One day, having coffee with one of my neighbors when I lived in Liberia, he mentioned his hobby of rapping and participating in “battles.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but he very enthusiastically painted a picture of it for me.
It’s an urban style of music called freestyle. Groups of young people get together to do a kind of verbal and rhythmic duel, which they call a battle. The difference from hip hop is that these battles are completely improvised.
My neighbor told me that there are already groups in different cantons of our province that organize these duels. I thought, “How is it that no one has done a photo story about this in the province?” So I decided to do it myself.
The first thing my neighbor did was put me in touch with the person who is credited with the genesis of freestyle in Guanacaste: Kevin Drew Wenrich Conejo.
In 2012, Kevin, also known as Nivek Werd, had a Hip Hop group in Tamarindo called 506 MeloMania, with a couple of friends known as THC FLOW and D’lacera. Together, they came up with musical pieces and had a recording studio that they use for their music and the music of other artists.
He always wanted to do battles, but there were no leagues or organized groups here in Guanacaste. So he thought he should start them himself.
In 2015, Nivek began gathering groups of young people interested in this style, but they started with a written freestyle. They organized showdowns and each young person wrote rhymes with which to face their rivals. Of course, later they had to learn them by heart for the battle.
Things didn’t always turn out the way they wanted. Sometimes they forgot what they had written and started to improvise. And boom! That’s how they went from doing written battles to doing freestyle. The difference is that then, they had to come up with them without the possibility of writing their lyrics out beforehand.
In 2017, Nivek formed an alliance with one of the largest freestyle groups in Costa Rica, called Rapquicia. Once allied with them, he personally formed the group King of Battle Rap (KOBR) in Guanacaste.
Since then, the discipline has been expanding little by little throughout Guanacaste. Now, there are freestyle leagues in several cantons of the province and throughout the country.
According to Poeta, a freestyler from Alajuela who told me about the evolution of freestyle, the genre as we know it today emerged in Costa Rica around 2008. They started improvising in the streets because Red Bull Spain battles were already being broadcast over the Internet by that year.
As of 2011, the first battles in the country took place in a neighborhood of San Jose called Aranjuez. Later, in 2017, Rapquicia got started, which was the group Nivek contacted that same year because it had a leading role in the best battles in the country in Morazan park.
Since 2017, the media began to document groups of freestylers throughout the country. Now Red Bull even organizes one of the main freestyle competitions in the country. The winner competes against the other winners from Latin America.
In other countries in the region, there are even women’s freestyle leagues.
To the Battle!
After finding out about the history of the origin of freestyle in the province, I wanted to witness those battles myself. I took advantage of a couple that were coming up.
The first took place on May 21 at the kiosk in Nicoya’s park. Sixteen competitors participated, the vast majority of them men. Each of the participants pays a fee that is divvied up to pay the jury of the battles and to finance the travel expenses of those who qualify for other regional and national competitions.
Did you hear that? With all his rhymes he did so well.
“Pana,” you improved more than you can tell.
It’s a parade but “Pana” doesn’t parade.
I’m obviously a parade with the lira rhymes I made.
Now I’m gonna slaughter you, I must.
What you’ll love are the snap and the dust
because you were left without your better half
Sometimes the rhymes are very strong and direct. They use phrases that could make someone angry, but it doesn’t happen that way with them. They have a very extraordinary wit to respond to their impromptu lyrics and always end each battle with a hug.
The thing is that if you’re going to lay into someone, make sure it’s intelligent, it’s good rhymes, it goes along with the battle, because if you just set off cussing at someone, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow… We may laugh, but we’re going to score the other better,” Nivek explained to me.
“There’s one way to cuss at someone, but there’s another way to rhyme and say something that’s funny or witty,” he added.
A week later, on May 28, there was a battle with a higher level of creativity and agility for impromptu rapping.
In this battle, I was able to see the performance of a girl from Liberia known as Miranda. She stands out among a large group of men, not just because she’s the only woman, but because of her constant movement, the way she projects her voice and her character during the battle.
Miranda has been practicing freestyle for 4 years. She told me that at first, she was mainly dedicated to studying the structure of the rhymes because she was afraid to throw herself into battling with other more experienced practitioners.
“I’ve never studied music nor have they ever explained it to me. Then that song called “Así es mi Barrio” (“That’s How My Neighborhood Is,” a well-known hip hop song) came out, and I wrote it out and wrote it out to see what the structure was like, how the endings worked and such. After that, I kept going and kept going and spent about three years researching,” Miranda told me.
Later, her brother encouraged her to sign up for the battles, and now she’s one of the few main female representatives of freestyle in Guanacaste.
The Street and Looking for Places
Many of the young people who participate in this urban art agree that they need to have more suitable places to hold their events: places that have plugs to connect speakers and a microphone, at least. They’d also like to do their duels in enclosed places since the rain can interfere.
They also recognize that not having these places has given them a certain advantage in making themselves known.
When they organize battles in parks or public places, which is what happens most of the time, they manage to capture the attention of people who don’t know about the genre. That day in Santa Cruz, people who were passing by near these young people stopped and watched the battles for a while.
That’s how Nicolas Guevara, a musician and cultural manager for the Municipality of Bagaces, first found out about this urban movement. One day, on his way to work, he saw a group of guys freestyle in the park.
As a musician, I identified a lot with them because of the fact that they use a public place to make art, and that young people are the ones organizing themselves to do it. I found it curious,” Nicolas told me.
Little by little, he approached these artists and offered them the Bagaces library to organize a battle there.
The municipality has helped this group of young people with the sound equipment and with looking for support from different development associations to use rooms where they can practice. Private companies dedicated to tourism have even donated prizes for the winners of their battles, such as lodging nights and enjoyment of their facilities.
According to the manager from Bagaces, they want to have a physical place so that young people can develop their talent and the new generations know where to go to join this style of music. They also want to develop this art as a tourist attraction so people who visit the canton have a tourist option more related to urban art. But this initiative is still in its infancy.
“This is where the idea got started for putting together an urban art festival that unites the cultural aspect, the identity aspect, the social aspect and the tourism aspect, with a festival that revolves around all the districts of the canton in general,” Nicolas said.
In Nicoya, the same thing happens with public places, according to Keroba Rapper, who coordinates the Colonial Rap Battles league in Nicoya and Nosara. The group would like to have a place for their events, but they agree that the street gives them public exposure.