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The struggle for social justice is nothing new to Boyle Heights. For decades, residents have rallied for change around issues ranging from educational rights to gentrification and affordable housing.
Many Eastside musicians also are inspired by social justice issues, which find their way into the lyrics of their songs. These lyrics can be found in musical styles ranging from hip hop to folk. Although the styles differ, their common goal is to bring awareness and unite people.
“East LA is an endless fountain of inspiration and example of how people not just survive, but thrive in the face of adversity,” says Quetzal Flores, a Grammy Award-winning musician and the namesake of the band Quetzal. Other contemporary artists currently defining their work around social activism include Maya Jupiter and Viva Mescal.
Flores plays an active role in the Eastside musical scene. Over the years, his music has been used in many social justice campaigns in the area.
“Boyle Heights, in particular, is a center of resistance throughout history. It’s a creative center in a lot of ways.”Quetzal Flores
“Boyle Heights, in particular, is a center of resistance throughout history,” he says. “It’s a creative center in a lot of ways.”
In the lyrics of “Coyote Hustle” on the 2014 Quetzanimals album, Quetzal points to the displacement of tenants by gentrification, comparing it to how humans displace wild animals from their natural habitat by building larger cities.
The song depicts the struggles faced by street vendors in Los Angeles and became the unofficial theme music for the Los Angeles food vendors’ campaign for legalization. Its music video follows a fruit vendor named Mariposa Gonzalez, who was one of the leaders in the successful campaign to legalize street vending.
The song “brought a visibility that isn’t always there,” says Flores, 45. “It gave people a different way to look at the situation, sort of think about their own responsibility in this fight.”
Born in East LA, Flores has always had some sort of involvement in social activism. When he was growing up, his parents played a big part in the Chicano movement of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
Currently the arts and culture director of the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), Flores is one of several founders of Artivist Entertainment – a company that represents several Los Angeles musicians and artists whose work aims to inspire positive social change.
Maya Jupiter, another co-founder of Artivist Entertainment, considers herself a “hip-hop artivist.” Born in La Paz, Mexico, but raised in Australia, she says she always had a hard time connecting to her Mexican roots, but that they helped inspire her music. Jupiter, 40, is now raising her family in Los Angeles.
In her song “That Ain’t Me,” she takes on female stereotypes in media, children’s books and more. The song expresses how women are expected to fill certain roles or regarded as not “worthy” in the eyes of society.
Jupiter, 40, criticized the way advertisers portray women in ads for products pushing a “flatter belly, bigger butt, bleached skin, spray tan, starving on a diet plan, perm relaxer, laser-shaved, Brazilian-wax.
“I think it’s important for all artists to talk about the social issues and what’s going on in the community– to be the speakers of truth, because it’s so powerful. It changes culture,”Maya Jupiter
“Let’s be real,” she said. “All these things that we’re supposed to be doing to ourselves to achieve some standard of beauty, it’s just about making money out of us.”
In addition to writing and recording music, Jupiter has served as a writing instructor for a course dedicated to refugees and first and second-generation immigrants to Los Angeles. She has also co-facilitated an internship at Radio Sombra, where she taught high school students in Boyle Heights how to produce their own radio shows.
In “Never said Yes,” Jupiter sings about the high rate of sexual assaults on college campuses. “Systematic cover-ups/ naive sitting ducks,” she begins the song that details how men target women. In her lyrics she also refers to Donald Trump and laments the fact that accusations by multiple women that he sexually assaulted them were not investigated.
“I think it’s important for all artists to talk about the social issues and what’s going on in the community– to be the speakers of truth, because it’s so powerful. It changes culture,” says Jupiter.
As a Boyle Heights native,31-year-old Viva Mescal has seen firsthand the changes happening to the community. An audio engineer, producer, organizer and emcee, he’s a founding member of the East of the River Network, a collective of Boyle Heights hip-hop artists. Mescal says his mission is to use his platform to bring awareness to issues in the community.
Viva Mescal touches on the topic of gentrification taking place not only in Boyle Heights, but also in other low-income communities. In “All City,” he sings about overpriced housing in Boyle Heights. In the song, his musical collaborators, Mad Macks, who is also part of the network, and Asimoff, part of another LA-based collective, The Cypher Effect, rap about how these housing issues affect local residents.
“What street is this, whose corporate greedy dream is this,” Mescal raps at the beginning of a verse about all the changes that have come to Boyle Heights, where streets that residents once knew are no longer what they used to be.
Flores draws inspiration for his social justice lyrics from Latin American artists such as Tedy Cajara, Dilo Tapara and Silvio Rodríguez, whom he describes as using their music to tell stories in the most beautiful and profound way.
Los Guaraguao and Alí Primera, who are artists and activists from the Nueva Canción movement, are other examples of the band’s inspiration for building movement and power.
Flores believes musicians have a responsibility with their music and that they can be a voice for the voiceless. “Our commitment is to people who are struggling, people who are fighting and demonstrating a will to thrive,” he says.