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Regional Interests

10 Years of ‘Soy Raka’: A Look Back With Panamanian Hip-Hop Duo Los Rakas

A Los Rakas banner hung above the crowd last Friday night as the Grammy-nominated duo took the stage at the New Parish. It had been two years since Raka Dun and Raka Rich last performed in Oakland, and they were ready for the hometown love.

The show celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the release of Los Rakas’ first project, Chancletas Y Camisetas Bordada, which features the anthem “Soy Raka.”

Raka Rich performs at the New Parish in Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Los Rakas were joined onstage with performances from Baby Gas, who celebrated a birthday over the weekend; Coco Peila, who recently “Pretty Girls“; and Qing Qi, who was joined by members of the Pu-Tang Clan.

There were also a bunch of folks in the crowd who’ve followed Los Rakas since before their debut EP. I’m one of them. After meeting Dun and Rico in 2004 through the nonprofit Youth Movement Records, I’ve followed their career, captured photos of them, and watched them grow.

The two hungry young creatives I met almost two decades ago, who stood out as Oakland-based Afro-Latino hip-hop artists, have grown to leverage their identity and become widely accepted and appreciated in the Bay Area and beyond. Now in their mid-30s, the hip-hop veterans are even seeing their influence on a new generation coming up.

Raka Dun and Do D.A.T. pose for a photo during a performance at SF State, circa 2005. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Los Rakas’ story goes further back than the early 2000s. It starts with their family’s roots in Panama, and involves the support of the artistic community of the greater Oakland-Bay Area. Along the way, they’ve been featured on the soundtrack to FIFA 14, appeared on the popular podcast Loud, had multiple songs reach the top iTunes charts, performed at the White House, and met Mýa on the red carpet for the Grammys—a career highlight for Rico, who watched her videos on the California Music Channel as a kid. 

Before traveling the world and letting audiences know “Soy Raka,” they got their start in music working under the tutelage of two late Bay Area luminaries. 

Raka Rich performs at the Life is Living festival in West Oakland, circa 2013. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

“You remember who was the first artist who gave us a chance in the Bay Area?” Dun asks Rico during a three-way phone call a few weeks ago.

“The Jacka,” says Rico, citing a studio session which led to the track “Gangsta.” 

Raka Dun says to think back a little further. “It was Zion-I.”

A lot of artists embraced Los Rakas in their early days, despite being somewhat of an anomaly—Black men who speak Spanish as their first language. But it was Zion-I, Dun says, who put them front and center. 

“Every time Zion-I would perform,” says Raka Dun, “they’d throw us on the stage at the end to freestyle. A lot of people were recognizing us because of that. Zion-I, Steve, Zumbi was our first big collaboration.”

The late Baba Zumbi of Zion-I with Raka Rich and Raka Dun at a video shoot for ‘Human Being’ in 2012. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Los Rakas’ first tour was with The Grouch, Brother Ali, and Eligh. They soon learned that tour time wasn’t a party—it was work. And their job wasn’t just performing, it was getting to know people and selling merchandise.

Now, their logo is arguably more popular than their music. “Sometimes people would miss our shows because we were the opener,” says Raka Dun. “But they’d buy the merch.” 

The duo’s logo was partially inspired by the Hiero logo, which they saw everywhere. To develop it, they met with a guy named Daniel Walker at Filthy Dripped in Berkeley and worked through various iterations, ultimately incorporating Oakland, Panama and a little bit of Mexico.

A fan flicks a lighter during Raka Dun’s performance at the New Parish on Sept. 10, 2021. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

“Rico suggested adding the smile to cancel the stereotype about Rakas being from the hood and being angry,” says Dun. Just like their name reclaims the term “Raka” (short for “Rakataka,” a derogatory term for someone from the ghetto), the duo wanted to work the same energy into their logo. “Just because you’re from the ghetto doesn’t mean that you’re always angry,” says Rico.  

Inside the character’s huge smile is one tiny gold tooth that symbolizes a gigantic cultural connection. 

Los Rakas’ logo.

“It’s a Panamanian thing,” says Dun of the singular gold tooth. “My mom had one, my dad had one, Rico’s mom… Rico’s dad had eight!” he says with a laugh, before Rico picks up where Dun left off. “My grandpa had one, my grandma had one, my great grandmother had two, like Turk, from Cash Money.”

When the duo met Tupac’s brother, Mopreme Shakur, he told them that he got his singular gold tooth in Panama. As West Coast American rap fans from the Latin American country, their minds were blown. 

Reflecting life in the Bay Area during the early years of the 21st century, the group added glasses without the lenses as a nod to Mac Dre. And the final addition: a hat with the ear flaps. 

“We chose that because it was this Mexican program called El Chavo Del Ocho,” says Rico, noting how the main character would don similar headwear. “So when I came out here to the states and I saw those hats, I’d cop them every time.” When Rico and Dun went back to Panama to promote their single “Mi Barrio,” everyone asked him about the hat, so it was looped in the image of Los Rakas.

Raka Rich (at center, in the grey hoodie) stands with a number of young artists outside of East Oakland’s Youth Uprising, circa 2005. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

In many ways the logo speaks to Los Rakas’ balanced identity while beating the pavement and hitting stages with bilingual lyrics about both politics and partying—and performing in front of crowds who largely only speak English. 

On a recent episode of KQED Forum, the duo discussed the popularity of reggaeton and its origins rooted in the children of Jamaican laborers working on the Panama Canal. They also mentioned that English speaking crowds in the states take to their music despite the language barrier, with the prevailing sentiment being “I don’t know what they’re saying, but it sounds good.”

Rico tells me that he’s proud of that. After all, he and Dun, blood cousins born in Panama who moved to the states separately during their adolescence, grew up listening to all kinds of music in languages they didn’t speak, too.

Raka Dun performs at the Life Is Living Festival in West Oakland, circa 2013. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

When they started on this musical journey, Rico says Oakland’s hip-hop community wasn’t feeling Spanish music. Raka Dun says they had to adapt, especially because they were working with the likes of The Jacka, J. Stalin, and Zumbi from Zion-I.

Plus, being in the Bay, they weren’t getting too many reggaeton beats; this, again, was in the thick of the Hyphy era. “We had to hop on whatever we could hop on,” says Rico. “That’s how we became Los Rakas.” The combination of Panamanian influence and Bay Area energy made them unique. And it resonated with people.  

“We’d have people that’d come up to us, rap the whole verse, and be like, ‘I don’t even speak Spanish. I’m learning Spanish through your music,’” says Rico.

A few weeks ago the group got a message from a fan who said he used to watch YouTube videos of them as a kid. Over a decade later he was rejoicing in the fact that they’re still rocking. 

“The tweet, it makes me feel good, man,” says Dun. “That’s what we do it for. That’s the type of message that keeps us motivated. This dude saying that we changed his life, he’s giving us the flowers. We do this first of all because we love it. And then it’s for the people, we want to make sure we give the people good music just like our favorite artists gave us timeless music. And sometimes this shit gets hard. We’re artists who don’t have the numbers, we got the respect, we’ve influenced lots of artists, but we don’t have millions of streams on our music, so stuff like that keeps us really motivated. We’re getting to the people.”   

Rico adds that they see the success of similar music today, and they know they played a significant part in pioneering the sound that’s popular right now. “To see how far it’s gotten, it’s bittersweet,” says Rico, thinking about how the pioneers of rap aren’t living how they should be living, given what they’ve done for the culture. “We been out here for 16 years. Grinding.”

And the grind doesn’t stop. Now it’s time to cultivate the next generation. 

In the time since their 2019 album, Manes De Negocio, the duo have released a series of solo tracks. The list includes Raka Dun’s “Como Yo” and Raka Rich’s “Comuna 13,” which features an 18 year-old emcee named El Jonky, who Rico met during a recent trip to Colombia. “I went out there on a two-week trip, and ended up staying three months,” he says.

Rico says he was hooked by the food and the vibes, and wasn’t looking to do any music. But after meeting El Jonky and his crew, he saw something familiar in the young artist.

“He was hungry. He reminded me of a lil Dun-Dun back when he was with the Black Lion Crew,” he says, referencing Raka Dun’s early days as an artist. After hearing El Jonky rap, Rico followed him on social media and eventually hit him up to stop by the studio. It was a big move for both parties—as Rico points out, studio time in the poverty-stricken community is a rarity.

And in a way, after 17 years, working with El Jonky proved to be a full-circle moment. To be able to make that happen for a younger version of themselves shows Los Rakas’ status as young OGs in the game—giving back to the African diaspora, like Panama and Oakland gave to them.

Copyright 2021 KQED