Let’s start with the band’s name: Los Rakas. It’s based on a slur used in Panama for someone from the streets. A hoodlum. But the two cousins who make up the duo see things another way.
“The reason we decided to call ourselves Los Rakas is to show the world that not everything that comes from the ghetto is negative,” said Abdull Rubén Domínguez, aka Raka Dun. He’s 26, and came to the US from Panama as a teenager.
He raps, along with his cousin Ricardo Betancourt, or, as he's known on stage, Raka Rich. Betancourt was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, but his parents are from Panama.
Together, the cousins mix hip hop, reggae, dancehall and soul music. It’s a sound they call “Pana-Bay,” and it started taking off in 2006 with a very danceable party track called “Bounce.”
“At every youth event, when we performed this song, [the audience] they’d go crazy,” said Raka Rich. “We even had a dance to it, and the whole crowd would do the dance with us. That’s when we knew we had something going.”
As we headed to Rasputin Music, a local institution in Berkeley, they told me their story of how they got started. Los Rakas began selling their CDs on the sidewalk in front of the famed record shop.
“The owner didn’t mind,” said Raka Dun. “He even came out once and bought one of our CDs.” Now, Rasputin’s window prominently features Los Rakas’ newest album, “El Negrito Dun Dun & Ricardo.”
We also dropped by East Oakland's Youth Uprising, a community center where Los Rakas put on some of their first shows. Shaka Jamal Redmond, who mentored young musicians, was there and remembered seeing Los Rakas in 2006. The hip hop duo was still a rare act then, at least in this part of Oakland: rapping in Spanish and English, and bringing both Latino and black kids to the same show.
“Normally, you wouldn’t see much mixing," said Redmond. "Just having them here and around just expanded peoples’ minds. And the beats were knocking!”
Courtesy of Los Rakas
These days, Los Rakas are going deeper and more political with their music. Raka Dun, who came here from Panama in 2001, said being in America has been enlightening. “I learned more about my culture here. Yes. I learned about being Afro-Latino here in the United States,” he says. “I moved in with this family. They were really Afrocentric. They had Malcolm X pictures on the wall, a lot of books about slavery, about the Africans who came before slavery. And that’s how I learned."
Politically charged US bands like Dead Prez also inspired Raka Dun.
“Dead Prez was talking more about the government, and racism, and the prison system and all of that,” he says.
As Raka Dun began to change, his cousin listened and got thinking too. “It wasn’t like he was preaching at me though,” said Raka Rich. “There was no preaching. It was never that. It’s that you get to realizing certain things and it’s, like, 'Wow.'”
What was he realizing?
“How amazing being black is.”
Raka Rich said he never talked about that growing up in California. “When I went to school, people were like, ‘You’re not black! You’re not black. You’re Mexican or whatever.' You know, because I’m Latin,” said Raka Rich. “But I’ve always known I was black. I’m like, 'Bro, look at me, bro! If I didn’t speak Spanish, what do you think I am? You’re going think I’m black mixed with something.'”
The duo’s most recent song, “Sueño Americano,” hits on a more serious theme.
One verse says:
These guys don't know anything about me
Nor do they know what it's taken for me to survive
Life in America is not what I thought
And even less how they think it is
Those who don't live here
It's hard, homie, this ain't Panama
Where if you don’t have something
The neighbor gives it to you
Here, if you want something, you have to find it
And if you don't have work, you have to sin
Cause the rent is high, the law is bad
Without papers, you're nothing
They don't treat you like a human being
This is a message for all of my people
The video for the song is pretty rough, too. It shows a young immigrant (played by Raka Dun), frustrated, out of work, and sentenced to death for a robbery that goes wrong. By the end of the video, he’s executed by lethal injection.
Raka Rich knows firsthand what can happen when immigration and the law collide. His dad once lived in California and held a green card, but was eventually deported after he was convicted of some crimes. “He made all the wrong choices,” he said. “They didn’t give him a second chance. They’re like, ‘You know what? Deportation.’”
Raka Dun was undocumented himself for years until he recently got his green card. He says he wants his music to express how tough it was to get his footing here. “It’s like a letter to my family back home,” he says. “I’m showing them all of my insecurities, my fears, what’s going on over here. A lot of people back home got a perception of the United States like it’s color de rosas. And when you get over here, they want you to send money back. They think you’re balling over here.”
In “Sueño Americano,” Raka Dun raps, “Life in America is not what I thought. And even less how they think it is. Those who don't live here.”