Meet the Peruvian singer using K-pop beats to celebrate Andean culture

Lima, Peru – Strolling up the neoclassical steps of Peru’s Supreme Court with a technicolour Indigenous shawl draped over one shoulder, Lenin Tamayo is keenly aware of the power of symbolism.

The 23-year-old Peruvian singer has shot to viral fame in recent months — earning millions of views on TikTok — thanks to his novel genre of music, which fuses influences from across continents and cultures.

He blends Korean beats, Andean folklore and subversive imagery, in some cases taking aim at the administration of President Dina Boluarte through his music.

“I want to inspire others,” said Tamayo, who sings in Quechua, an Indigenous language spoken by the Incas and still used by an estimated 10 million people across South America. “I want love to unite us, to unite our people.”

Tamayo’s music, which adds a Quechua twist to Korea’s K-pop music, has been dubbed “Q-pop”. Each song from his debut album Amaru, released in August, is inspired by Incan mythology. The title itself refers to a mythic double-headed snake.

In his performances, Tamayo dances flamboyantly — using the highly choreographed dance moves of a K-pop star — to a backing of traditional Andean musical instruments such as pan flutes and rain sticks.

A young Peruvian man lifts one arm to adjust his dark hat. He wears a crisp white shirt, and over his shoulder is an Indigenous belt, colorfully embroidered. He stands on the steps of Peru's Supreme Court, an imposing neoclassical building.
Peruvian singer Lenin Tamayo sings in Quechua, an Indigenous language spoken by millions in South America [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

Although he was born in the capital Lima, Tamayo was raised in the culture of the Andes Mountains, the ancestral home of the Incas and other Indigenous groups.

As the only child of Yolanda Pinares, an Andean artist who sings in Spanish and Quechua, Tamayo grew up listening to a broad range of Latin American folk music.

He often waited for his mother backstage, as she juggled stage performance with busking and bartending.

Pinares wove Andean tradition into Tamayo’s everyday life. She would even pack his school lunchbox with foods from the Peruvian highlands such as “cancha” — toasted corn kernels — and “tarwi”, an Andean legume.

But those lunchtime snacks raised eyebrows among his schoolmates in the capital. That, combined with his timid demeanour and atypical looks — a skinny frame, bushy eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones — led to bullying.

“I felt this internalised racism,” he said. “I was timid as a boy.”

Music has long been a way for Tamayo to process his struggles. He first took to the stage at age seven with his mother. By age 14, he was writing songs for her. Later, he learned to use social media to promote her work.

But he went in his own direction when he started to pen his own songs at age 22.

“I was born on the stage,” Tamayo said. “But it was different when I began to write my own songs.”

Departing from his mother’s folk-centred sound, Tamayo’s music embraced contemporary influences like the genre-bending stylings of Spanish singer Rosalía and K-pop icons Girls’ Generation and BTS.

But Tamayo mixes those inspirations with the sounds and rhythms he grew up with. “I wanted to reclaim my identity with my words and my compositions, to explain where I came from.”

That music has struck a chord in the Andes and beyond: On TikTok, he has 5.3 million likes and more than 227,200 followers.

Americo Mendoza, founder of the Quechua Initiative on Global Indigeneity at Harvard University, credited Tamayo’s popularity in part to the fact that Quechua speakers rarely are represented in media.

“Even though one in 10 people in Peru speak Quechua, they are treated as a minoritised community, as second-class citizens,” said Mendoza. “That dates back to colonisation and has been reinforced by violence against them in the late 20th century.”

Mendoza argued that Tamayo is part of a movement of growing cultural pride, particularly among younger Quechua speakers who are often the first in their families to move to cities and study at university.

“Lenin’s story is the story of many young people living in urban spaces affirming their culture,” he said. “Not just in Peru, but in Bolivia, Ecuador and beyond. It is a reminder how Indigenous [peoples] negotiate and adapt their presence and voices on global stages, how they defy stereotypes that Indigeneity is a thing of the past.”

At the same time, Tamayo is also harnessing music as a tool for political change.

An Indigenous woman walks in front of a group of Peruvian riot police on the street, as she carries a Peruvian flag in protest.
The removal of former President Pedro Castillo set off widespread protests over the last year, particularly among Indigenous and rural communities where he enjoyed strong support [File: Angela Ponce/Reuters]

Over the past year, deadly protests have shaken Peru since the impeachment and removal of former left-wing President Pedro Castillo, a move critics have called a coup d’état. His vice president, Boluarte, was quickly sworn in to replace him.

However, Castillo enjoyed strong backing in rural and Indigenous regions, and many of his supporters took to the streets to express outrage at his December ouster.

More than 60 people have died in the demonstrations in the months since, with hundreds more injured as government forces clashed with protesters.

A special rapporteur with the United Nations said the violence disproportionately affected Indigenous communities. And the human rights group Amnesty International found evidence of “racial and socio-economic bias” in the government’s use of lethal force.

Tamayo himself participated in the protests, many of which called for a new constitution and early elections to replace Boluarte and the opposition-led Congress.

He also tackled the violence in a music video earlier this year, depicting police beating protesters and chasing a woman who escapes through an Andean forest.

Boluarte has come under fire for her government’s response to the demonstrations, but she has refused to step down. And despite initial support for moving elections forward, she has since backed away from that proposal, saying the issue was “closed”.

“The president has made promises that she must keep,” Tamayo said. “Otherwise, it’s a betrayal.”

Dina Boluarte, sitting at a table in front of a Peruvian flag, speaks into a microphone.
President Dina Boluarte has faced criticism for her response to anti-government protests over the past year [File: Angela Ponce/Reuters]

Alonso Gurmendi, a Peruvian lecturer in international relations at King’s College London, believes artists like Tamayo are opening new spaces for political discourse, amplifying the call for change.

“People are realising that it won’t be enough to just go to the streets and protest,” he said. “Lenin is channelling that with his music. He is galvanising social change and a grassroots movement through songs and art.”

Tamayo likewise acknowledges the power of new forums — particularly social media platforms like TikTok — to generate change.

“Social networks can democratise,” he said. “It’s a liberty. It’s a cause for hope.”

But change takes time, as Tamayo himself admits. “This is not only a positive message,” he said of his music. “It’s a battle.”

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