Revolutionary rappers aim to work like Chavez

March 8, 2013
Hugo Chavez meets RodStarz of Rebel Diaz in the South Bronx. Photos: Eyeburgos Photography

Work Like Chavez
Rebel Diaz and Agent Of Change
Released March 9, 2013

For revolutionary rappers Rebel Diaz, the death of Hugo Chavez on March 5 came as a double blow.

The Venezuelan leader had helped the Chilean hip-hop duo set up their community arts and resistance centre in New York's South Bronx after he visited the area eight years ago.

But the rappers were evicted from that centre just days before Chavez's death, after the landlord had constantly clashed with them over unauthorized graffiti on the building and complaints from tenants.

"We've never had Bush or Obama visit the South Bronx,"
said G1, who fronts the group with his brother RodStarz. "But we had Chavez in the South Bronx in 2005."

During that visit, Chavez impressed residents by recalling obscure facts about each person’s home country. South Bronx Democrat Congressperson José Serrano, who had invited Chavez to the birthplace of hip-hop, said: “We expected, honestly, for him to walk through, say a few words and leave.

"Three and a half hours later, he was still there. ‘What’s the name of your organisation? What do they do? How are you funded? Why did you name it that?’ He did this table by table by table. Then he would quote a poet, artist, politician or historical figure from Panama, Mexico, the Dominican Republic or wherever the person was from.”

Two months after his visit, gallons of heating oil began arriving in the South Bronx, along with money for community projects including Rebel Diaz's resistance centre, which they named RDACBX.

In an outraged column about the centre's closure, radical hip-hop journalist Davey D noted how the centre was valued by the community because they had helped build it themselves.

"The RDACBX is a space in which damn near everyone in that South Bronx neighbourhood where it’s located can lay claim that they had a hand in helping build it," he said.

"I recall Rodstarz explaining how folks who were homeless, but had various trade skillz, were inspired to clean themselves up and proudly put in work. Local youth who were being attracted to the lure of the streets, flipped their lives around and partook in the various workshops and programs put on by Rebel Diaz. Many of those youth eventually became part of the collective and put on workshops themselves.

"Instead of waiting around to be invited to yet another showcase or music convention that left them dissatisfied, RDACBX put on their own landmark convention, South By South Bronx, and invited the pioneers of hip-hop to speak. The RDACBX is where they had former members of the Young Lords, Black Liberation Army and political prisoners speak to standing room only audiences about Black Brown unity. This space was home to countless book readings, movie screenings and epic showcases.

"But as you build community in a city and space where they are trying to keep you marginalised, you can bet that outside forces will try their best to shut it down. You can count on those who find politicised Black and Brown youth doing for self to be something not celebrated but crushed."

Rebel Diaz's approach may also offer hope to Australian Aboriginal communities. Award-winning Australian Aboriginal affairs journalist Chris Graham recently visited the Philippines to investigate the work of Gawad Kalinga, an organisation that helps people build their own homes. He came away convinced that Indigenous Australians building their own communities from scratch was the way forward, as desperate as it may sound.

"One of Gawad Kalinga’s core principles is sweat equity," said Graham. "You want a new home? Then you help build it. And you help build the homes of your neighbours as well.

"The second part of the strategy – helping your neighbour – is a brilliant variation on the sweat equity theme, because apart from the obvious benefit of building an appreciation for your own home, it also builds an appreciation for your neighbour."

As for the way forward following Chavez's death, Rebel Diaz issued a statement. "It is with great sadness that we received the news of President Hugo Chavez's transition to the spirit world," it said.

"Coming a couple of days after the violent shutdown of the RDACBX, our attention now turns to our brothers and sisters in Venezuela, as they fight to defend the ideals and vision laid forth by Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. We are again reminded that the reach of the violent, warmongering agents of imperialism is worldwide, and as such, our resistance must be global.

"Chavez understood this concept of international solidarity, providing discounted heating to the South Bronx - the poorest congressional district in the United States - and eventually creating a social development fund, which sponsored the work of the RDACBX and other community organisations in the area.

"With the financial support of the Bolivarian Revolution under Chavez's leadership, the RDACBX was able to open the Nuestra America Media Center, providing media literacy training to young people in the Bronx, allowing them the tools to critically read mass media, and the infrastructure needed to create alternative community media in the areas of graphic design, music production and video editing.

"For someone whose image and policies were so distorted by complacent mass media bent on portraying him as a dictator, Chavez's support made it clear he understood the importance of community-led media that represents the interests, values and experiences of the people rather than the ruling elite.

"Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution understood that media and culture must be at the forefront of our struggle to transform this unjust society. Like he said when he visited us in the Bronx in 2005, 'Yo soy hip-hop!' ['I am hip-hop!']

"It is this spirit we carry with us as we face the local police state tentacles of the global elite. The continued attacks on hip-hop, young people, immigrants and the poor can no longer be tolerated. CNN and UNIVISION tell us democracy was non-existent in Venezuela under Chavez, but conveniently ignore the drone kill lists, Stop and Frisk, the destruction of the Occupy camps, NDAA [the National Defence Authorisation Act] and other violent forms of political repression in the US.

"Whether through gentrification or global wars of conquest, the 1% and their cronies are moving in quickly to consolidate their power in an era of dwindling resources.

"In the South Bronx, the RDACBX will honour the legacy of Commondante Chavez by continuing our work in building community through the arts; by upholding the values of the Bolivarian Revolution and its defence of the poor and historically marginalised Afro-Indigenous communities; by resisting the attacks of the US police state and proposing new alternatives for revolutionary culture and sustainability.

"To our friends in the South Bronx and beyond, let us sharpen our struggle in memory of those who have come before. If we are to exist, we must resist! La Lucha Sigue! Chavez Vive! Que Viva el pueblo Venezolano! [The struggle continues! Chavez lives! Long Live the Venezuelan people!]"

Just as the strength of feeling for the Bolivarian Revolution has surged with Chavez's passing, so Rebel Diaz have risen from the ashes of RDACBX as fiery as ever. Their spine-tingling new track written in his memory, "Work Like Chavez", was released just days after his passing. It was tentatively titled "¡Pa'lante Comandante!" (a Chavismo phrase meaning "Forward, Commander!"). Both titles are fitting tributes to a man who - in the words of Bolivian President Evo Morales - is "more alive than ever" in death.

I can't front, I'm upset that they took our building
Next thing, the Commandante, man, I know they killed him
There's something going on, I gotta read the signs
Something's telling me that it's about that time
Time to step it up because I still smell sulphur
Still smell the money in this capitalist culture
I'm dedicating verses to my boy Jamil
He's out there in Venezuela frontline, it's real
Hunts Point, New York, 2005
Was when I realised the revolution's so alive
We never had a president come around mine
He brought oil for the poor in the wintertime
He showed love to the Bronx, it's called solidarity
We show love back, ain't no politicians scaring me
Anti-imperialist, till I go delirious
The work is getting serious - that's why they keep fearing us...

The track opens with a rich, haunting, full-blooded vocal that instantly conjours up an image of Chavez. But the track's producer, Carlos Martinez, told Green Left: "The intro sample is by legendary Venezuelan musician and activist Ali Primera. It translates loosely as 'where people die for life, we cannot call them dead. From this moment it is prohibited to cry for them'."

Martinez, a multi-instrumentalist who records under the moniker Agent Of Change, added: "The guitar / cuatro
in the main beat is Venezuelan folk music performed by Simon Diaz, one of the most important figures in Venezuelan folk music and a recipient of 'The Great Ribbon of the Liberator's Order'."

The London-based Martinez, who is also an activist and public speaker, enjoys a large and lively following on Facebook and Twitter. The half-Indian, half-Spanish producer was a great admirer of Chavez's efforts to build international solidarity, calling him "perhaps the most important political leader of our generation".

"The 1990s was a decade of heavy losses for the world's poor and oppressed people," said Martinez. "A period that saw the collapse of most of the socialist countries, the rising dominance of neocolonialism and neoliberalism, and brazen military attacks on countries that refused to conform to the Washington Consensus.

"With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with various changes in military, security and surveillance technology, armed struggle - the traditional means of revolution - was becoming less and less viable.

"It was in this context that Chávez succeeded in the historic task of forging a different path to socialism, against all the odds. He understood that, given the specific circumstances prevailing in Venezuela - in particular the unusually large proportion of progressive people in the military, and the abundance of oil that could be used to raise living standards - and with US attention largely focused on the Middle East, it might just be possible to win power through parliamentary means and use this as a springboard to build genuine popular power.

"It was the creative genius of Hugo Chávez to envision such a path, and it was his relentless courage, determination, strength, honesty, charisma and love for the people that pushed the project forward for 14 years.

"Although the loss of his death will be felt most severely in his native Venezuela, he will also be mourned throughout the world as a true internationalist and anti-imperialist. Without the example - and active assistance - of the Venezuelan revolution, it is doubtful whether Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Argentina would have been able to make the type of progress that they have, turning Latin America into the most hopeful region on our planet in terms of progressive change."

Martinez is only too aware of the media's distortions of Chavez. The musician drew attention in particular to a regular columnist in liberal British newspaper The Independent, noting: "That awkward moment when Owen Jones shoehorns regime change propaganda into a Chavez obit. People like Jones do useful work on certain issues, but anti-imperialists they are not."

In his obituary, Jones wrote: "And then there is the matter of some of Chavez's unpleasant foreign associations – he supported brutal dictators in Iran, Libya and Syria. It has certainly sullied his reputation."

An almost identical line appeared in The Guardian's obituary on Chavez: "Economic failure at home and the cosy relations he had enjoyed with dictators such as Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi would ultimately limit his appeal, even on the international left."

The Guardian, which professes that it "aims to become the world's leading liberal voice", put the boot in further, noting "Chávez's grip on power" and his "so-called 'missions' – populist social programmes". It defined Chavez's '21st-century socialism' as "a vaguely defined hotchpotch of ideas filched from a variety of sources, whose only consistent ingredient was an ever greater concentration of power in the hands of one man... Thuggish, armed civilian groups also swore to defend the revolution."

Jimmy Carter, who won a Nobel prize for his work through the election-monitoring Carter Center, said last year: "As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we've monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world."

But that did not stop The Guardian's obituary concluding: "The debate continued as to whether Chávez could fairly be described as a dictator, but a democrat he most certainly was not."

Such reporting only hammers home the need for community media centres like Rebel Diaz's RDACBX and countless similar centres that Chavez established in his home country. As for whether the death of Chavez and RDACBX will mean an end to such work, note the words of intellectual Noam Chomsky, who was an admirer of Chavez.

"Part of the whole technique of disempowering people is to make sure that the real agents of change fall out of history, and are never recognized in the culture for what they are," said Chomsky. "So it's necessary to distort history and make it look as if Great Men did everything - that's part of how you teach people they can't do anything, they're helpless, they just have to wait for some Great Man to come along and do it for them."

Despite Chavez's enormous charisma and his colossal cult of personality, he was only ever about the people he represented. For them, his death is not an end, but a beginning.

As the music producer known as Agent Of Change put it: "The man is dead, but his legacy is the living, breathing, Bolivarian Revolution. We can only honour him by continuing his work with ever-greater dedication."

In the days following Chavez's death, Rebel Diaz seem to have thrown themselves into their work with ever-greater dedication. It's as if they are channelling the spirit of a man who kept up a gruelling schedule even when he was ravaged by cancer. And the non-stop hip-hoppers have been tweeting out updates on their hyper-activism with the hashtag "#GottaWorkLikeChavez".

Read about and listen to Agent of Change's album with Marcel Cartier, History Will Absolve Us, here.

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