Hip hop as global resistance: A conversation with Rebel Diaz
Author: Sufiya Yamin Saylove
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 01/07/2014
Peace Rebel Diaz! Thanks for participating in this academic interview for Hip Hop and the Art of Peace Education in the University for Peace Peace & Conflict Monitor. To be honest, I can’t keep up. There are 7 billion people on the planet, how many rappers? It got popular, technologies evolved and rappers came out the woodwork! I’ve seen you in Harlem, but am behind on your movement. You were on the bill Saturday at The National Black Theater in Harlem for The Universal Zulu Nation Anniversary. You were rocking, saying no person is illegal. Can you share the meaning of this song, and anything you’d like to relay in regards to this message?
G1: The song is called, “I’m An Alien.” For sometime the mainstream media has been using that term to describe undocumented workers, immigrants that are coming here that are being forced out of their homelands by US foreign policy. You know, at the end of the day, ain’t no jobs out here and somebody’s gotta get blamed and unfortunately they blaming a lot of the immigrant communities that out here working, not only in New York, but throughout the country. So, for us, it’s really about the idea that saying no human being is illegal is to counter this idea that profits should come before people. Because, for us, it’s about people over profits and at the end of the day, this whole immigration debate, it’s really about creating scapegoats and creating a boogie man, an enemy in the mainstream media. But, us, cause we know that these immigrants are our brothers, our fathers, our neighbors, our co-workers. So, the song is really about reclaiming the word alien. Saying, you know what? I’m an alien. Our people are from out of this world anyways! Na mean? And really again, making the connections and joining the struggles that our people are facing and part of that is the struggle for immigrant rights and the struggle against mass incarceration in which we’re seeing there’s a parallel with that right now with all these private prisons and the private immigrant detention centers. We feel that the system has always wanted to divide and conquer the black and brown community, but we feel that we are facing similar challenges and difficulties. So, for us that song is about trying to connect those dots and that’s why we performed that night at the Zulu event.
RodStarz: Hip Hop is a culture that comes from immigrants. If you look at the birth place, South Bronx, South Bronx is an immigrant community and it was an immigrant community back in the days. So, I think that, even when you look at Kool Herc had a Jamaican influence. A lot of the b-boys in Roc-Steady, hip hop is an Afro-Caribbean culture. And I think like, without immigration, we would have never had hip hop. So, I think that it’s only right that as hip hop artists we stand up for immigrant rights and for now the legalization of all.
Yo, I love it! You have a community arts center. I wanted to ask the address and how I can get involved, but I read about police interference? What happened? Can you speak on this?
G1: The Rebel Diaz Arts Center is a community organization based in the South Bronx. It’s a collective of young artists, educators, organizers. We’ve been around officially as an organization since 2008. We took over an abandoned warehouse in the South Bronx and turned it into a 10,000 square foot people’s community center to be able to use hip hop as a form of resistance and self education. Recently, in February of this year that center was raided by Marshals, armed NYPD, it was a violent eviction. The eviction stems from a process that’s occurring throughout the South Bronx because of gentrification. The South Bronx is the next frontier for these hungry real estate developers in New York City. And as a result of that, we were pushed out of the location that we had for five years where we did most of our hip hop programming. Now, we’re in a temporary space in conjunction with the Bronx Music Heritage Center Laboratory which is at 1303 Louis Nine Boulevard and we’re continuing to do programming around music production, around The Richie Perez Radical Library, which is a literacy and education initiative that’s within the collective and we’re also planning for a longterm goal of having a permanent address for hip hop in the South Bronx. We feel that without ownership that we’re not going to be able to stay around long in the South Bronx, because of the reality of the gentrification, the police occupation that’s happening. So for us, that’s where we’re at right now. We’ll continue to provide programming out of the Bronx Music Heritage Center Laboratory at 1303 Louis Nine Boulevard in the South Bronx. But, we’re in the process of looking for a permanent address for hip hop and in doing that, building with other organizations, like the Zulus, like DJ Kool Herc, to see what it looks like for hip hop to have an address in the Bronx.
For us, our reason is to build community through the arts. We feel that the most revolutionary thing we could do in the current throws of the political climate is to create a safe place for young people to gather around, provide them with the infrastructure needed to create an alternative culture. That means recording spaces, performance spaces, you know spaces to be able to edit and produce music and hone their craft. So, for us, we feel that is the most important thing that we could do. Being that the public space where hip hop use to originate in, which is the parks, the public places are becoming criminalized. So, we just feel that the best thing we can do is create a safe place for young people to gather round and create culture that is free of gang violence, state violence and police violence.
Wow, you know you’re saving lives in doing this work, right? I have my own history in the state system, me and my brother. But, hip hop gave us an outlet. That ambition saved our lives. Later, I worked in group homes and could see both ends of the spectrum. It means the world to a young person to be accepted and to be encouraged by a grown person, to express themselves in a positive light. That said, is there anything that I and the audience can do to ensure the longevity of RDACBX?
G1: Man if y’all wanna donate you can go to www.rdacbx.org to support what we are doing and also, support the artists that are coming out of The Rebel Diaz Arts Collective. You’ve got Rebel Diaz, you’ve got DJ Charlie Hustle, who’s got an amazing mix tape he’s putting out. YC the Cinic who’s been all over the blogs. He dropped a completely new album which I think is one of the best out of 2013, GNK. More than anything, there is a lot of music coming out of the artist collective, but also we’ve got artists that are dedicated to their community who are teaching the craft to younger emcees, younger b-boys and b-girls, so we’re just trying to spread the culture and keep hip hop alive, forever.
One of the main energies that we have behind our work is the idea that you can’t just oppose, you gotta propose. You know what I’m saying? I think that if all we’re doing is being rationed as attacking the system for what they continually throw at us, we’re never going to get anywhere. We need to start working and building on everyday issues. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s really been the energy behind our work with the arts collective.
Yo, I also read about your arrests. This hits home. I grew up with brothers on the run from police, frequent run ins with the law, interrogations, evictions, swat teams and all that. Can you share your experience in regards to the arrests with us as well?
G1: Police brutality is an epidemic in New York City. We can’t tell you anything about that [incident] before we talk about the New York City Police Officer Richard Haste that murdered unarmed Ramarley Graham in the Bronx, last year. We need to bring him to justice, Richard Haste. We have killers walking loose. Sean Bell, the list goes on and on. So, that’s number one. We need to make it clear that there needs to be justice and until there is justice there’s going to be no peace. And two, as with the incident that happened to us in 2008, it was an incident where we were trying to translate for an immigrant street fruit and vegetable stand who was getting his produce taken away by the NYPD and the New York City Health Department. We intended to help translate for the gentleman. The police wouldn’t have it. They were clear that in New York City there’s not a dialogue between people of color and NYPD and even though we were trying to help, the police commenced to brutalize us. Luckily we filmed the incident and luckily because of the work that we’ve been doing we had the support of the community and there was some publicity around that act of brutality. RodStarz and I faced felony charges, assaulting officers, faced jail time, it was a year in court, but we beat the case. For us, it was really about, because of the fact that that act of police brutality was filmed, we made it clear and continue to make it clear that, that was not an isolated incident. That happens everyday throughout New York City and the police are functioning at a level of impunity that doesn’t allow for the state to dialogue or for any type of justice to occur. It’s also a product of gentrification. The South Bronx is the next frontier for the real estate developers and for what was Mayor Bloomberg’s [second] term in office was talking about revitalizing the Bronx. But, unfortunately, their talking about urban renewal, but too often it’s urban removal and part of that urban removal requires the street to be cleaned up of immigrants, street and fruit vendors and young people of color and that’s where the police are coming in heavy. So, for us, we continue to say that that’s just a symptom of the displacement that’s occurring in New York City, unfortunately, for people of color.
RodStarz: And I would note on that, too, besides the fact that we beat the case, you know we want all else to note that the police came at us and they sent a crew of rogue officers to raid our music studio after we spoke up against them. We understand the police, they’re armed, they’re a violent, defense mechanism that defends the state, that defends Mayor Bloomberg it defends private property and when we started calling out some of the higher ups, there was repercussions. There was a 3AM raid of our studio. Mind you, this is 2008, you know we’ve moved on from this and I feel that more than anything, this is an incident that really led to the energy of what was put behind the idea of creating The Rebel Diaz Arts Collective. Our community center was right in the same precinct that we got beat up in. And we feel that that’s what we gotta be about. We can’t just say, oh we got beat up, become victims. Na, we gotta start creating infrastructures, creating music studios, creating culture, creating things that question. I think that when we stand up to the police, that we can’t constantly be in fear. Granted, we don’t wanna go out there and be reckless for our freedom, you know but at the same time I think that the movement needs to have a little more bravery and a little more courage. It needs to stand up and not be quiet when we witness an injustice going on for anybody in our community. It’s our responsibility to speak up and say something.
Thank you, Brothers. Means a lot. The beautiful, talented emcee and Soul Sister Lah Tere! The last Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen she put on, I was on the line up. I love her and admire her work. Can you tell us about the work you did as a combined force in Rebel Diaz?
G1: Lah Tere’s our fam. We grew up with Lah Tere back home in Chicago and she was a member of the group from 2006 to late 2010 early 2011. You know that was the foundation of Rebel Diaz. We started off all three of us together and just as time moved on, we all grew up she moved to Chicago and we’ve moved on. But, she was a part of the work that we did, she was around when RDACBX got started and she’s also a part of our first two musical projects. She’s also behind Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen every year and we support her in the work that she’s doing.
Thanks again and much respects to Lah Tere! Your release party for your album was set at the Bronx Museum December 4th. Can you tell us about the album in contrast with your prior LPs? And what’s it like rocking at such a dope venue? I’m so with that! Museums and schools over night clubs any day!
G1: The title of the album that we are releasing on December 4th it’s called Radical Dilemma. The concept of the title is based off of the foreword of a book called, “Blood In My Eye,” by George Jackson. He was a Soledad Brother. The foreword is by Jonathan Jackson Jr. the son of Jonathan Jackson, George Jackson’s brother who was going to liberate him. So, in the foreword, Jonathan Jackson Jr. talks about Radical Dilemma, the concept, the idea of wanting to practice radical politics to transform society within the constraints of the society we live in which is filled with misinformation, which is based on disinformation. So, for us, it’s navigating the dilemma of wanting to have radical transformational change in society and having to navigate people that practice liberalism or practice more reformist tendencies and how we can really manifest that kinda vision so that’s the kinda album. Musically, we mixing up songs. It’s really something that we’ve been building and working on for the last three years, beside the fact that we put out some other projects in between. For us, it’s really trying to get across our story of what we’ve done for the last few years and that’s the story based on our history, our family history, being the sons of political exiles form Chile, our current history of being in the South Bronx and building with young people and building the community space and also our experience of growing up in Chicago which led us to the work that we do now.
RodStarz: For us, doing our album release party at The Bronx Museum, it just came about because we’ve been doing our work in the Bronx and I think that a lot of folks take their shows in Manhattan and Brooklyn and all that is wonderful, but we chose to do it in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, where our home base is at right now. Building relationships with an institution such as the Bronx Museum is important to us and hopefully we continue to keep that relationship going and you’ll see more Rebel Diaz shows at the Bronx Museum.
G1: Also on the Radical Dilemma, the album is just crazy! I’m super proud of the work that we put out with that. We’ve got great features. We’re bout to put out a new joint. We’ve got a remix for a song called “Which Side Are You On,” featuring Dead Prez, Rakaa Iriscience, Dilated Peoples, we got YC The Cynic, Homeboy Sandman. Just really looking forward to being able to put it out and let the world hear it!
Indeed! Y’all have a strong international following. Have you performed in Costa Rica? It’s one of my homes. I’ve been in the US a minute, but I am still working on a Zulu Chapter in Costa Rica. Where have you toured there in Central, South America or elsewhere? Do you have any upcoming tour dates?
G1: We about to be in Mexico this December, that’s exciting. But, we did a pretty extensive tour inside of Venezuela, we did about ten cities in Venezuela. We’ve done work in Chile, we’ve been in Europe a few times, Greece.
G1: Guatemala, Greece, Germany, Spain, France. So, we’re definitely looking forward, through those travels and through the music, to really connect with different struggles. We see that in Europe they also deal with an anti-immigrant sentiment and racism directed at African immigrants and Arab and Persian immigrants. We see the global south moving north for better resources are facing racism and bigotry and we see the parallels of poverty throughout the world that we’ve been blessed to travel to. But, we also see that hip hop is alive and well and in resistance. Hip Hop is still in the streets. When we go to Chile and they wanna hear that boom bap. They wanna hear you spit that hard flow. There’s a level where hip hop as an industry, as a rap music industry, it hasn’t been able to sell and co opt itself the way that it’s done here in the United States and so as a result hip hop culture is just alive and well. It’s in the streets, it’s underground and it questions the system and to us, that’s something that we wanna be able to be a part of. We wanna connect those struggles and build with young people throughout the world that are doing that.
RodStarz: We ain’t never been to Costa Rica! If you gotta hook up, hook it up! We gotta go!
Ha! That’s what I’m saying. I’ll see what I can do. Y’all are inspiring. Really dope how you put it all into action. It’s really attuned to what I’m working on. Can you tell us what your goals are? Ideally, what would you achieve in this life time? What’s your greatest vision you could ever achieve?
G1: Going back to this idea of hip hop being a global resistance, a global language, I think that’s the next step in hip hop as it get’s older, as it expands beyond borders is really about musically a sound that can be appreciated on the international level. And there’s artists that are doing that right now, amazing artists who travel the world and are doing work that is hip hop but it’s accessible to an international audience and it speaks to the struggles of poor people, of oppressed people, throughout the world. That’s something that we wanna continue doing and expand on. We wanna be able to reach all those areas of the globe. And also, we see ourselves in the Bronx, we’ve been based out of here for ten years. So, we wanna create infrastructure and alternative institutions for culture because otherwise we’re facing that extermination. It’s just reality, those words are harsh, but when you talk about gentrification, when you talk about police brutality, when you talk about mass incarceration. Those things, at the end of the day, are slow genocide. So, for us it’s about preservation, self defense and self preservation and we need institutions and we need infrastructure and that’s something that we hope to continue to build on in the Bronx. I think that if we impact young people to have a different view than what’s force fed to them by mainstream radio or media, I believe in the idea of small victories. I feel like I’m living the dream. I’m living in the birth place of hip hop, working with amazingly talented young emcees. In general, just building with our community. To me, that’s a victory. Each day that we get up and are able to keep doing that is a victory. We definitely wanna keep going and definitely try to get a permanent space in the South Bronx and continue doing our music in whatever language we choose to at the moment. Spanish, English. But, you know hip hop is the international language.
On that note, can you tell us just a little about these workshops that you do? Super Dooope!
G1: Yeah, we do workshops in our community and we also, when we travel and perform we do workshops in different community centers, in schools and universities throughout the country and throughout the world. One is called Hip Hop and Activism which basically explores the connections between hip hop and organizing and activism and being active in the community and looking at the history of hip hop to show that hip hop is in itself is an act of organization. Hip Hop is in and of itself an act of resistance. You know, you’ve got b-boys forming in the Bronx in the mid 70’s and you got people you know taking sound systems to set up in the public space and create a safe public space for culture to be enjoyed by all the community, there is coordination and organization required for all that to occur. And so, part of the workshop it focuses on that. Part of the focus is on some of the work that we’ve been doing in the South Bronx, and also it touches a bit upon the parallels of this era of mass incarceration and the life span of hip hop culture and all that kinda tied in again, the idea of hip hop history and of being active in building your community. The other one that we do is called Hip Hop and Immigration in which, like Rod was saying earlier, posits the idea that hip hop is a culture that was built off of immigrants and Afro-Caribbean culture. So, it’s our responsibility too defend immigrant rights. In our workshops we look at the parallel of the attack on the immigrant population and people of color in mass media. Now, young people of color and immigrants have become scapegoats for our failing economic model in this country and so there needs to be unity and that’s also a topic that we explore in that Hip Hop and Immigration workshop. But, you know, I feel that we do workshops everyday, informally. Just talking and building with our young people, as well. So, that’s something I think that’s invaluable and kinda intangible. But, like Rod said, when you talking about building community at every moment we need to be that example for other younger people in your area, in your neighborhood and so that’s what we try to do.
I really appreciate this. Brothers, The government holiday season is upon us. Myself, I fast a lot. Consciously since 2000 I decided to fast on government holiday. Not as a form of celebration, but rather to observe the truths concealed by a Roman Calendar and by the colonizer. I know it sounds harsh, for those who just want to enjoy their day off with family. Everybody deserves family time. But, if you strongly believe in freedom, justice and equality, you can’t pretend the history is peaceful when in fact it was and is deceitful. I love this track you did called ThanksTaking. Can you tell us, in your own words, the meaning of the song and how it came about?
RodStarz: I’ma tell you the story behind that track. DJ Charlie Hustle, the RDACBX official DJ, every year for the last three years we’ve been throwing an event called the ThanksTaking. In 2011 we were on tour and G1 had got sick. So G1 got hospitalized and he couldn’t make it to the Milwaukee part of the tour which was the ThanksTaking show. We rocked out, with our brothers Viva Fidel and Gat Turner and G1 from the hospital sent us the beat that is now the beat for the song the ThanksTaking. You know, he sampled the Nas joint and with the work ethic that he has he was making beats from his hospital bed. So, he sent us the beat the day of the show and we like free styled over the beat with Gat Turner and Viva Infidel. The following year Gat Turner and Viva Fidel come to New York to the RDACBX so we do some shows. Then, Hurricane Sandy hit and their flight got cancelled so they were stranded in New York for a couple extra days. Gat was like yo, we gotta do that ThanksTaking joint, it was right before it. So, we recorded it and performed it that following ThanksTaking. ThanksTaking 2013 was set to be in Milwaukee on Sunday, Nov. 30th.
I love the sample, too. One of the realest cuts by Mr. Jones. Much respects to the architects. Before we dip out of here, can you share any of your influences or inspirations in the music or movement? And, is there anything else you’d like to share with the listeners today?
RodStarz: One of first inspirations in the Nueva Cancion was from Chile, which is our homeland. His name Victor Jara. Victor Jara was an activist, a teacher, a poet a musician. September 11, 1973 forty years ago the dictatorship hit. He was one of the first brothers they took him as a political prisoner, police beat him. Basically his bravery and his message was so strong that the police broke his hands, so that he couldn’t play the guitar and even with broken hands he kept playing the guitar in defiance and I think that for us, that’s the feeling that we try to have behind our music. We’re never going to stop organizing, we’re never going to stop speaking the truth. So definitely Victor Jara is one of our first influences. But, then you look at the whole Nueva Cancion movement, Osvaldo “Gitano” Rodriguez, Violeta Parra, artists like that for us are like the foundation of the idea of message behind the music. And of course, we ain’t grow up in Chile. We grew in Chicago. So, hip hop is definitely a huge influence. That’s the culture we grew up in. So, artists like Common, you know Nas, for me Mobb Deep, you know Wu Tang, that whole 90‘s Golden era sound for us is a big deal. But, you know there was always those artists that spoke with a message. Chuck D, to this day we honor and look up to. Dead Prez, KRS One, X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers. Those are artists we grew up inspired by. I always shout out MC Juice from Chicago cause I feel like he is one of the illest freestyle emcees ever. I let G talk on it, he produces so he can speak on some of his influences.
G1: I feel we share those similar influences. I would also say that on the lyrical tip, I’m super inspired and influenced by the young artists in our collective, who are a little younger and they make you step your bar game up! It’s beautiful to see them progress as artists and also, all of us together progress as artists. For us, those are definitely inspirations and also a lot of artists that we’ve had a chance to work with. There’s a lot of really wonderful artists. Grammy nominated Ana Tijoux, dope female emcee. Brother Ali. We inspired by that. We like for example Manu Chao, or global artists that aren’t specifically hip hop but are hip hop influenced world music that are speaking to the injustice or speaking to the need for dignity and peace in our world and make peoples spirits, minds and hips move at the same time. So, we down with them, too.
I feel that. At last, where can we find your music and where do we go to support your movement?
On Twitter @rebeldiaz all the social medias and right now you can check out our music, we at rebeldiaz.bandcamp.com rebeldiaz.blogspot.com rdacbx.org We just celebrated 40 years of hip hop, we looking forward to at least the next 40 years. 1973 ‘Til forever! Cop that Radical Dilemma. We proud of that album and we want y’all to check that out!
Brothers, thank you for being torch bearers in spreading the light of truth and unity for all indigenous peoples everywhere on the planet! I trust our paths will cross again. In Lak’ech!
Bio: Sufiya Asia Yamin aka Earth Saylove is a peace scholar, music artist, and radio producer. Check out her Universe at earthsaylove.org