First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2016 delegate guide.
Music has always been more than just music. Communication is a large part of it, of course, whether it is communicating stories, morals, political messages, comedy or even concepts and emotions that cannot be expressed any other way. In this manner, music can cause a lot of change, personally and further afield. But sometimes, the real power of music is to create change in the world by the simple fact of how enjoyable it is to make and be around. Henry Arteaga has harnessed this power to create good wherever he can.
When Arteaga was growing up in Medellín, Colombia, the city was considered the most dangerous in the world, irrevocably connected in the international consciousness to Pablo Escobar’s infamous cartel, and to the extreme poverty that grew around their corruption. In this environment, hip-hop began to appear, being used as a tool for the young generation of Medellínos to (re)claim the space and to project their personalities within their own scene.
Inspired by this growing interest in hip-hop, Arteaga became a breakdancer, a b-boy. Known as JKE (or El Jeque, the Sheikh), his moves gained him a reputation, and he soon began informally teaching the art to local kids. The group grew and grew, becoming known as Crew Peligrosos, and eventually people started calling it a school. And so the idea stuck.
Despite a complete lack of outside funding, the Peligrosos’ school went on in leaps and bounds, securing a permanent meeting-place after a local school principal saw first-hand the difference they made and offered his facilities. Together, the Crew began to rap and teach the disciplines of MCing (rapping), DJing and graffiti alongside b-boying – the four elements of hip-hop which lent the school its official name: 4Elementos Skuela.
When Henry met fellow MC, P Flavor, Crew Peligrosos were transformed into a multimedia hip-hop performance collective. Nowadays the Crew consists of a band with numerous MCs and DJs, 20 b-boys and -girls and four graffers. They have released two albums, tour internationally and have collaborated with hip-hop stars such as Afrika Bambaataa and Emicida, as well as musicians from the full spectrum of Colombian music, from traditional musicians to symphony orchestras.
And at the heart of all this – enjoyment. When he was younger, Arteaga’s father made sure to impress upon his son: “this neighbourhood is a mirror. Whatever you do, you will see reflected”. Henry certainly took that advice to heart, and shows it through his work with the Skuela. Arteaga himself has said that ‘getting kids off the streets’ is not the aim of the initiative. It has that outcome, but simply as a consequence of the positive atmosphere created within their environment. When people see the passion and pleasure that Arteaga and the Crew give to their scholars, they want to join in. Art provides an alternative. The school is now a magnet for hip-hop artists (in all their forms) from around Colombia: old hands offer to share their knowledge; prospective protégés come looking to soak it up. All the classes are free, as they always have been. The Skuela now has over 400 regular attendees, and more than 4,000 have already passed through their ranks. Not all students leave, either. Some stay on and join the ranks of tutors – this way, the Skuela is self-sustaining. As long it is wanted or needed, it will exist.
The city that Henry Arteaga teaches in is not the same as it was when he started. Medellín is not even among the 50 most dangerous cities in the world now. It has become a cultural hub of Colombia and South America, even achieving the title of UNESCO Creative City for Music in 2015. And the 4Elementos Skuela, over its 17 years, has certainly made its mark on the population by its sheer revelling in the enjoyment of music and the hard work of its founder.
It is for these reasons that Henry Arteaga is being presented with the WOMEX 16 Professional Excellence Award on behalf of the 4Elementos Skuela and everyone involved with it. The Award is not an achievement – it is simply an acknowledgement of the real achievements, which can only truly be put into words by people they have touched. These two quotes from Skuela students really tell the whole story:
“4Elementos Skuela is very important for me because it has taught me many values. It has taught me to grow as a person.”
“Before knowing 4Elementos Skuela and Crew Peligrosos my life was meaningless. Since I was introduced to breakdance, I haven’t stopped training because it has become part of my life, and the shelter of solace from my troubles.”
Photo: Henry Arteaga receives the WOMEX 16 Professional Excellence Award, by Eric van Nieuwland.