It’s a Saturday afternoon and the Subte D is packed (when is it not?) when el Rapero del Tren steps into the car. Unlike your run-of-the-mill street performer that barely registers on the radar of the bleary-eyed passengers, he’s able to keep jam-packed train fully engaged, laughing even. How, you might ask? Well, it was a Saturday; perhaps a Tuesday morning crowd wouldn’t be so amiable. Regardless, his curious mix of talent and humor stand out from the rest.
Combining an original blend of rap and comedy, Marcos Mateu can be seen most days traveling up and down the D line, boom box and mic in hand. Spontaneously rapping in the middle of the car, he stops to look around at fellow passengers and, with a cheeky grin, begins to mock them in the most polite and inoffensive manner possible. There’s the well-dressed woman who’s told no one cares enough to give up their seat for her, the laughing daughter told she has a nice set of teeth. Quirky physical attributes are also fair game, with eye-catching tattoos, colorfully dyed hair, and piercings all included in his repertoire. Mateu is also one for shaming those with seats into giving them up for mothers standing up with children.
In the short time it takes to travel between Plaza Italia and Scalabrini Ortiz, the whole car is soon giggling and clapping along with this newcomer. If you’re anything like me, you’re often oblivious to those performing on public transport, eyes down and glued to your phone. That being said, whether you’re con o sin celu, you’ll definitely know if you’re ever in the same subway car as Marcos.
We caught up with Marcos to get the lowdown on what it’s really like to be a performer on Buenos Aires’ transport system.
How and when did you start rapping?
I was brought up in a tiny coastal town called Las Toninas, with a population of about 5,000; there wasn’t much in the way of rappers. Ever since my mom bought me a stereo when I was about 7 or 8, I had always listened to rap and reggaetón. Finally, when I was 15, and feeling braver, one day during tourist high season I set about rapping in the street. I also performed a song I wrote in a school contest, which was met with a huge amount of popularity and support. These two events were the turning points in inspiring me and motivating me to continue rapping.
Your songs clearly have an element of comedy about them. Would you say you’re a funny person outside of performing?
Yeah, around my friends, of course, I like to joke around. But on the train, it is something else. It’s a performance and an act, so naturally I’m probably funnier there than in reality. I have a different kind of confidence when I’m rapping out there on the train.
Your songs and their subject matter seem pretty spontaneous. Are they fully improvised or do you think of ideas beforehand?
All of my songs are improvised then and there on the train. Most rappers often like to write songs in protest about the problems of daily life. But I think that commuters have probably already had enough difficulties and problems during their day, and don’t really want to hear about any others on their way home. I want to make people smile and have a laugh. I might think of a joke while I’m on the street and use it, but all of my raps are based on observation and who I happen to see on the train. If I want to write about my personal problems or social issues, I’ll use those songs for a different context, perhaps an event or something, but not for the train.
I like to mess around with the passengers a bit, look at how they’re dressed, the color of their hair, or perhaps if they have a tattoo or a piercing. I’ll then make a joke of it; people love to be the center of attention for just a moment. Of course, some people have similar physical appearances so I can reuse material if I come across someone else with the same look. I always have ideas in my head that I can use while on the train.
Do you have another job apart from rapping?
I rap full time on the trains for seven or eight hours a day. If I’m not on the train, then usually I’m making videos for my social media or writing a song. I’m always doing something related to rap.
What’s the best thing about performing?
The most cliché thing I like about performing is just being able to do something I really enjoy. I also really like to see people smiling and laughing when they hear me rapping, particularly if they are older people who wouldn’t typically listen to [the genre]. If I can get them to smile, that makes me happy. I like trying to change their minds about rap.
What’s the worst thing about rapping on the trains?
The frequent conflicts between other performers. Other street artists can be very threatening if you perform on what they see as their territory. There are those with well-established areas who don’t want anyone else there, because in reality if there are too many performers there, we’ll all earn less. But we all need the money; it doesn’t matter if a performer was there first or if they’re new on the scene, we’re doing this for a reason.
The Sarmiento train line is particularly prone to this. Just the other day, a friend of mine, Reiz RM was caught up in an attack directed at him by another performer. There are specific groups of people who think it’s their territory and they try to totally monopolize the line.
While it’s obvious that the passengers seem to like your performances, would you say that they’re generous?
People, in general, are generous and give what they can. Passengers also show their enjoyment of what I do by applauding and complimenting my work. I receive lots of messages through both Instagram and Facebook from people telling me how much they liked my songs, which I really appreciate.
Where would you like to see your rapping take you in the future? Do you have any specific goals or ambitions?
Yeah, I have lots of dreams and plans for the future! I want to grow in popularity and continue to be featured by TV channels. Eventually, I want to be a professional who writes more songs and is able to host more shows. I still want to continue performing on the trains, as I really enjoy that.
What’s the best reaction you’ve had to your songs?
One time I saw a girl who was really sad, I don’t know why, and I started to rap about how both sadness and happiness don’t cost anything and that we should look for the good. After the rap, the girl got up out of her seat to tell me that she had been having a really bad day but the song had helped her. The girl gave me a hug and a few pesos and that was that. It was good to know I had made someone feel better.