Lima, Peru Lenin Tamayo, a 23-year-old Peruvian singer, is well aware of the significance of symbolism as he elegantly ascends the neoclassical steps of Peru’s Supreme Court, donning a vibrant Indigenous shawl over one shoulder.
Tamayo has swiftly risen to internet stardom in recent months, garnering millions of views on TikTok with his unique musical style that incorporates influences from various continents and cultures.
Infusing Korean rhythms, Andean folklore, and provocative visual representations, he sometimes uses his music to criticize the administration of President Dina Boluarte.
“I aspire to motivate others,” stated Tamayo, who performs in Quechua, an Indigenous language spoken by the Incas and still utilized by an estimated 10 million individuals across South America.
“I want affection to unite us and unify our people.” Tamayo’s genre, which infuses Quechua into Korea’s K-pop music, is referred to as “Q-pop”. Each track from his debut album, Amara, unveiled in August, draws inspiration from Incan mythology, with the title itself alluding to a fabled dual-headed serpent.
During his performances, Tamayo flamboyantly dances, utilizing meticulously choreographed moves reminiscent of a K-pop idol, accompanied by traditional Andean musical instruments such as pan flutes and rain sticks.
Born in the capital Lima, Tamayo was nurtured within the culture of the Andes Mountains, the ancestral dwelling of the Incas and other Indigenous communities.
Tamayo, the sole offspring of Yolanda Pinares, an Andean artist who sings in Spanish and Quechua, was raised listening to an extensive range of Latin American folk music.
Throughout his childhood, he would often wait for his mother backstage, as she juggled stage performances with street performances and tending bars.
Pineries integrated Andean traditions into Tamayo’s daily life, even packing his school lunchbox with highland Peruvian staples such as “cancha” – toasted corn kernels – and “tarwi”, an Andean legume.
However, these traditional snacks raised eyebrows among his peers in the capital. Coupled with his reserved demeanor and unconventional appearance—a slender physique, bushy brows, and prominent cheekbones—he encountered bullying.
“I felt this internalized racism,” he said. “I was timid as a boy.” Music has long served as a means for Tamayo to process his challenges. He first took to the stage at the age of seven with his mother. By the age of fourteen, he was composing songs for her. Later, he learned to utilize social media to promote her work.
However, he charted his own course when he commenced penning his own compositions at the age of twenty-two.
“I was born for the stage,” reflected Tamayo. “But it was different when I started writing my own songs.”
Diverging from his mother’s folk-centric sound, Tamayo’s music embraced contemporary influences akin to the genre-defying styles of Spanish vocalist Rosalía and K-pop sensations Girls’ Generation and BTS.
Nevertheless, Tamayo integrates these inspirations with the sounds and rhythms of his upbringing. “I yearned to reclaim my identity with my lyrics and compositions, to elucidate my origins.”
This music has resonated with audiences in the Andes and beyond: on TikTok, he has amassed 5.3 million likes and over 227,200 followers.
Americo Mendoza, the founder of the Quechua Initiative on Global Indigeneity at Harvard University, attributed Tamayo’s popularity partly to the scarcity of representation for Quechua speakers in the media.
“Despite one in 10 individuals in Peru speaking Quechua, they are marginalized as a minority community, as second-rate citizens,” reiterated Mendoza. “This traces back to colonization and has been reinforced by violence against them in the late 20th century.”
Mendoza contends that Tamayo forms part of a movement devoted to cultivating cultural pride, particularly among younger Quechua speakers who are often the first in their families to relocate to urban areas and attend university.
“Lenin’s narrative echoes the tales of numerous young individuals dwelling in urban spaces, affirming their culture,” he stated. “Not solely in Peru, yet also in Bolivia, Ecuador, and beyond.
It serves as a reminder of how Indigenous [peoples] negotiate and assert their presence and voices on the global stage, defying the stereotype that Indigeneity is a thing of the past.”
Meanwhile, Tamayo also leverages music as a tool for political transformation.
Following the impeachment and ousting of former left-wing President Pedro Castillo, deadly protests have rattled Peru over the past year. His vice president, Boluarte, swiftly succeeded him.
Despite this, Castillo boasted robust support in rural and Indigenous regions, prompting many of his adherents to take to the streets to voice their outrage at his removal in December.
Since then, the demonstrations have resulted in over 60 casualties, with hundreds more sustaining injuries as security forces clashed with protesters.
A special rapporteur with the United Nations highlighted that the violence disproportionately impacted Indigenous communities. Furthermore, the human rights organization Amnesty International discovered indications of “racial and socio-economic bias” in the government’s use of lethal force.
Tamayo himself engaged in the protests, many of which demanded a new constitution and early elections to replace Boluarte and the opposition-led Congress.
He also addressed the violence in a music video earlier this year, portraying police officers assaulting demonstrators and pursuing a woman who eludes them within an Andean forest.
Boluarte has encountered reproach for her government’s response to the protests, yet she has refused to relinquish her position. Furthermore, despite initially endorsing the idea of advancing elections, she has since retracted that proposition, asserting that the matter was “settled”.
“The president has made assurances that she must honor,” emphasized Tamayo. “Otherwise, it constitutes a betrayal.”
Alonso Gurmendi, a Peruvian lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, believes artists like Tamayo are paving the way for new channels of political discourse, amplifying the call for change.
“People are realizing that marching on the streets and protesting won’t be adequate,” he professed. “Lenin is channeling that through his music. He is catalyzing social transformation and a grassroots movement through songs and art.”
Tamayo, in turn, acknowledges the potential of new platforms, particularly social media networks such as TikTok, in instigate change.
“Social networks can democratize,” he underscored. “It’s liberation. It is a source of optimism.”
Nonetheless, as Tamayo himself acknowledges, change is a gradual process. “This extends beyond a positive sentiment,” he stated regarding his music. “It marks a struggle.”