Feb. 9 2011 10:35 AM

On 1977, Ana Tijoux raps about her life as a French-Chilean transplant

Ana Tijoux found hip-hop from impoverished kids who her social-worker mom was helping
Life’s been good recently for Ana Tijoux.

Last year, she toured North America for the first time, encountering enthusiastic crowds and critics at every turn. And then the 33-year-old French-Chilean rapper clinched a Grammy nomination for 1977, her fifth studio album.

“When [my team and I] made the album in Chile, we never expected what was going to happen with the album,” she says. “Everything has been amazing. I feel very surprised about everything. Surprised and grateful.”

Her latest record is a personal document. The title refers to her birth year and the songs are about her experiences growing up. Themes range from friendship to bad luck to death.

You can also hear political undertones. Take the title track: In Spanish, she raps about how she saw the “military parade,” found the “questioning in my voice” and made her “first noise”—that is, she started rapping.

But Tijoux doesn’t want to pigeonhole herself as a political artist. Her rebellion went hand-in-hand with hormones and identity crises, she says.

“Everything is political. I can’t pull apart political with life,” she says. “I would say I make humanist hiphop. It is about a connection or sensitivity to what happens on the other side of the world.”

Maybe that mindset comes naturally in a life so inundated with political strife. Tijoux was born in France shortly after her family fled from the authoritarian regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, who took power in a violent coup in 1973 and ruthlessly suppressed dissenting voices.

“I think the result of the dictator is not only the dead people,” she says. “It’s also what happened to the culture. The dictator killed the culture that we got.”

Pinochet had stepped down by the time Tijoux returned to Chile in 1990, but much of the oppression remained. Despite his absence, the “system” was still in place, she contends, citing continued corruption and violence, particularly toward artists, actors and musicians. But this didn’t stop Tijoux from embracing hip-hop as an outlet for her rebellion.

“It is a battle that happens to every artist in every kind of work that you make here in Chile,” she says. “It is a battle with the system that we got in-store since that time.”

When she was in France, her mother, a social worker, often brought Ana with her on the job. Tijoux heard hip-hop from the impoverished children her mother worked to help.

When she returned to a politically tumultuous Chile, Tijoux found her own voice. She started freestyling in French and eventually used her native Spanish. Now, she switches between both languages in a steady, soothing, controlled whisper. You’d be amazed at her intricate, internal cadences if you weren’t already hypnotized by them.

A piece of tightly crafted hip-hop, 1977 is a far cry from the pop experimentation for which she found success in previous releases. The record is firmly grounded in the early-’90s school of East Coast boom-bap, what hip-hop heads refer to as “the golden age.” Influences range from the jazz-tinged production of DJ Premier and Pete Rock to the energy of the Wu-Tang Clan to the intelligence of Public Enemy.

It’s a return to her roots, harking back to the hip-hop on which she was reared.

“I think in a certain case, you get a kind of nostalgic vision about the ’90s,” Tijoux says. “I think there is something about the power of that time—something scientific in the drum or in the bass. I don’t know how to explain with words, but it is a sensation that yet people still continue to listen [to].”

Ana Tijoux performs with Smile Now Cry Later and DJ Artistic at The Casbah on Monday, Feb. 14. myspace.com/anitatijoux