Los Rakas: When Panamanian Hip-Hop Prevailed at the White House

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Los Rakas in their hometown of Oakland. (Photo: Manjula Varghese)

There’s something special about a homegrown duo of innovative musicians being invited to the nation's capitol.

"We were just talking about how one day we gonna bring the Raka party to the White House," says Raka Rich, half of the Oakland-by-way-of-Panama hip-hop duo Los Rakas. Just a few days later, they got an email inviting them to the April 30 Brioxy White House Summit, where they had the opportunity to perform for and meet with senior staff of color.

It marked a big step for the East Bay group. “I feel like we've been innovating the music,” Raka Dun says. And both believe they're opening doors for other artists by being creative with both language and style.

Los Rakas in Washington, D.C.
Los Rakas in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Los Rakas )

Los Rakas are cousins who began their musical experimentation in Oakland with strong influences from their Panamanian background. The name “Raka” comes from the Panamanian slur “Rakataka,” a derogatory word for someone from the ghetto, or an impoverished neighborhood. But the duo have reclaimed the term, inverting its meaning: "A Raka is someone who is going to do whatever it takes to provide for their family," Raka Dun says.

To that end, they’ve created their own unique style: “Panabay,” a loud and unique hybrid of Panama and the Bay Area.

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“I feel like that is what we bring to the music industry. We're not the same... we're different and we are different proudly,” Raka Dun says of their style, “it translates to... how we dress, how we perform. Unapologetic,” he adds. They both grew up listening to many different genres of music; as Raka Rich says, "We're not faking the funk."

Los Rakas deftly mixes Spanish and English in a way that avoids sounding corny in either language. “We don't really think ‘Oh, I am going to write in Spanish or English’ — it's just how it feels, what comes naturally when you hear the beat,” Rich says. Stylistically, their songs span high-intensity dancehall rhythms (like their most recent Raka Party track, above) to soulful slow jams like 2014's "Chica De Mi Corazón," a love letter to Raka Dun’s mother, Josefina.

Los Rakas feel they’ve already achieved a certain degree of success; they've been able to constantly make music together for ten years. But they still dream big. Building something for the community is just one of those bigger dreams, “like the youth centers that helped us,” Raka Dun says.

As for The Summit at the White House? Los Rakas calls it powerful, inspiring and "awesome." But there's something inspiring for the Bay Area at large about Los Rakas' presence in D.C.: to bring them to the White House acknowledges the mixed identities, multiple languages, proud styles and community-mindedness that are uniquely rooted in the Bay Area -- ones that extend beyond borders of race, musical style and citizenship.