Scrolling through YouTube videos, I came across Renata Flores Rivera, a 17 year-old Peruvian artist of indigenous descent with a striking look and a velvety sound. However, her claim to fame is that she posts covers on YouTube of Western pop songs performed in Quechua: the language originally spoken by the Incas over 800 years ago. Quechua remains the most spoken indigenous language in Latin America, with over 8 million speakers mainly found in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. In spite of this, today the living language of the Incas is endangered largely because young people feel too ashamed to speak it for fear of being stigmatised as poor mountain dwellers. Thus, in her early years, Renata grew up in a Quechua-speaking environment but under the influence of social pressures, her parents later began to only speak to her in Spanish. Despite losing her maternal language, Renata remains connected to her roots and through her art, she aspires to challenge attitudes. This issue lies close to the singer’s heart after having witnessed her grandmother’s adversity as a victim of linguistic discrimination.
During our Skype interview, the singer radiated warmth, positivity and down-to-earthiness. On the other hand, for Renata, fearlessness and tenacity have been the two fundamental pillars of building and maintaining a successful artistic career at such a young age. The release of her cover on YouTube of the Michael Jackson song, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, sung in Quechua catapulted her to fame in 2015. Now, the video has an extraordinary 1.7 million hits and counting. Renata has also made several TV appearances as a participant in La Voz Kids (The Voice Kids) in 2014 and Los Cuatro Finalistas (The 4 Finalists) in 2018. In the meantime, at 16 years old, the singer took an artistic leap from exclusively releasing covers to making her own original tracks in Quechua, too. This led to the release of her debut single 'Qawachkanchik chay Killallata’ ‘Mirando La Misma Luna’ (‘Gazing at the Same Moon’), combining traditional Peruvian instruments with an electro-pop sound.
Needless to say that interviewing Renata was an incredibly eye-opening experience:
Hi, Renata, thank you so much for giving up your time for the interview today. I saw on your social media that you were at a very special event the day before yesterday, can you tell me more, please?
Renata: (beaming and glowing with excitement) Yes, I was at an awards ceremony at the Gran Teatro Nacional organised by the Ministry of Culture of Peru for artists helping to bring about social change. There were 68 different contestants divided into numerous artistic categories including cinema, visual arts, music and literature. I am over the moon to have been chosen as the winner!
Congratulations, that must be a really significant achievement in your career…
Renata: Yes, definitely.
As we already know, you are a YouTube star. I would like to know, how significant a role do social media and technology play in your career?
Renata: Social media is definitely really important, not just for me, but for everybody nowadays. However, of course, you need to be able to know how to use it! In terms of the music industry, you don’t need to work with a big record company anymore. Thanks to social media and YouTube, there’s a lot more artistic freedom which enables the individual to make the kind of music that they want to make, instead of being controlled by a record label.
Your covers in Quechua have attracted a lot of social media attention, but how do young people actually feel about speaking Quechua in general?
Renata: Discrimination against Quechua-speakers has existed since long before I was born. Some young people are in contact with the language through their parents, in the street or even through social media. However, when I was at school, they used to make fun of the language and call other students ‘Inca’, which was seen as an insult. They were not even really aware that they were hurting somebody’s feelings. ‘Inca’ should not be an insult; we should be proud of our roots! Our language, Quechua, is part of our culture and our identity and we should be proud of this. Now, young people listen to my music and they take Quechua more seriously: they realise that they should not make fun of the language anymore.
Your song, ‘Tijeras ft. Kayfex’, talks about femicide and violence against women. The lyrics, ‘don’t be afraid of speaking out’ and ‘women, we are united’, along with the fusion of Trap and traditional musical influences, are definitely very powerful. Can you tell me a bit more about what inspired the song?
Renata: My music speaks directly to women and encourages them to speak out if they have been abused. The problem is that sometimes the authorities cannot understand the woman if she only speaks Quechua and there is a lot of corruption in Peru, and in other countries, too. Even when the offenders are sent to prison, there is no justice.
Do you feel strong singing in Quechua? Is the language a symbol of strength for women?
Renata: Yes, I do because the language teaches you to love the land and nature. Quechua women who speak two languages are so impressive and strong! However, other women who only speak Quechua are still very powerful.
I have read that you work closely with several cultural associations including SURCA and The Kallpac Association. How do these associations support you artistically?
Renata: The project ‘Pitaq Kani’, ‘¿Quien eres?’ (‘Who are you?’) (originally ‘Los jóvenes tambien hablamos Quechua’, ‘The youth also speaks Quechua’), has enabled us to create a more professional project which is more detail-oriented. At these national contests, I have met a lot of different artists. SURCA helps with the production of the videos but we are all a team together. However, I really couldn’t do it without my mum, she is at the forefront of the project. We incorporate a fusion of different instruments and different genres to show that our culture can be commercial, too.
But by commercialising your culture, are you perhaps at the same time degrading it?
Renata: No, I consider this to be part of the development of a culture which is necessary to prevent it from being lost. For example, K-Pop takes on western influences and some words in English, but the music is still very much Korean. Now, everybody is listening to K-Pop, including Koreans and international fans, and everybody wants to collaborate with the artists.
This is really interesting as often in the Western world at school we are led to imagine indigenous communities in Latin America as ‘frozen in time’...
Renata: … Yes, but we have evolved. We have adopted some parts of Spanish culture, for example, Peruvians are really religious. There are many Catholic churches in my city. We are a fusion, including our religion, clothing and music.
Now for a technical question… How do you go about making your covers in Quechua?
Renata: Good question... Well, if the song is originally in English, first we translate it into Spanish. Then, we translate the song from Spanish into Quechua with the help of my grandparents. However, it is hard as we are losing a lot of words in Quechua from speaking Spanish, so we are left with lots of ‘Quechañol’! This is not a proper term, but we use it in my family. We also have a Quechua teacher who helps us.
What about translating some modern words linked to technology? Do these words exist in Quechua?
Renata: No, there are no words for technology. We are hoping that they make a modern dictionary for Quechua as they have already written one for Aymara: another indigenous Andean language.
How has your life changed since rising to fame? Can you still lead a pretty ‘normal life’?
Renata: Now, I feel that my life has a purpose and a very beautiful one, indeed. I was 13 years old when I first came on La Voz Kids and that is when it all really began. It was a very beautiful experience. I was eventually eliminated but my mum encouraged me to not give up on my dream and to collaborate with SURCA. However, before then, I had already participated in several projects since I was 8 years old. It was the project ‘Pitaq Kani’ that has really changed my life as well as Los Cuatro Finalistas, where I met a lot of amazing people.
It can be difficult at times; I can imagine...
Renata: Yes, it was a great change when I first uploaded that Michael Jackson video. There have been some difficult moments but these are all part of learning. I have always loved dancing, singing and art since my childhood and this has always been my dream. Quite a few years have gone by now since I first came under the public eye and I no longer feel shocked or overwhelmed; I have learnt to adapt. I still lead a ‘normal life’ when I come back to my beloved city, Ayacucho, where I still go out with my friends but at the same time as going on the TV and doing interviews! I have learnt to organise my time.
You have already achieved so much and it seems that there will be no stopping you, Renata! What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Renata: My dream is that my project will spread throughout the whole of Peru and the world. My project will be imaginative and adapted to modern life. I also dream that there will be no more discrimination. I don’t want to fight this alone, I hope that more Peruvians will come and fight alongside me.
What are you working on now?
Renata: I am currently working on my album, there is already a single out. I am hoping that the album will be released by March next year digitally. We are also thinking about bringing out CDs but you will be able to listen to the music via YouTube, download, everywhere!
Finally, I heard that you are studying English. Could you say a short message in English for your British fans?
Renata: Through my music and my project, I am revitalising my maternal language. I wanna reach out to teenagers and children and I wanna change people’s minds about Quechua and Peruvian culture.
The Definite Article would like to thank Renata Flores Rivera for taking the time to share her art and her experiences with readers in Durham and beyond.
Support Renata’s projects by following her social media accounts and subscribing to her YouTube channel:
Music available to download on Spotify, ITunes, Amazon Music and Google Play, as well as on YouTube:
Interview conducted on Thursday 13th December via Skype. Translated into English from original Spanish.