, Vincent says. “When you’re in the middle of the revolution, you can’t just put stuff on Google Calendar.” Her unique blend of hip-hop, Latin and rock might also make record execs unsure of how to market her, although he points out that similarly genre-bending, anti-establishment artists like Boots Riley and the Coup have sold out shows, even if they don’t appear on Top 40 countdowns. Raw-G’s use of Spanish also poses “a little bit of a hurdle” to expanding her audience, Cook says. While reggaeton’s popularity in the U.S. suggests that stateside audiences have opened up to music in languages other than English, hip-hop still “tends to be very nativist.”

Whether or not the hustle leads her to stardom, Raw-G wants her art to strengthen others the way it strengthens her. “I want to empower people to be themselves,” she says, “to push for what they want to do and not let anyone stop them.” 

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