At rap battles in LA, throwing insults is meant to be uplifting

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Pump Gatto (left) and Kemp (right) in a recent rap battle. Photo by Angel Carreras.

The BLVD is an unassuming bar off Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights. During the day, this small, pint-sized dive serves micheladas and Coronas to regulars. It’s typically a low-key place. 

But every other Friday, the bar’s tiny, hall-like walls swell with a raucous crowd. 

That crowd comes for SELA Hip Hop, a southeast L.A. group of artists. They hold nights of spoken poetry and open mics. 

But what’s most popular: rap battles. There are three rounds. The winner is determined by judges and audience reactions. The last winner earned $1000 cash.  

It’s a verbal boxing match. Lines range from insulting someone’s mother to insulting someone’s race. Nothing is off limits. 

This may all seem negative, but SELA Hip Hop cofounder Darmedius Rod sees the quips and barbs as a way to build character.  

“You're basically being ridiculed in front of the people, and you have to just be like, ‘I know who I am. I don't care what you say I am. If I have a big nose like, so what? I love my big nose.’ You know what I mean?.

Rod, 27, grew up in a gang-heavy South Gate and experienced mental health issues.

“I was just done with life … Growing up in the hood was sad,” he says. “So I fell very deep into depression and anxiety, and it forced me to find the solution. It forced me to find something else, otherwise that was it. That was the end of the road.”

That solution was SELA Hip Hop, established in 2017 by Rod, his girlfriend Kirra Avila, and rap battler Pump Gatto.

The collective bounced around backyards and several venues in downtown L.A. before finding a home at The BLVD, where they’ve been for the past six months. Attendance has flourished, with artists and audiences comprised of people who grew up like Rod.

“I want people from the streets that are trying to grasp a new perspective on life and not necessarily leaving the streets behind, but like embracing it and moving forward with it,” Rod says.

SELA Hip Hop looks forward to growing in L.A. with more venues, bigger cash prizes and a music label. 

Avila says their main focus, however, is uplifting people: “If you create these environments and communities, you remind people that at the end of the day, their struggles are not that real, their burdens are not that heavy. You're going to keep pushing whatever you have inside of you. I always believe everyone has something to say.” 

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Credits

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Jenna Kagel

Reporter:
Angel Carreras