Argentine rappers Brian Molina and Maximiliano Fernandez
Argentine rappers Brian Molina and Maximiliano Fernandez
Nahuel Gallotta

BUENOS AIRES — Brian Molina and Maximiliano Fernández, two of Argentina's emerging rap stars, met in jail.

Molina was 11 years old when he wrote his first song. It was May 2005, and he was living at the Borchez de Otamendi home for minors in Buenos Aires. When he performed his song for friends, teachers and guardians at the youth facility, Molina was rewarded with soccer time in the courtyard. A couple of minutes after the game began, as planned, the ball was kicked over the wall, giving the group of friends a chance to jump over it, and flee.

"That day I combined all the things that formed my life: music, confinement and escape," said Molina, now aged 22, from his rented room in the Almagro district of Buenos Aires.

Two months ago, Molina left Marcos Paz, a prison that falls west of the city, after completing a four-year sentence. During that period, like his time at the Borchez home, he rapped, and is now working on his next recording. He is scheduled to perform at a club in the capital's trendy Palermo district in late June, and in the central Argentinian cities of Rosario and Córdoba in July. He also has an upcoming gig in Uruguay.

Things are finally looking up for Molina, who had a troubled childhood. He spent the first four years of his life at the Los Hornos prison where his mother was serving time. He was then let out and went to live with his grandmother, as his father was also in jail. She then lost custody of the child, who, from the age of six, was sent to a succession of homes. He kept running away, often sleeping at the Congressional Plaza, a public park facing the country's Congress house. But whether he was in temporary homes or out on the street, he continued to write music.

Molina cannot remember how many times he had been detained by police for some offense or the other, how many times he had been packed off to an institution and how many of them he's fled. One time, when he was 13, Molina was jailed with three gunshot wounds. He heard about a Freestyle expand=1] event, where people gather to improvise with rap, and he escaped to participate, Molina recalled, one of the many times he did so for music. His performance won him prizes, and he became known on the rap scene.

If Molina found people playing guitars on the street, he would join them and rap with improvised lyrics. But this wasn't a paid job, he said. "I was a thief and lived off stealing. I didn't want to earn money from art."

At 16, Molina was back at his grandmother's home in Almagro. That was one of the best periods of his life, Molina recalled, and he began working with other rap musicians. He got a job, met someone and had a child. He formed his first rap band, made two recordings and began performing gigs. That was also when thousands began to view his YouTube videos, and when his social life began to change.

"The rap people saved my life. I was being nourished again. I realized there was another world, and I was determined to put my art out there," said Molina.

But at 18, Molina was back at Marcos Paz's prison wing for those aged 18 to 21. There, he met Maximiliano Fernández, then 19.

Fernández had begun to steal at 13, and had learned to play the guitar at 15, when he was housed at a psychiatric ward. Like Molina, he too had written songs while locked up.

Two days after they met, the two wrote a song, and within weeks were competing in the Talentos 2012 televised contest alongside inmates from six other federal prisons. Molina and Fernández won. "They started to take us seriously in jail," said Fernández.

Fernández was released from prison 10 months ago, and shares a room today with Molina, whose rap name is Rabeat expand=1].

When they were in prison, they used rap to demand better living conditions. The jail authorities were irritated, in part because the rappers' efforts stirred up other inmates. "The Penitentiary Service gave us a hard time. It invented sanctions and sent us to the worst wing," recalled Fernández.

The authorities also split up the duo, forcing them to compose, and rehearse, using mobile phones. Molina and Fernández were reunited outside prison, where they both joined workshops run by Luis expand=1] el Chino Sanjurjo, who provides art coaching to inmates.

Today, their dreams are finally taking shape outside prison, where music is not just an expression of freedom, but a way to make it last.

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