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Bruja MC Chhoti Maa channels soul of her ancestors through hip-hop

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When Chhoti Maa performs, she imagines harnessing the collective power of her grandmothers, and envisions it flowing through her as she sings.

“To me, music is medicine generated from the deepest part of the soul,” she says. “It helps me communicate beyond words…it is a challenging, rejuvenating and liberating journey.”

The Oakland-based artist’s sound is influenced by different genres, such as hip-hop, R&B, soul and cumbia. She writes her own music and describes it as a time of her inner reflection, her state of mind and what she was meditating on at the time. “I think I have a strong core that I have always worked from, which is dignity, critical thought. My music is part of the Mexican diaspora, it echos movement, it is made up of many layers,” she says.

Chhoti Maa performs during the Día de Muertos Celebration at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) on Nov. 2, 2017. Photo: Ekevara Kitpowsong

Chhoti Maa’s rap alias is also a layered story. She coined it while living in Richmond, Virginia and binging on Bollywood films, borrowing it from a film with the same name. “Chhoti is Hindi for little. I liked the sound, because in Spanish we have many words with ‘ch,’” she says. “I also like that it held two h’s for hip-hop. And Maa is ‘Ama,’ ‘Ma,’ ‘Mamita.’ Maa is universal. It is a reminder to myself to mother myself and my art.”

Chhoti Maa began writing poetry to deal with the confusing transition of moving from Mexico to the United States. But it was only later that she realized it was more than just moving from one country to another. It was about understanding the complex place she now lived in from the perspective of a person of color, which consequently layed a foundation for her creative work.

Through that immigrant experience, the 30-year-old MC from Guanajuato finds creative freedom in managing herself and not being constrained to anyone else’s ideas.

She just finished the recording her latest album, “Caldo de Hueso,” which explores themes about love, politics and community.

“I pull a lot of references from the past from Mexico,” Chhoti Maa says of her music. “It’s like really deep vibrations coming out from my body, and really soft high pitch vocals.”

She expects that “Caldo de Hueso” will be released in the fall.

“It was made possible through the support of Women’s Audio Mission,” she said of the San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to advancing the presence of women in music production and recording. Women’s Audio Mission contacted Chhoti Maa last year, awarding her a grant that included studio time, mixing, mastering as well as a small stipend.

The experience is new for Chhoti Maa. She’s accustomed to working on her music alone, but she said collaborating with other artists like Women’s Audio Mission engineer Victoria Fajardo has made the production faster and smoother. “I think this album shows my growth as a writer and musician,” she says.

The beginnings of that musical career are rooted in her upbringing in Mexico. The song “Gimme tha Power” by the Mexican band Molotov was something that Chhoti Maa heard frequently growing up, a song that analyzed the corruption and political crisis that Mexico was experiencing. Inspired by the lyrics, Chhoti Maa credits the song with getting her interested in different types of hip-hop.

Chhoti Maa’s family first migrated to the United States in 1999 as part of the post-NAFTA exodus, but returned to Mexico due to an economic crisis. They eventually moved again from Guanajuato to Dallas, Texas.

That period of transition in her life was a tough one, exacerbated by the language barrier and lack of comprehension to the sudden change of circumstance. It was listening to hip-hop that helped her to learn English. Chhoti Maa says that her grandmother was a missing piece of the puzzle early on when she was living in the United States. Missing her grandmother immensely drew her to R&B music, for which she developed a love.

She recalls the time when her grandmother watched her perform live in Guanajuato for the first time. Her grandmother’s face, full of pride and excitement, is something she’ll never forget. She still gets nervous before shows sometimes, especially when performing for small crowds or in front of family.  But all that all changes when she takes the stage. “Once I have the mic in my hand it all melts away,” she says.

Chhoti Maa has constantly moved throughout her life. In 2011 she was in Trujillo, Peru, where her style broadened and she was taught to freestyle by Peruvian B boys.

Her most recent collaboration was with Cuban rapper El Cepe MC, their song, “El Reflejo,” is soon to be released. It’s a song that is heavily influenced by the complexities of one’s soul, the harms of social media and the moments of inner reflection.

“This song questions the importance we place on our physicality…reminding us to be mindful of the layers of the mind, and to cherish and not forget the vastness of our spirit and soul,” says Chhoti Maa.

Chhoti Maa’s artistic endeavors also include film. She is coming out with a short film titled “Mala Fama,” a collaboration with her friend Natalie Contreras. The film will be premiering at this year’s Queer Women of Color Film Festival on June 10 in San Francisco. Both women entered a intensive three-day workshop to make the short film, which is based on Chhoti Maa’s song “Agua Corre,” exploring topics about womanhood and women who are not confined to expectations. The project received strong support from the Queer Women Of Color Media Arts Project. Chhoti Maa says the film is also an ode to her grandmother, who told her repeatedly “tienes pata de perra,” (“you’re a wanderer”) because of her love of exploring the world and always being outside the house.

In addition to filmmaking and recording music, Chhoti Maa has been invited to perform alongside her friend Dio Ganhdih on June 22 at Toronto Pride, which will be her first time performing in Toronto. She has also co-founded a Bay Area artist collective, Aguas Migrantes, alongside her friend Susa Cortez with the goal of connecting with local artist communities and traditions from Guanajuato Mexico. Her work will also be featured in the “RESPECT: Hip Hop Style & Wisdom” exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, which is currently running until Aug. 12.

Her advice to the next generation of up-and-coming Latino artists: “Take care of your routine, discipline and freestyle … and always advocate for yourself because no one will do this for you.”

Story by: Vitta Oliveri