Dominic Kavakeb profiles US rapper and activist Immortal Technique, while Anindya Bhattacharyya reports from a lively discussion session with the artist. “Imperialism is sponsored by corporations – that’s why Halliburton gets paid to rebuild nations”, is a line typical of Immortal Technique, the New York based MC who combines the anger of the early hip-hop era with hard hitting political lyrics that set him apart from most rappers today.
Few MCs can claim to use the war in Iraq, Islamophobia and the occupation of Palestine as material to rap about. But Immortal Technique – real name Felipe Coronel – has never been one to shy away from controversial issues. He is not just a rapper, he’s a political activist. He was born in a military hospital in Peru but moved with his family to Harlem, New York when he was two years old. His experiences there of poverty and racism inspired him to pick up a microphone and “bring the truth in the form of hip-hop”.
Immortal Technique soon claimed fame across the New York “battle” scene, where hip-hop MCs compete with one another. Throughout this time he fought against record labels that wanted to make money from his musical talent – but only at the expense of his controversial lyrics. His track “The Message Or The Money” talks of the pressures he and other MCs face to trade lyrical independence for corporate recognition.
Technique released his first album, Revolutionary Volume 1, on his own without being signed to a label. He won a huge following in the underground scene. The follow-up, Revolutionary Volume 2, contains some of the sharpest music created in the US in recent years. Lyrics such as “trapped in a ghetto region like a Palestinian kid, where nobody gives a fuck whether you die or you live” are constant throughout the album, which finally helped him break through to a wider audience.
Immortal Technique’s new album, The 3rd World, is released later this month. Get hold of this album whether or not you have heard of his work. You can be safe in the knowledge that your money won’t be going to greedy corporations and that you’ll be treated to some of the best political music around today.
Immortal Technique visited Britain last week to promote the album and play a one-off gig alongside British hip-hop artists Skinnyman and Triple Darkness. Rather than hold a conventional press conference, he hosted a two hour question and answer session at the School of Oriental and African Studies in central London.
The event, advertised through internet bulletin boards and by word of mouth, was packed out with around 200 fans, students, journalists and activists. The first questions were mostly about how Immortal Technique combines his work as a hip-hop artist with his socialist political stance. “Hip-hop was created with the duality of not only speaking about things revolutionarily, but also being party music”, he replied.
“It wasn’t that black and Latino people in the 1980s were enjoying what they were living through – it’s more that they wanted to speak about what they thought could be possible. They imagined certain riches, or imagined themselves in a better place. So they had these rhymes where people would talk about the kind of money they would make – and they had the more revolutionary aspect, the militant flow. And these things crossed each other – it wasn’t that this person just rhymes about this, or this person’s a party MC, or this one a political rapper. A rapper had to be a complete artist”.
But the influence of the music corporations soon transformed this early hip-hop scene, he added. “At some point, when corporations got involved in the marketing of hip-hop, they snatched one aspect out of it. They said, ‘We like it when you dance and sing, but we don’t like it when you talk about everything else. We don’t like it when you talk about Africa or Palestine”.
This is why Immortal Technique insists on the importance of the political content of his work. It’s also why he has chosen largely to reach out to an audience directly through the internet.
“The technology right now allows for people who cannot afford that million dollar studio to get their message heard. As long as you have a room and a mic, you can come up with something similar in quality to what people are doing. Now you can circumvent the corporations by saying I’m gonna make my own music and I’ll promote it through the internet, through the street, through mixtapes”.
The questions soon moved on to directly address political issues, touching on everything from biofuels to the nature of revolution and the prospects for an alternative political system.
Someone asked Immortal Technique what he thought of Hugo Chavez, the left wing president of Venezuela. “A lot of revolutions in Latin America were characterised as Communist during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when they were really just democratic”, he responded.
“People wanted a similar social system to what they had in Britain and France where the government offers more services. Hugo Chavez taps into that spirit. I don’t agree with everything that he’s done, but he’s a great figure for people who want to speak their mind. In terms of how his policies are going to echo throughout time, it’s really a question of what institutions he can create in Latin America, institutions that can protect civil rights and offer people services”.
Other audience members asked Immortal Technique what he thought of Barack Obama’s bid for the US presidency and whether this could change US policy in the Middle East.
“I’m not dismissive of Obama”, he replied, “I just understand that we’ve made billions of dollars of investments in Iraq. We’ve essentially bought that country. Obama’s opponent John McCain said we’d be there for a hundred years. People mocked him for being an old geezer, for being out of touch – which are both true – but it’s not that he was necessarily wrong”.
He also cautioned against thinking a black president will fundamentally change things. “I’ve learned this the hard way. In Latin America we said as soon as we have an indigenous person as president, everything would change. But it didn’t necessarily change. There are presidents that are black in Africa and there are Muslim rulers in the Middle East. Does that mean there’s less oppression there? No!”
Despite his scepticism, Immortal Technique said he voted for Obama in the primaries, mainly because of his more liberal stance on immigration. But he warned, “Just because I voted for him doesn’t mean I’ll endorse him as a candidate and run around with Obama posters!” He added that contrary to common belief the class system is alive and well in the US.
“I would say there is an American economic aristocracy – people who come from privileged families and influence. So that sort of system exists inside the US and has existed since its conception. And it’s tied into racism, which was created to justify classes and slavery. The greatest enemies of democracy have always been the ruling class. Do you think Bush or Obama is going go over and tell the king of Jordan or Saudi Arabia to hold an election? That will never happen unless the people themselves rise up and reclaim that power. That is the way we truly start to facilitate revolution”.
The 3rd World by Immortal Technique is released on 24 June on Viper Records.
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