Photo: George Voronov
Rónán Burtenshaw sits down with rapper and revolutionary Immortal Technique during his visit to Dublin to talk politics, society and his life as an artist.
I met Immortal Technique backstage at his sold-out Dublin gig in the Village on 3rd November. We had been in touch with his representatives since the start of the term, when I heard he was likely to visit, arranging the interview.
As a student journalist, you are never quite sure if these things are going to come off. But, fortunately, and against the backdrop of a blistering set from DJ Static, Swave Sevah and Poison Pen, we were led to his prep room minutes before he went onstage.
Immortal Technique does not fit the stereotype of the contemporary hip-hop artist – the dick-swinging misogynist and hyper-capitalist slimmed down to fit a tightly-controlled corporate package. He has risen from the hip-hop underground, where he produced his dark and iconic Dance with the Devil, to becoming one of the most high-profile rap artists on the planet.
His political focus, allied with the breadth of his lyricism (singing about his native Latin America – “I’m from where they overthrow democratic leaders / Not for the people but for the Wall Street Journal readers”) – makes him a stand-out artist of his generation.
In September 2011 he released the autobiographical documentary The (R)evolution of Immortal Technique, which premiered at the film festival in his hometown of Harlem, New York. He tells me that the project took him seven years to complete, an archaeology of person and artist that dug deep into his past life. The film, however, was not just an introspective:
“The theme of (R)evolution was artistic freedom of movement. It encouraged people to be critical, to bring up things that may be taboo in society. I think of it like this: when you’ve been cut you don’t just cover the wound up – if you do it’s going to be dirty, rotten and festering deep inside. It hurts but you’ve got to scrape that crap the fuck out of there. In the places I’ve been to, like Afghanistan, which is under occupation, or Haiti, with its poverty, you’ve got a history of conflict and that process is painful.”
Latin American revolution doesn’t begin with Marxism. We didn’t need an old, white guy to come to Latin America and explain to us the complexities of sharing.
He has maintained a strong connection to the global South, being born in Lima, Peru in 1978. A strong anti-imperialist theme runs through his lyrics, with tracks like Third World and Peruvian Cocaine set in a part of the Earth shamefully overlooked by many African-American and Latino artists. In 2008, Immortal Technique worked with Omeid International to build a school in Afghanistan using the profits from his aptly titled Third World album.
He has strong words for the former colonial powers on his visit to Europe, too. “The west is not proud of what it is. They’ll make up every fucking excuse why Europeans came to the New World. ‘We came here for religious freedom’, but the moment you got here you started persecuting people over religion. ‘We came to avoid slavery and endentured servitude’, but the moment you got here you put people in bondage, made them build a country for you and then pretended that they were three-fifths of a human being. Why aren’t you proud that you came here looking for gold? Why can’t you say that? Are you ashamed of capitalism? Your principles of civilisation should be an embarassment to anyone who reads history and understands it.”
But his politics have also always been left-wing. The cover of his Revolutionary, Vol 1 album featured a hammer and sickle daubed on a wall, while his lyrics advocate nationalising industry and expropriating capitalists. Does he consider himself a socialist?
“I think socialism is a natural part of people’s political evolution. But when people ask me, ‘Technique, are you a Marxist?’ I say that’s ridiculous. Y’know, Latin American revolution doesn’t begin with Marxism. Marxism was a 19th century ideology that was brought to other parts of the world. Marx was honest about how he’d borrowed a lot of his ideas about collectivism from indigenous populations. But when people are not very cultured you’ve got to explain to them, ‘no, we didn’t need an old, white guy to come to the jungle of Latin America or Africa and explain to us barbarian savages the complexities of sharing’.”
“But socialism is more than that – and that’s one of the reasons it’s been demonised so much. I think there have been a lot of historical failings, and socialism isn’t the be-all and end-all. At least not if it means giving up too much control and power to a government. Socialism to me is the fire department, the post office, the police department. Imagine if these things were privatised? If you look at the history of somewhere like New York City there was a time when you had to pay for these services. If you didn’t have the medallion then you didn’t get them and fuck you. Socialism is the opposite of that.”
I choose to side with the oppressed. I’m with the people with their backs to the wall.
Immortal Technique released his most recent album, The Martyr, as a free CD – geared towards agitation with class-conscious lyrics, and songs about movements like Occupy Wall Street. His unorthodoxy in the rap world is brought home by seeing him in concert. Whether it’s thanking “the working-class of the music industry, the cleaners, barmen, security staff who do all of the work behind these gigs people never see.” Or reminding a young crowd of their capacity to change their societies, and responsibilities to do it. Or pausing a concert, and some tracks that contain plenty of machismo and hair-raising references to women, to remind the mostly-male audience that while they’re singing they should know that the revolution “will never be done unless our sisters are at our sides”.
So, is this the job of hip-hop in society? “It’s my job in hip-hop. Other people can do what they fucking want. As long as fake-ass people stay the fuck out of my way I don’t have a problem with them. I do what I do because there is so much strife out there coupled with so much sub-par music.”
Speaking of Northern Ireland and his decision to use the phrase “Tiocfaidh ár lá” on stage in Belfast a few days earlier, a phrase he repeated in Dublin, he is strong in response to critics. “I may not understand every aspect of everyone’s culture. But I do understand the distinction between oppressor and oppressed. And I choose to side with the oppressed. I’m with the people with their backs to the wall.
“And that applies to conflict situations, too. Y’know, I’m not pro-Palestinian, for example. I’m pro-human human rights. If it was the Palestinians with two empires behind them, stealing the land of another people and bombing them into oblivion then I would be supporting the Israelis. But, and it’s sad, that’s not the case. They have gone from being a people who were oppressed in eastern Europe throughout history to being the oppressors. And so I make my decisions on that basis. Much like here. I don’t come here to revive negativities between people, because I don’t see those as the division. It’s not a Catholic-Protestant issue. It’s an oppressed-oppressor issue.”
As the crowd started to chant his name from behind the stage door a metre to one side of us, we come back to where it began for the rebel MC with the situation in the barrios of Latin America. He doesn’t quite buy the hype talked about some of the left-wing governments that have risen to power in the last decade. They still have major multinational corporations, and some like Venezuela are too dependent on oil, even if that is what “gives them muscle and puts them at the table”.
I do what I do because there is so much strife out there coupled with so much sub-par music.
“My only concern is that these advancements targeted at the working-class and poor, which have a lot of good, aren’t superficial. There’s a lot of imagery. I’d like to see a re-focusing on infrastructure: physical and social. Because you’ve got to be able to make sure that these programmes achieve their ideological goals in a long-term sense, even when that main government is removed. This is key for Latin America. In the US, when you get a Democrat or Republican president there isn’t much difference. In Latin America it’s a socialist candidate and a hard-right wing capitalist. Communities have to be able to defend themselves with change. I was born in the middle of a crazy situation in Peru where you had armed polarisation with the CIA and Maoist guerillas fighting, and a lot melted away.”
And what are the hopes and prospects, according to Immortal Technique? “People see a struggle as something negative now, as opposed to something you’ve got to go through. They say: ‘We don’t want to go back to the way it was.’ Well then, how are we going to solve and heal our problems? We’re talking about human evolution. We need to be able to demand an open forum and discussion on serious issues. The only people who are afraid of facts are those who don’t have a leg to stand on.”
As the crowd’s chants of “tech-nique, tech-nique, tech-nique” became deafening through the walls the door to the stage opened and the interview was over. The man born Felipe Coronel went to meet his fans, for whom he stayed on after the concert to sign T-shirts until getting kicked out of the venue. As I watched his gig and the masses queue afterwards, I reflected on the man. Amidst occasionally coarse and problematic lyrics, Immortal Technique is one of those people you want to stop what you are doing to listen to. His words are laced with intent. His face is a tapestry of a life lived. And you get a sense that his story is not yet written.
The (R)evolution of Immortal Technique is available to buy from Viper Records at store.viperrecords.com. You can follow Immortal Technique on Twitter at twitter.com/immortaltech. We’ve set up a special link to his free-to-download Martyr album at bit.ly/tnimmortaltech