The UN team in Bolivia is always on the lookout for new ways to engage with the community to help the authorities tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an approach that sparked a creative partnership between talented young rap artist “Krisso MC” and the newly arrived UN Resident Coordinator for Bolivia, Susana Sottoli, as UN Geneva’s Solange Behoteguy writes.
"It's like waking up in a movie one day and realising that the virus is everywhere," says Christian Lawrence Velez Zambrana, who’s better known in the Bolivian hip-hop world as "Krisso MC”.
That was before quarantine measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 brought an abrupt halt to the young artist’s career in the capital city, La Paz.
Known for his rapid-fire vocals about issues that are close to his heart and those of other young Bolivians, today, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter is unsure when he can go back to rapping – or freestyling, as it’s also known - in theatres, plazas or fairs.
Today, instead of earning $20 to $30 per performance, Krisso collects materials for recycling. He takes them to a depot in the city of El Alto where he lives, high above the capital. It’s hard work but it achieves its purpose, putting the distance between him and the gangs in his neighbourhood.
There’s still time for music, though, and whenever he can, Krisso records new material on his phone.
"I realize that I have influence over people and I have to be careful about what I say," he explains, adding that whenever he visits schools, he takes extra care with his lyrics to avoid glamourizing drugs and violence.
He also has time for the UN, helping to share lifesaving information about COVID-19 with a younger audience, via his TikTok video, "COVID-19 can affect anyone".
The initiative is part of the UN country team’s “Yo en cuarentena" (“Me in quarantine”) –campaign, which came about after a survey of 3,000 young people revealed that many believed COVID-19 only affected older generations.
The videos are shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube and published on official UN Bolivia websites.
"The ultimate goal is to tell young people that, despite the uncertainty, they can take advantage of the lockdown time to learn, connect with others and create projects and dreams that can be realized in the future," says Susana Sottoli, United Nations Resident Coordinator for Bolivia, who invited Krisso to take part in the campaign.
They first met in February during a citizens' roundtable organized by the UN to promote dialogue with young people. Back then, it had only been about two weeks since Ms. Sottoli touched down at El Alto airport. Ms. Sottoli arrived in the country before the pandemic hit Bolivia, at a time when the UN´s priorities included helping to restore peace and promote social dialogue in the country still reeling from the last year’s elections that resulted in the ousting of long-time President Evo Morales.
Krisso remembers the meeting organized by the UN clearly: "It gave me the opportunity to listen to different young people who may not be following the same line in rap and hip-hop, but who share the same ideology on human wellbeing,” he says. “The UN gives me confidence and a chance to reach more people.”
For Ms. Sottoli, Krisso is exactly who the UN should be engaging with, in Bolivia and beyond.
"Krisso combines the whole ethos of El Alto, a strong culture with a strong civil society movement, but he also uses a language - in this case musical, communicational - which is understood globally,” she says. Hip-hop is no longer just associated with one country, for instance, the United States, “it exists everywhere with its own cultural and contextual elements and Bolivian artists have embraced it as their own, as young people have done in other countries in Latin America."
Krisso MC performing. Photo courtesy Kasumme Leyla Medina Chipana
A question of survival
Although the young rapper sometimes likens words to weapons when he’s performing, he prefers not to talk about waging war against the new coronavirus, which as of two weeks ago, has claimed more than 380,000 lives around the world so far. "Wars are not good for seeking peace,” he explains. “This is more of a personal battle and the question is what do I do to feed myself, to take care of my family, to help my neighbour?”
Krisso had a difficult childhood, growing up in El Alto, a city of mostly poor, indigenous migrants, and where everything happens at a head-spinning 4,150 metres above sea level. To survive, he’s done everything: from washing floors, to bricklaying, working as a doorman, mechanic and being a chalequero.
Before everyone had a mobile phone, chalequeros were people who wore jackets with pockets full of cell phones; they went around the streets offering passers-by cheap calls – usually no more than a Boliviano (equals to about $0.14).
That’s all in the past now and today, Krisso identifies with an emerging alternative hip-hop rap movement called "Profecia Xplicita." Its message is one of hope, equality and progress through opportunity – a far cry from what you might expect when you first see him, dressed in his standard-issue combat jacket, wrap-around shades and flipped basketball cap.
"That's my way, many people judge you by the way you dress or believe that if you rap, you're in a gang or into drugs,” he says. “There are many of us who are trying to get out of that environment. It's not easy for a young guy to work, eat and study”.
Solutions for Bolivia
Determined to tackle these challenges after arriving in Bolivia as the new UN country team chief, Ms. Sottoli agrees that COVID-19 turned everything on its head: "I was coming prepared theoretically, but the landscape changed completely. The political agenda and the health agenda came together, and we had to turn around, change course and adapt the agenda to the new reality that involved living with an invisible enemy," she says.
One unforgettable moment came soon after she started work, when the authorities asked her to help coordinate the country’s response to the pandemic from the Casa Grande del Pueblo (“Great House of the People”), a huge tower in the centre of La Paz.
The 120-metre structure had been commissioned by former President Evo Morales; it is still loaded with political significance today, loved and reviled by his supporters and detractors in equal measure.
A challenging request
"I received a call from the Government requesting the collaboration of the UN to establish a situation room to manage the crisis linked to COVID-19," she says, adding that the 22nd floor was soon transformed into the place where key decisions about the health crisis would be made. "For me it was both a huge challenge and a great opportunity to lead a team of UN agencies help set up such a strategic space to combat the pandemic. The communication component is fundamental in an epidemic," she insists.
The Government, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Planning, the army, the national emergency committee, several UN organizations including the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) Bolivia, all participated.
Today, the Resident Coordinator is working from her house, from which she can see "the overwhelming mountains” that surround the city of La Paz, set against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky. The view provides “a sense of horizon, luminosity and hope,” she explains.
Although assisting the authorities to overcome COVID-19 is the immediate priority, her next challenge is just as pressing: to lead the UN in supporting the country prepare for the upcoming elections amid an ongoing health crisis. She also knows that soon there will be a third crisis, linked to the pandemic’s socio-economic fallout.
La Paz, Bolivia, the "City of the Mountains". United Nations photo: Susana Sottoli
In the Andean vision of the universe, the representation of time is the opposite of the Western one: the future is behind us, because it cannot be seen; the past is in front of us, because we know it. Perhaps that is why Krisso would not change anything about his past.
However, he thinks that we will have to fight for a future free from conspiracy theories, superstitions and distrust that have all marked the COVID era. "Before, during the political crisis, things were decided by the colour of the party you supported; in the future, it will be distrust of other people – is he sick from coronavirus. We're going to need a lot of re-education, dialogue, adaptation and raising people’s awareness (of what is needed).”