- Politically conscious Latino hip-hop/rock collective Ozomatli braces for another highly charged election cycle.
It was an odd assignment for an anti-war, anti-Bush band that started out playing East L.A. block parties back in the late ’90s, and has described itself as a “direct product of the L.A. riots.” But some offers are too good to resist.
As irony would have it, that was also the year that the Grammy-winning band released “City of Angels,” a Chicano rock anthem with wicked rhymes like “Devin Brown shot, minor technicality / Brad Pitt’s cheatin’, front-page reality.”
Three years later, they offered up a similarly unsettling juxtaposition on “Gay Vatos in Love,” which name-checked a legendary Mexican singer alongside the victim of a hate crime: “Juan Gabriel says, ‘Amor es amor’ / But Angie Zapata is lying on the dance floor.”
It’s a testament to the strength of Ozomatli’s politically charged hip-hop, Chicano rock and lowdown funk that the band’s six core members are still together after all these years. “Libertad,” their current single, is a bilingual mix of infectious salsa and lyrical rap that’s among their most beguiling works to date. It also marks their first venture back into the recording studio with deejay Cut Chemist and emcee Chali 2na, both of whom were featured on Ozomatli’s self-titled debut album two decades ago.
“The chemistry has never left, you know?” says Ozomatli co-founder Ulises Bella, whose own arsenal of instruments includes saxophone, melodica, acoustic guitars and keyboards. “Cut is one of the most musical deejays we’ve ever worked with. It’s almost fucked up, because he was our first deejay, and he set the bar so high that he made it hard for every other deejay after him.
“And then, any time we’ve been at the same festival, Chali would always sit in with us. So it was basically like, ‘Let’s get the old gang and try to write new material.’ And with what’s going on in the world right now, it just felt right.”
So what in the world is going on right now?
“Well, here’s the thing,” says Bella, when asked about the upcoming redo of an election cycle that began, for Ozomatli, with a performance at Bernie Sanders’ first 2016 rally in L.A. “It can be really hard investing all that emotion into politics. And, in certain ways, I don’t feel that I want to. I mean, I’m constantly reading the news, but I also know people who get sucked up into it so hard that it affects them physically and emotionally, to the point where it’s almost crippling.”
In any case, political disillusionment is no longer an option.
“I think, for us as a band, Bernie was the candidate that we felt reflected most of what our values are, maybe everything. And then the Democratic Party railroaded fucking Bernie, and all this shit went down. So, this time, if Bernie has the momentum, awesome. If it’s Biden, it’s Biden. Whoever the fuck it takes.”