Afrojuice 195: The Other Madrid

"Fun is political, and fun is also fun."

By Sam Ball
February 16, 2019

Photos courtesy of Afrojuice 195

Photos courtesy of Afrojuice 195

 

AFROJUICE 195’S FIRST, and most watched, video is deceptively simple: a group of black and Arab teens and kids bound around on screen, dancing, smiling, touting a German supermarket’s generic soda brand. There’s a Tupac look-alike, kids wearing Moroccan flags as skirts, slick hip wiggles, quad bikes, and a kaleidoscope of football jerseys. What’s conspicuously missing from the Madrid-based group’s image is the standard view of the city and its imperial grandeur, boulevards, museums. Instead, the dancers bounce back and forth between the rapidly gentrifying immigrant bastion of Lavapiés, with its plazas named for Nelson Mandela and Agustín Lara, and the ubiquitous, uniform red apartment buildings of the city’s outskirts.

The world of Afrojuice 195 is an intoxicating tangle of images, signs, and references to everything from the neighborhoods of southern Madrid to 90s gangster flicks to Cameroonian footballers. The group hails from Fuenlabrada, a city on the southwestern outskirts of the Madrid metro area, but is at home across the city’s landscape. The five members of the group, all teenagers and twenty-somethings, met while living in a group home. Their music is a take on afro-trap, a genre developed in France by artists like Paris’ MHD, which brings West African pop like Ivorian coupé-décalé together with U.S. hip hop. They build on these international influences to counter the idea that a sliver of Madrid can represent it as a whole, breaking preconceptions about the city both locally and abroad.

The essence of Afrojuice’s music, though, is fun: it plays with the idea of imitation, creating something entirely new. In the music video for one of their more popular tracks, the upbeat “Bizness,” Mike Juice (AKA El negro más guapo de toda España) takes off one of his Crocs and pretends to make a phone call with it, a gesture popularized by U.S. rappers who hold stacks of money to their ears like cellphones. The move is calculated, even if it appears a joke, mocking and celebrating a silly wave of the hand that has already solidified itself as a meme. In the same video, the group’s leader Taylor Chris (AKA Black Di Caprio) sits in a hair salon, rapping and having his hair washed with Freeway Cola, a generic brand from the German supermarket chain Lidl. It’s a wonky take on rappers pouring out champagne, poking fun at the consumerist maximalism and implicit misogyny of the hip-hop trope. 

Afrojuice are adept at these kinds of reversals—their music and concerts ooze a relaxed homoerotic atmosphere, one in which men dancing together (or, as in their videos, twerking on each other) is an expression of joy and camaraderie. It’s an odd kind of sexual liberation or de-escalation, and an almost exclusively platonic one. That isn’t to say that Afrojuice songs aren’t sexual—like most pop music, they are—but the approach is so puerile, so comically un-self-aware and immature that it creates a bubble in an aggressively sexual landscape of mainstream music.  

At the core of Afrojuice’s artistic mission is a desire to promote positive images, to make drinking off-brand cola cool, because as they’ve stated, they can’t rap about wealth they don’t have. They depict a joyful, non-criminal side of the city’s more maligned neighborhoods. Fun is political, and fun is also fun. For non-Spanish speakers, the tracks are danceable, catchy, and just different enough from the dominant wave of Spanish-language hip hop. But for those who delve deeper, Afrojuice’s work is gleefully disorienting and hyper-referential to genres and cultures from across three continents, as well as to meanings of their own creation.

Drawing heavily on disparate genres is not always a successful strategy. Weaker songs like “Dancehall,” where the group attempts to imitate Jamaican cadences, reveal the precarious line between parody and imitation. All the elements are there (the rhythm, a chorus sung in a deep, low, patois-tinged voice), but as with the En La Mezcla Lopez-produced track “Reggaeton,” these formulaic songs and their on-the-nose titles lack the group’s usual imaginative spark.  

But when they go beyond the rote and follow imitation to its logical (or illogical) end, they turn tradition on its head, both revering their influences and holding them at an ironic distance. This process leads to crafted, goofy gems, like “Joga Bonito,” a song that is not so much about Brazilian football as soaked in it. Here Lopez’s production is more expected Afro-trap, but nestled between snare-hi-hat rolls and bass is a pan flute-esque synth that wouldn’t be out of place on a tecnocumbia album. By incorporating Latin American influence into a French style, Afrojuice draws together two genres that are built on many others (African, European, American—in the broadest sense). This mix might only be possible in a city where Europe and Africa meet, a Madrid weighed down by its colonial legacy.   

 For Afrojuice 195, football is the conduit for all other influences. As group member TJ put it in an interview, addressing the differences between their music and the U.S. trap that influences it: “Europe is football, not pistols.” The group leverages football to break stereotypes of these multicultural Madrid neighborhoods, like on the viral hit “Karim Benzema,” named after the Real Madrid player of the same name. The song is a mix of hometown pride with an underlying immigrant feel, Benzema himself being French of Arab origin. Many tracks function in the same way, as odes to particular players or football personalities. “Petit Matuidi” is a two-minute ditty about how TJ resembles the former Paris Saint-Germaine midfielder, drawing on French rapper Niska’s song about the player, while “Jose Mourinho” has every member of the group doing his best impression of a Portuguese accent in homage to the legendary manager.  

Football is also a uniting force for the people who come from all over the world to Fuenlabrada, to Madrid, to Europe. In the video for “Fifa Street,” a minimalist, repetitive-synth-driven musical vindication of the discontinued video game franchise, the group prances around a municipal futsal court, jumping in and out of an ongoing match. The camera pans across the group of people playing and watching, all clad in jerseys—some worn backwards so the player’s name is emblazoned across the chest—of various clubs and countries throughout Latin America, Europe, the Arab world, and Sub-Saharan Africa.     

Global is often a euphemism for imperial. The English language’s international dominance means that global is whatever that culture says it is. This mentality places Madrid in a strange spot: the third-largest European metropolitan area, Madrid is seen as un-cosmopolitan, un-global.  

Left off of the map that it drew, Madrid is no longer the seat of the Hispanophone world. The way Madrid is marketed abroad bolsters the image of a now-irrelevant colonial metropole. The city’s historical, imperial relics, the Plaza Mayor, Museo del Prado, the Royal Palace, are considered the real Madrid, rather than, for example, Madrid’s working-class Vallecas neighborhood and its team Rayo Vallecano, with its anti-facist, anti-homophobic, anti-racist, socialist football hooligans.  

Afrojuice may not be of Madrid in the same way that Real or Rayo (whose stadium and locker room they dance through in jerseys) are, but they are defiantly in Madrid, part of an intersection of cultures and attitudes that could only occur in the city’s southern reaches. The idea of globalized music is so fraught with problems of mimicry, boring reiterations of genres from other continents, and the weight of cultural imperialism. Maybe the only way through it is to acknowledge that todo es mentira, nada es verdad, and have fun. ❖