Many feminists contend that the term “witch” (or bruja, in Spanish) developed its negative connotation because of Christianity’s vilification of indigenous spiritual practices, which, in many cultures, center on the work of female healers. In recent years, there has been a wave of women in the arts using the term to reclaim the parts of their heritage that have been excluded from patriarchal, Eurocentric historical narratives.
These ideas have been a fertile source of inspiration for MADlines (Maddy Clifford) and Chhoti Maa, two Oakland rappers, educators, and activists whose upcoming bilingual hip-hop show, The Brujas You Couldn’t Kill, features a lineup of rising female musicians of color. In addition to MADlines and Chhoti, who recently formed the collective BrujaLyfe, the show features Brooklyn producer Suzi Analogue, Oakland rapper Coca Blu, Sacramento electronic duo World Hood, and Oakland DJs Namaste Shawty and Mujie — diverse artists whose music has a pop sensibility yet taps into feminist, anti-colonial themes.
“The concept ‘bruja‘ has a lot of velocity, and it’s basically a term that’s being reimagined because it was a term that was used to vilify women,” said MADlines in an interview. “People have given me feedback about the event title, like, ‘Whoa, The Brujas You Couldn’t Kill, that’s intense.’ But I think things that cause a little controversy tend to get people interested in them.”
Indeed, the provocative title has attracted a lot of attention on social media. MADlines and Chhoti have used the show’s Facebook event page to start a conversation about spirituality and the occult as vehicles for resistance, invoking historical figures, such as famous New Orleans voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau. While MADlines explained that she and Chhoti chose not to explicitly advertise The Brujas You Couldn’t Kill as a women’s hip-hop showcase, their choice to use the term bruja encapsulates the defiant spirit they see in each of the performers, many of whom are also activists and healers.
“[They] really represent women’s empowerment without really having to say it,” MADlines explained.
MADlines first became interested in the concept of hip-hop as a vehicle for social change when she enrolled in Youth Speaks — an organization that seeks to empower marginalized young people through spoken word poetry — while attending high school in Seattle. Eventually, she gravitated from writing poetry to rapping and began making lyrically-driven hip-hop with palpable reggae and dancehall influences that reference her Jamaican heritage. Last summer, she traveled to Uganda through Next Level, an educational nonprofit that promotes cultural exchange through hip-hop. Suzi Analogue was one of the other members of her cohort, and the two women have stayed connected through their music and social justice work.
Five years ago, MADlines moved to Oakland — both to enroll in a master’s program at Mills College, and because she was attracted to Oakland’s rich history of social movements and storied rap scene. While developing herself as a musician, MADlines also became an educator and currently mentors teens in San Francisco’s juvenile justice system.
Contextualizing her social justice and creative work in a history of female healers has helped MADlines see a greater purpose in what she does. “Chhoti and I … work our asses off to heal youth, and it’s really difficult work. So yeah, sometimes it does feel like it’s just magic,” she said. “Sometimes I just wake up in the morning with all these other factors making my job difficult, and it takes taping into this part of ourselves as women healers that is spiritual.”
MADlines said The Brujas You Couldn’t Kill is her way of investing in other female artist-activists of color, not only by giving them a platform in Oakland’s largely male-dominated hip-hop scene, but also by compensating them financially. She said that as a rapper whose work deals with social and political themes, she often feels pressured to perform for free in activist circles. Ultimately, this does little to empower artists who come from marginalized communities, which is something she hopes to change with The Brujas You Couldn’t Kill and future shows like it.
“We need to start putting our money towards each other,” she said. “That’s what I want the community to know: that we need to start valuing ourselves.”