Hip hop rebellion is alive and kicking – October 2012

Review:            The Coup, Jackson's Pit, Oldham, 26 October

                        Immortal Technique, Manchester Academy 2, 28 October

We are living in a time of unstoppable capitalist crisis. The crisis has sent shockwaves through the finance capitals of the world in Europe and the US, as imperialist politicians, bankers and corporations gamble and rob in order to save their sinking ship. Millions of people around the world are being forced into dire poverty as ruling classes bring in austerity measures to cut spending on welfare, and unleash savage warfare on the peoples of already impoverished and oppressed countries. In times like these, signs of resistance are emerging and in music, the voices of resistance are getting louder. FRFI attended two political hip hop gigs in Manchester, featuring US artists The Coup and Immortal Technique.

The Coup

The Coup are an Oakland, California-based band led by rapper Boots Riley, a self-styled communist and revolutionary activist. Since their debut album Kill My Landlord in 1993, The Coup have released a series of albums that mix radical politics with social commentary and humour. Yet their gig at Jackson's Pit in Greater Manchester on 26 October was their first in Britain. There is clearly a change in the air, as people begin to seek out political alternatives. We interviewed Boots about the situation in Oakland, where he and other comrades have been actively building the Occupy movement, often taking on new forms of struggle such as occupations of repossessed homes and exploitative businesses.

Photography by Jordane Nightingale

On 2 November 2011, Occupy Oakland organised a local 'general strike', in defiance of local state forces and setting a challenge to established trade unions who refused to back the call. At the time, the communications director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Craig Merrilees, said, 'It’s virtually impossible for any union to endorse a work-stoppage because all contracts have no-strike clauses, which unions are bound to honour.' Yet many activists and workers went ahead with the action, with 3,000 blockading Oakland port, stopping business at the fifth busiest port in the US. Protesters set up burning barricades as police fired teargas and flash bang grenades. Reflecting on these events Boots said that, 'One of the most important struggles we can engage with right now are radical, militant labour struggles. That doesn't mean with the existing unions. If they wanna come along, fine... if its done in a way that doesn't just talk about the wages of that group of workers. We are in a situation where this is starting to happen.' He said that the Taft-Hartley act, similar to the Thatcher anti-union laws (which remain unchallenged by unions in Britain), meant that 'any union worth its salt... will have to break the law'.

Boots told us that activism was 'why I started doing music in the first place'. However, when he first visited the Occupy protests at Wall Street, 'it didn't seem like a situation which could turn revolutionary, so I wrote it off'. But he soon began to engage with the movement in his hometown, and came to realise that 'it was so chaotic that people felt they could have a say in it... people felt they could come in and mould a new strategy... we saw people coming out who had never been involved in anything before.' There was a sense that many organisations on the US left have failed to engage with working class communities: 'the left has left [class politics] alone since the 1960s.' But new movements have the potential to challenge imperialism directly: 'It's gonna come through physical force. If you want to fight the violence going on in a community you have to fight the wealth distribution in that community.'

As a live act, The Coup are something different. It is a rarity in itself to have a 'live' hip hop band, with instruments and no DJ. There is a funky and eclectic mix of styles, providing an accessible and danceable platform for Riley's political message. People at the gig at a modest venue in Oldham were electrified by the performance of a loud, quirky band of tight musicians, with a radical political vibe. On the coming US election, Boots told us that 'It doesn't matter who's in office... The real lynchpoint is having a radical mass movement.' To wide applause, in a new arrangement of Shoyoass, a song from 2006, Boots raps:

You're voting which you're hoping
will stop the guns from smoking - is someone fucking joking?
They're bankers in sheep's clothing...

Stop flyin old glory man, cut it down
If your job ain't payin' right, shut it down
If your car got 18s, let it pound
And if we ever gonna do it, lets do it now!

The Coup's artistry is remarkably optimistic. In The Magic Clap from The Coup's new album Sorry to Bother You, we hear lyrics like,

Muscle up kid
We got blows to throw
Til the folks have risen
There'll be no decision

Boots says, 'My music is hopeful... but what's more effective than the music doing that is the actual action! Because I can say that all day. Whether you believe me or not is really gonna have to do with whether you see it happening in real life.' When we asked about the importance of having a political alternative to crisis-ridden capitalism, he replied that, 'What's happening in Venezuela is definitely something you could put forward to people in showing other ways that society could be organised.’

Immortal Technique

Immortal Technique is a US rapper of Afro-Peruvian descent. He grew up in poverty in the Bronx, New York and as a youth was frequently arrested and jailed by the police. He immersed himself in hip hop culture and developed his ferocious and militant style of rapping on the streets of New York and in the underground rap scene, later becoming a political activist and revolutionary socialist, inspired by Che Guevara and Malcom X. The gig FRFI attended in Manchester was his first in the city, backed up by fellow MCs Poison Pen, Suave Sevah and DJ Static. Technique was given a roaring reception by a crowd of over 2,000 as he said he was glad to be able to perform in 'the England that stole two thirds of the world from its rightful owners!'

Stylistically, Immortal Technique follows the hip hop tradition of DJ and MC closely, with strong basslines, sometimes incorporated with samples from classical and Latin music. Musically there are huge differences with The Coup, yet the message shares many lines of convergence, both having been directly involved in the Occupy movement in the US and speaking out against imperialism in the Middle East. Lyrically, Immortal Technique takes no prisoners, often describing the realities of capitalism in graphic and harrowing ways. In Peruvian Cocaine, from the classic Revolutionary Vol. 2 album from 2003, Technique raps:

I'm on the border of Bolivia, working for pennies
Treated like a slave, the coke fields have to be ready
The spirit of my people is starving, broken and sweaty
Dreaming about revolution looking at my machete
But the workload is too heavy to rise up in arms
And if I ran away, I know they'd probably murder my moms

As Technique hinted to the crowd, the more graphic lyrics have gotten the most attention from music 'journalists' and critics, yet as a rapper he is always at pains to point out the brutality of the system that inspired his music. Through songs like Caught in a Hustle, Technique writes of the huge contradictions that imperialism creates in working class communities but which, ultimately, lead to resistance:

From the hoodrats to the rich kids lost in a bubble
Spray painting on the streets and at the subway tunnels
Write it down and remember that we never gave in
The mind of a child is where the revolution begins

In recent years, mainstream hip hop has to a large extent been pacified of its early radicalism and bought off by the music industry – in 2011 20 individuals 'earned' $450 million in 2011 alone – and a small number of artists live lifestyles far removed from the poverty which is growing in poor and black areas of the US. Rappers such as Dr Dre and Jay Z who, despite their scathing social commentary particularly in their early music, are now just as well known as 'entrepreneurs,' cosying up to exploiters and presidents. One thing that separates the 'underground' approach of Immortal Technique from mainstream hip hop is his determination to remain independent of the corporations which control popular music. Between songs, the Manchester audience of black white, Asian and Latino youth heard about his experience with the music business. He said that after recording Revolutionary Vol. 2, he had a meeting with a record executive who pleaded for the album to be made less political. Eventually the executive backed down to saying the company would release the album if Technique removed a track called The 4th Branch, about media support for imperialism. The crowd cheered rapturously as Technique reported that he refused to sign the deal, and launched into the 'offending' lyrics, which include the lines:

They bombed innocent people, tryin' to murder Saddam
When you gave him those chemical weapons to go to war with Iran

Embedded correspondents don't tell the source of the tension
And they refuse to even mention European intervention
Or the massacres in Jenin, the innocent screams
US manufactured missiles, and M-16s

Elsewhere in the song Technique attacks US imperialism for supporting terrorism in Nicaragua, torture at Guantanamo Bay, and for stoking anti-Muslim racism.

Immortal Technique and his co-rappers performed with passion and energy, interacting with the crowd and thanking the workers at the venue, from the bar staff to the cleaners. He drew applause when speaking in defence of women in revolution, showing the baselessness of accusations that hip hop artists are all sexist – 'in every successful revolution, sisters and mothers have fought side-by-side with men.' He broke the venue's curfew by 25 minutes and hung around to speak to fans. In his final message to the crowd he had the audience repeating the chant, 'viva la revolucion', before shouting, 'Free Palestine! Free all political prisoners! Bring all British troops home from Afghanistan! Prosecute the war criminal Tony Blair! Viva la revolucion!'

The Coup's Silk E and Boots Riley
Photography by Jordane Nightingale

FRFI encourages fans and supporters of revolutionary music to get in touch and get involved in revolutionary politics.

Louis Brehony

The new album by The Coup, Sorry to Bother You can be streamed for free at www.bootsriley.tumblr.com

The new album by Immortal Technique, The Martyr can be downloaded for free at www.viperrecords.com

Watch this space for the video of FRFI's interview with Boots Riley of The Coup


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