The next time Ana Tijoux comes to D.C., she’s going to need a bigger space than the Black Cat’s Backstage. The Chilean rapper played to a capacity crowd on Thursday night, with no small amount of ticketless chagrin transpiring outside. The mathematics of the fire code aside, her energy and voice are big enough to stretch Backstage at the seams, and would be more than enough to fill the main space upstairs.
Tijoux is touring on a record called La Bala, which is stuffed with subversive, revolutionary lyrics over a range of sounds from soulful to militant. She is strikingly beautiful, and showed no trace of the chronic shyness that almost kept her from a performing career in her youth. Her singing voice is clear and glistening, more inspirational than seductive (though she probably has that arrow in her quiver when she wants it). And oh-by-the-way, she can spit.
There’s no other type of musical performance where you’re exposed as you are when rapping. There’s no hiding, physically or musically. Stringing an intricate verse together in style is one thing when standing in a studio booth. Reproducing the precision, the tweaks of cadence, the lyrical complexity that you put on wax, with a hundred people staring up at you? That’s different. And Thursday left no doubt: Tijoux was rapping her balls off. She bends her voice, tucks it into little folds in the track her bandmates — a drummer, a DJ, a bassist — construct around her. She breaks into song for hooks, sometimes mid-verse, but rides the pocket of the beat, flexing her voice between a birdlike warble and a revolutionary’s debating tone.
About 40 minutes into her set, she brought the openers up to help her on “Sacar La Voz.” They’re a veteran Bronx trio called Rebel Diaz who are sonically and lyrically simpler than her, but just as earnest, and almost as good. Putting three emcees on stage made for some fun back-and-forths, and a bit of friendly oneupmanship. As it should be.
Whether we like it or not, there is simply more pressure on a female MC to prove she belongs. The language barrier, captivating singing voice, and soft-focus NPR intro that most American fans got to Tijoux make it a little easier to forget that she’s a woman who raps, and therefore a woman who deals with silent skepticism by grabbing a mic and destroying it. Over the course of her set she flexed about a half-dozen separate solo styles, did a bit of round robin with the Rebel Diaz guys, and talked about how she got into hip hop in the first place. (It was ‘98, playing Wu Tang with her friends in Chile and learning to freestyle over RZA beats. Bonafides, established.)
By the end of the set, she had played most of La Bala, including its heavily political opening trio of “La Bala,” “Shock,” (inspired by Naomi Klein) and “Desclasificado.” The banter, which she forced herself to do mostly in English even though her initial crowd check confirmed that about 80 percent of the room were spanish speakers, was similarly pugnacious. Rebel Diaz called out Joe Arpaio, to derisive shouts, but Tijoux chose a harder target. She pointed out that President Obama’s overseen more deportations than his predecessor. Also mentioned: the U.S. as world leader in incarceration, the interconnected nature of all human life, and the universality of hiphop because “the world is a ghetto.”
But nobody dwelled on the politics, and there were no lectures. Tijoux decided it’s more fun to have the choir sing along than it is to preach to them. She got us all to help out on the hooks to “Shock” and “La Rosa de Los Vientos,” a tune by the group she helmed before setting out solo. And when they tried to quit the stage after an hourlong set, the back door had barely closed when the “Otra! Otra!” chant got going. They gave us a couple more to take home, including “Obstáculo” from her previous album, 1977, and then we all poured out into the night and the heat and the uncharming prospect of our real lives.