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"More than for us as artists, it's for the people of Chocó. To be able to tell the people in the world that Colombia is much more than cocaine, than marijuana and coffee and violence, right?"

After centuries of silence, Afro-Colombians add their distinct voices to pop culture 

Bound to arrive: From a poor region of Colombia, ChocQuibTown makes a rare stateside visit this week.

Photo courtesy of Carolina Performing Arts

Bound to arrive: From a poor region of Colombia, ChocQuibTown makes a rare stateside visit this week.

If you were to build a model for marginalization in Colombia, she might look something like Gloria "Goyo" Martinez, a black female rapper from an impoverished coastal region of the South American country.

"I have the three negative things, right?" she says with candor and wit, by phone and in Spanish from Colombia. "To be a woman in Latin America among so much chauvinism, to be black and to be a rapper."

Goyo is from El Chocó, a Colombian state dominated by people of African descent who proudly call themselves Chocoanos. Politics often prohibit the placement of such Afro-Colombian employees within certain businesses, a symptom of the systemic discrimination they've long suffered.

"It is not a secret that, in Latin America, the Afro population is one that is quite forgotten," Goyo says. "For years, or what seems for light years, cultures like the African-American culture have fought for equality of rights because of the color of their skin. The subject has developed in a much different manner than it has in the United States."

But Goyo is now one of the most respected young artists in Latin America, female or not. Along with husband, Carlos "Tostao" Valencia, and her brother, Miguel "Slow" Martinez, she is giving voice to a historically neglected community. Their hip-hop trio ChocQuibTown has emerged as South American stars during the last decade, winning a Latin Grammy in 2010 and numerous other prizes in their own country. In 2011, their album Oro was nominated for a stateside Grammy; this year, their "Uh La La" landed on the soundtrack for Runner, Runner, starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake. Both serve notice that the dispossessed Colombians couldn't be kept quiet.

"More than for us as artists, it's for the people, the people of Chocó," Goyo says about the trio's name, a nod to their hometown. "To be able to tell the people in the world that Colombia is much more than cocaine, than marijuana and coffee and violence, right? There is music. Groups of young people like us exist, and we can make our music."

As part of this quest, the band has continued to cross borders and even genres. The song "Calentura" features 59-year-old Chocoana songwriter Zully Murillo and Puerto Rican musician and actor Tego Calderón. ChocQuibTown's recent collaboration with guitarist Carlos Santana will be released next year on his new album. The trio grew up hearing and hearing about the Mexican-born emissary for Latin music; when he approached them, they were stunned. They'll even perform with him in his native Mexico next month.

"He is a very humble person who works with various projects that support foundations," says Goyo. "That someone like him would look at a group like us gives us strength to continue moving forward."

Indeed, their motivations to produce change in Colombia are as much a part of their music as their lives. Their courageous song "Robber" highlights the insatiable greed of the politicians behind the corruption that ravages Latin American politics. And they remember the missionaries working in Colombia who would leave them toys during the holiday season. These groups taught them the value of education, leading them to foundations and events that continue to foster creativity and expression in the country. They're working to repay that inspiration.

"Something that we are attracted to is the idea of play, fun for the children," Goyo explains. "Every December when the year is over, or at least by November, we make a balance of our general income and give a great percentage through gifts that we send to El Chocó."

The band's international ascent and validation received a boost from Christopher Dennis, a Latin American culture professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Years ago, he arrived in Colombia to teach English at a bilingual private school that the parents of a Colombian classmate owned. By the time he left, he'd found a second home in Colombia, and he dedicated the rest of his graduate studies to Afro-Colombian identity.

ChocQuibTown let Dennis, a Caucasian foreigner, into their realm, and he's in turn helped explain the surge of Afro-Colombian creativity to the rest of the world through a series of journal articles and a book published last year, Afro-Colombian Hip-Hop: Globalization, Transcultural Music, and Ethnic Identities. In 2007, he even brought the band to UNC-W, where he'd used their songs to help teach his students Spanish. The audience sang along. ChocQuibTown's show in Chapel Hill, a rare American appearance, will be their first in North Carolina since that performance six years ago.

"One of my hopes was to help carry these voices beyond Colombia to different audiences. What they have to say is very important," Dennis says. "I was able to witness the journey and watch them go from very humble beginnings to all of the success they have been able to achieve based on talent and their drive and the belief that they've had in themselves."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Mixed messages."

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