Marcel Cartier gets his rap lines from the frontline

Rapper, cameraman, activist and speaker Marcel Cartier.
August 6, 2014

Revolutionary Minded 4
Marcel Cartier
Released July 26, 2014
http://bit.ly/1qYcIQ7

US rapper Marcel Cartier's lines usually ring out with the clarity of a clarion call - and the messages on his latest album are as loud and clear as ever. As he tells Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward, much of the material comes from first-hand experience with struggles around the world.

Whereas most activists stay up with world politics via the non-corporate media, you go one step further, travelling to the epicentre and immersing yourself in the struggles in person. Tell us where you've been since your last album. How do you fund such travels?

Since the last album was released in 2012, I not only continued writing songs but immersed myself in the world of journalism. I worked with RT for 18 months - I didn't do any stand-up reporting, only video work - which meant the opportunity to travel to a number of places I could only previously have dreamt about. These included Venezuela, Turkey, Iraq, Ukraine, Egypt and seemingly countless other destinations. One of the greatest honours I’ve ever been given was the opportunity to be in Caracas, Venezuela for the funeral of El Comandante Hugo Chavez. It was no doubt bitter sweet, because I had been wanting to see the Bolivarian Revolution first-hand for at least the past ten years, but never would have believed it if I was told my first experience there would be for the tragic loss of my generation’s foremost revolutionary and humanist statesman. To see lines of several miles long where people would wait for half a day just to catch a five second glimpse of Chavez’s body was so inspiring. My travels to places like Turkey and Egypt allowed me to be in the centre of the world at those particular times, when the protests in Taksim Square and Tahrir Square were at their height. In the case of Turkey, it was quite an intense experience as protesters were getting hit with water cannon and teargas merely for marching through the streets of Istanbul. However, that almost felt like child’s play after going to Cairo the next month (during Morsi’s ouster) and having two sides square off with live ammunition. As a journalist, you have to maintain a degree of neutrality and at least quasi-objetivity in the way you not only report but behave yourself on the ground. I would have acted and taken on very different tasks had I been there as an activist. Sometimes, you can’t fathom the thought that you’ve actually been somewhere until you leave, or look back at the video footage you took and say “wow, that really happened”. In some ways, these experiences were great training in the art of making an uprising happen.

The song "Gaza Fights Back" from your album has proven timely, considering the intensification of the conflict there as your album was released on July 26. Tell us about how the song came about and the intent behind it.

“Gaza Fights Back” was actually written in December of 2012 during the last round of genocidal bombing by the Zionist forces in the Gaza Strip. Due to problems with being able to record it at that time, I put the song on the back burner and only recorded it in June of this year. Sadly, it’s one of those songs that continues to be relevant, although I didn’t realise just HOW relevant it would prove in the coming weeks after it was finished. Part of the motivation behind the first verse is to give full, unfledged and unwavering support to the axis of resistance in its fight against Zionism. This means supporting the forces of Syria, Hezbollah, Iran — who I may not have complete ideological unity with — in addition to the communist forces such as the PFLP that I politically identify with. I wanted to make the point that slogans such as “Free Palestine! Free Syria!” are non-sensical and misguided at best and aid imperialism at their worst. It’s akin to putting up the Palestinian flag on the one hand and putting up a Zionist banner in the other. If you support the Palestinian right of resistance, you must support the REAL forces who are actually aiding this resistance in deed and not just in words. What good is it to have some romantized, idealised notion of a “pure” Palestinian revolution? This is where far too many forces who are part of the so-called Palestinian solidarity movement fall tragically short, in my view. Lazy liberalism takes the place of any far-sighted and developed analysis of the world situation. Although a clear shift has taken place in the west in regards to the issue of Palestine generally — in that not as many people are falling for the Zionist public relations machine’s lies —people can be tricked into liquidating their good position on Palestinian liberation by falling into the “proxy war” trap that demonises all the forces who are the biggest advocates of Palestine’s freedom struggle.

Since 2007, Gaza's been besieged
and it's men, women, children who suffering
now, politically I don't see eye to eye with Hamas
but in truth son, they're the ones resisting assault
any principled revolutionary mind
should close ranks with the forces who waging the fight
Syria and Hezbollah are down for the cause
the Popular Front remains consistently armed
resistance is aided by the weapons from Iran
brought into Gaza Strip via the Sudan
as long as the occupation and siege go on
you could never really argue that armed struggle is wrong
how can Israel claim self-defense
when it's whole existence is simply premised on theft?
my solidarity is with the people who fight
to expel apartheid is a most basic right

You're donating proceeds from that particular track to Existence Is Resistance - tell us why you chose that organisation in particular.

I’ve worked with Existence Is Resistance (EIR) a great deal in New York, London and Palestine itself. In fact, my first encounters with Palestine solidarity organising in the United States led me into contact with EIR, through their comrades Harrabic Tubman and Ayman El-Sayed back in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead. My first hip-hop shows while living in NYC were organised under the EIR banner and in 2010, I was able to participate in the “Bus Stop Hip-Hop Tour” to the West Bank along with Shadia Mansour, Lowkey, M1 from Dead Prez, and Mazzi. Not only was it a tour, but our main aim was to engage in meaningful solidarity with the youth of Palestine by facilitating workshops in many of the refugee camps. EIR continues its work in Palestine now by delivering needed supplies, including mobile phones, to victims of the Israeli bombing campaign who have been moved to hospitals in Jerusalem. It’s a very tiny — though tangible - way that I feel that I can contribute in some way beyond merely feeling disgusted that I hold a US passport.

In the song you rap:

All of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza
is really Palestine and only one state could solve this
and no puppet government could relinquish
the right of return home for the victims
all the refugees scattered across the earth
deserve their homeland back now for what it's worth

What do you think of the argument - serious or not - that Israel should be relocated to the US?

Well, on the one hand it would certainly make a lot more sense given that the US is the principle financier of the Zionist project today. In fact, it’s quite safe to say that Israel is really nothing more than a US military base in the middle of the Arab world. Its existence is completely dependent on the over $8 million in military aid it receives from Obama & Co daily, and it would no doubt cease to exist if this aid stopped flowing. That being said, once imperialism no longer needs Zionism — for example, if it’s successful in propping up enough proxy regimes in the region — then we may soon enough see a distancing of the US from Israel. We’re already seeing massive US funding to puppet forces like the Palestinian Authority that’s rebranded itself the State of Palestine. Now although this is a puppet government of Israel as well in some ways, it does show that the inevitable is the inability of Israel to keep up its existence as an ethno-supremacist settler state. As world opinion changes as well — as was the case with apartheid South Africa — there will have to be some kind of replacement to the apartheid system that then gets advocated by imperialism, although it will of course differ from the society that revolutionaries advocate. Palestine requires national liberation the right of return principally, and then there can be some talk of a single, secular, democratic state for all who wish to live there. I don’t think any real talk of re-locating Israel to the US is to be taken very seriously, but at least in principle the US SHOULD be willing to do so given its overseeing of the project as a tentacle of its empire.

You also travelled to North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK. You wrote an interesting analysis and song - "Bomb Threat" - about it, which is included on the album. What would you say to those who would accuse you of coming from a reductionist "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" perspective?

It’s interesting that among the left, and even within the left in circles or groupings that are generally very solid on understanding the world situation, the question of the DPRK bring about loads of confusion. The demonisation campaign against the Koreans in the imperialist media is the strongest of all the campaigns they currently have ongoing, in my view. It’s possible to say almost ANYTHING about the DPRK and have it believed, because of its perceived reclusiveness. I could talk about my experiences in Korea for days on end, but to be short I would say that out of all the places I’ve been in the world — and this includes revolutionary states such as Cuba and Venezuela — the DPRK was by far the most impressive. Pyongyang itself is without a doubt the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited. The people of Korea — and there’s no way they’re putting on an act for foreigners — are the most genuine and humane I’ve ever come across. As far as the political side of things, we should note that the so-called isolationism of the DPRK is a myth. Their system of Juche — or self-reliance — doesn’t mean they want to exist away from everybody else, but that doctrine was a merger of their national liberation struggle with socialist ideas that was especially relevant due to them not wanting to be sucked into joining either the Soviet or the Chinese camps during the Sino-Soviet split. The fraternal ties of the DPRK to the countries so many western lefties openly love, such as Cuba, are undeniable. Fidel himself spoke of Kim Il Sung’s internationalism in delivering countless rifles to the Cubans during the missile crisis and not charging a dime. The DPRK unwaveringly supports the Palestinian liberation struggle, and has come out in full solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian government against imperial subversion. The Koreans are fully aware of the need for increased cultural ties to solidarity movements across the world, so we will continue to see these bridges built in the future. Above all, my message regarding DPRK is that if you’re not believing the lies and slanders about the socialist countries or socialism in general, why fall for it when it comes to Korea?

I'm turning on the news and I'm seeing all this bullshit
Conservatives and liberals are yappin' all that useless
even most you leftists are spewing your excuses
talkin' all that noise, "North Korea acting ruthless"
Imagining scenarios, "oh, they gonna nuke us!"
the truth is, you got no context to your rumors
backward positioning of who is the aggressor
who is on whose border with an arsenal of weapons
who controls the military of the country next to it
who is self-defending, who is acting negligent
they like to paint the north as a kingdom, prison camp
that is quite ironic when the number one prison land
is really my own country, the U.S. imprisons more
than any other country in world history before
and that you can't deny, but still I'm sure you'll try it
reality is simple, Washington is the real tyrant

Your song about white privilege, "White Like Me" was inspired by the book of the same name by Tim Wise, after the book was recommended by the guy who has produced the music on your album, Carlos Martinez, also known as Agent Of Change. Tell us the main things you learnt from that book.

Wise’s book is a personal narrative, so in some ways it wasn’t so much about learning from him, but in simply being able to connect instances where he recognised his white privilege and instances in my life where I’ve been conscious of that. As an example, during the hip-hop tour to Palestine that I went on in 2010, the majority of the participants were held at Israel border control for several hours. This includes U.S. passport holders of Arab descent. For me, though, it was as easy as marching up the desk and proclaiming just how thrilled I was to be in Israel! I don’t think it would have worked out so well if I was Arab or an African-America, even. The conversation about white privilege is an important one, because it really affects every aspect of society. I have no doubt that I’ve probably received some invitations to speak before on account of my whiteness, which is seen as somehow a mark of distinction or authority. It’s something that constantly needs to be checked in my own mind, as the pull of bourgeois society is incredibly strong on all of us.

I'm at the frat house, don't you, don't you know
I'm in here with my peoples, my motherfucking bros
I got white friends, black friends, Mexicans;
The legal ones, of course, man the party's sweltering
I even see some people of terrorist descent
But I know they the good ones, they innocent
Anyone in here, try to do some dope
Man I bought a half key of fucking coke
I got the hookup, my cousin supplied it
But if they ask, imma keep that shit on silent
We in the back, snorting up thats how we do
Ah, the cops at the door, what the fuck do we do?
We got; Kareem, Jamal and an Estevez
I thought next thing, they comin' for my fucking neck
But then I placed the others weren't dressed right
Sometimes you need a suit and tie, then you outta sight

Most rappers not only don't have much to say, they're also pretty unclear in what they're saying, yet you have a very clear vocal delivery. Is that something that comes naturally or something you deliberately strive for?

I wouldn’t really agree that most rappers don’t have a lot to say. I certainly think that most rappers who are put in the limelight or on your Top 40 radio stations don’t really have much to say — except for regurgitating ideological propaganda for the ruling class that takes the form of sexism and individualism. However, most hip-hop artists don’t get that radio play or mainstream attention, so their message remains underground. Personally, I do make an attempt for my vocal delivery to be very clear and for the message that I put across to be delivered very simply. The fact that I’ve also done probably nearly as much public speaking as performing certainly helps in this. To some degree, it might be a bit “natural”, but like anything else it needs to be practised and is something that anybody could learn, really.

You address the appalling suicide statistics from homophobic bullying in "Bully Me No More". Is the song autobiographical? Homophobia is still rife in hip-hop, even among so-called progressive artists, isn't it? What's your take on it?

No, the song isn’t autobiographical, but I wanted to touch of the issue of bullying — and homophobia, as well. Even myself as an artist who has always tried to touch of issues that are neglected, I have to make a personal self-criticism and admit that I was probably a bit scared to touch the LGBT question for a long time. Yeah, I’ve payed lip service for the need for LGBT liberation to be a cornerstone of a socialist political program in the United States or Britain, but with the rifeness of homophobia in hip-hop, as you put it, I didn’t address it sooner in a way that I should have. But again, I won’t blame artists for being who they are — it’s necessary to take aim at the system that perpetuates these views. For instance, I don’t hate Nicki Minaj, but I definitely hate the people who OWN Nicki Minaj, who make enormous profits from pumping that capitalistic poison into the minds of our young people. Artists come up in the world and in the music scene and feel like if they’re to be successful, they have to act a certain way and rap about certain things. When we take state power is when we can really begin talking about transforming the ideological apparatuses that include culture.

I'm 13 years old and I feel out of place
my friends talkin' 'bout all the girls they chase
sometimes I laugh and I try to pretend
like I'm part of the crew, just the same as them
but one of them asked who do I like
I just froze up and said, "I might...
...um, go for her, um, or maybe her....well I really don't know"
then the room got awkward
suddenly everybody was laughin'
the look on my face man, I'm sure it was tragic
I closed my eyes as I waited for them
are they gonna call me what I'm feelin' within?
"Haha, you a fag!" "Haha, dude you gay!"
I couldn't think of anything but to walk away
I went home and I cried my eyes out
why was I the one born to have to hide out?

Your song "I'm a Socialist" is one our readers will particularly relate to. Tell us about it.

I found it necessary to very boldly and affirmatively proclaim to the world that not only should be be saying “fuck the system”, which a lot of so-called conscious rap does, but we should be offering ideological clarity and insight into what the solution is. Personally, I think that most of what’s referred to as revolutionary hip-hop is a joke. It’s a joke not so much because of the artists, but because we are attempting to build a revolutionary culture in the absence of a really viable or strong revolutionary movement. We can’t build this culture in the abstract. I’ve always tried to link my music to the political movements that I’ve been involved in. Otherwise, I’m nothing but a fraud and what does my music really accomplish other than make people feel “militant” or “radical”. I know I have to go much further myself in this regard. At the same time, I don’t think that rappers or artists should be looked to for political leadership, but this in the unfortunate reality of our scene today because our movements tend to be rather impotent.

Some think rebelling is itself just enough
like ideology and theory isn't relevent and such
to be real though, that is paramount to our death
a reactionary, suicidal ending to our steps
in direction of full-on freedom's attainment
we need it to be present for the system's arraignment
the system's arrangement is not the end of the time
but we need to badly figure out a way to organise
productive and effective, not just individual
if we can't get it right, then life will remain critical
art is not the revolution, art can play a part
as in spreading ideology, but that is just a start
'cause theory without practice is on par with inaction
on par with some bullshit, on par with just slackin'
and we don't need no saviours, what we need are soldiers
the disciplined and selfless gonna turn this system over

Finally, tell us about "Hands Off Syria 2".

This was written during the run-up to what looked like DIRECT US military action in Syria. It was clear that their proxy armies, namely the Free Syrian Army, were failing miserably. Obama pressed for direct military confrontation, but ultimately the ruling-class was far too divided for it to be given the green light. The song was written to analyse precisely the fact that US imperialism has entered a new stage in which it generally prefers OTHERS to do the dying on the ground rather than send in its own forces to engage directly.

They always need a pretense, they need an excuse
but these re-runs are played out, a shame if you're fooled
how many times you gon' fall for the same old script?
buy in to the war propaganda they print
it defies common sense, any logic at all
to think the Syrian state would at all be involved
in chemical attacks at the moment inspectors
had entered the country, like they just that reckless
the red line was crossed? that was months ago
when the rebels used sarin gas, but that was OK though
I guess the beheadings and the burning of churches
falls under "democracy", you fuckers are worthless
I'm ashamed of this country, there's nothing in common
with me and my government, the only bombing
that I will condone is against DC
and you can bury this whole fuckin' system six feet deep

Hear and buy the album here. Read a GLW interview about Marcel's upbringing in a military family here.
The views expressed are those of the artist. Read GLW's coverage of Syria here and North Korea here.

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