Sexism gives hip-hop a bad rap, says radical rapper
History Will Absolve Us
Marcel Cartier and Agent Of Change
Released August 20
"Misogyny is a huge problem in hip-hop," says radical rapper Marcel Cartier. "Even 'progressive' artists often fall victim to being perpetrators of sexist lyrics."
The empathetic emcee hits chauvinists where it hurts on his new album, History Will Absolve Us. On the plaintive, piano-driven "Never The Answer" he raps:
One in four women face domestic violence
It's a shame that so many feel the need to stay silent
And worse even still many blame themselves
Like whatever they did justifies this hell
But there's never an excuse for this sick abuse
It can be physical or it's verbal too.
"All men in this backward capitalist society have sexism within them," Cartier tells Green Left. "But the goal must be to transform ourselves as much as possible in the process of trying to transform the world."
Carlos Martinez, the multi-instrumentalist who wrote the music on Cartier's album, is equally outspoken on the issue. "Misogyny is a major problem within hip-hop, as it is in society in general," he tells Green Left.
"I think that the misogynistic language that is so socially acceptable today is an awful lot like the 'scientific racism' that was widely acceptable 50 years ago."
Musician and activist Martinez, who is better known by his musical moniker, Agent Of Change, is unequivocal about what has to be done.
"We have to move above this bullshit," he says. "Hip-hop is often very tuned into race issues while ignoring other dimensions of oppression. We have to unite around a platform of opposition to ALL forms of oppression."
History Will Absolve Us tackles many forms oppression head-on, from war and empire to inequality and globalisation, with spine-tingling results. Both artists have benefited from being raised with a more worldly outlook than most.
"My dad's from north India - the Punjab - and mum was born in England, but of Spanish descent," says the 34-year-old Martinez. "I grew up in west London with my mum and grandmother. I was lucky to go to school with a lot of people from different national and ethnic backgrounds - especially African-Caribbean and South Asian - so I was absorbing a lot of different cultural influences from a young age."
Cartier's upbringing was perhaps even more eye-opening. "I was born in 1984 in Heidelberg, West Germany, to a Finnish mother and American father, who was at that time working for the US Army," he says.
"Because of this, my childhood was spent on US military bases both in Germany and England. My French name comes from my father's side of the family, as my great-grandfather had moved from Canada to the US."
Cartier says he began writing songs in England at the age of 14, influenced by highbrow hip hoppers such as Dead Prez, KRS-One and Talib Kweli. "These rappers helped me to challenge the ideology that I had thus far been instilled with," he says.
"I began to challenge the narrative about the 'greatness' of the United States. My art began to reflect this change in worldview more and more through the years. In 2008, I completely broke with my military background by moving to New York City, to not only further pursue my hip-hop career, but to become a part of the revolutionary movement."
It was a move that also eventuated in Cartier's arrest. "'99 to 1' on the album is a song that was influenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement," he says. "I directly participated in this in New York City, including the October 1 mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge - I was detained for 12 hours. The song paints a very optimistic picture of the protest movement in the US."
His move to New York also saw him team up with revolutionary rappers and activists Rebel Diaz, who are no strangers to arrest themselves. The children of Chilean activists, Rebel Diaz appear on one of the album's many goosebump-garnering moments, "Start The Revolution".
The song delivers one of Cartier's copious killer lines: "I'm about as American as you can get, I rep the people, you rep the one per cent." But just how patriotic is he seen by his military father?
"We obviously have diametrically opposed points of view," says the rapper. "But there was never really any pressure from my father to follow in his footsteps, so I don't think he was necessarily disappointed when I chose not to join the military."
Cartier also emphatically urges others not to join up, putting the forces firmly in the crosshairs of his lethal lines and rapid-fire delivery in "Be All You Can Be".
"'Be All You Can Be' was the slogan of the US Army until 2006," he says. "Instead of being a pawn for corporate interests, I am encouraging young people to ‘be all they can be’ by rebelling against the system of degradation."
But the song also expresses empathy with those who sign up to the services - a rare insight no doubt influenced by Cartier's upbringing. Guest emcee Intikana raps:
I've spoken to policemen
Had a heart to heart with them
By a seat aside spoke without the harsh venom
And all they really want is bread to feed their family
The force wasn't their first choice but to be secure financially
It's tempting when you've never had a plan B
To retire with a pension at the age of 50.
But despite Cartier’s concessions, Martinez is probably seen as far less of an errant child. The producer, whose mother and father were college teachers, says: "Both my parents were - and still are - traditional Marxist-Leninists, so the political influence has always been there.
"Although I don't have quite the same politics as my parents, I appreciate the fact that I was brought up to question the dominant narrative."
There were also "a lot of books around", which made Martinez the avid reader he still is. The musician is a public speaker and talented writer with a lot to say, as can be seen on his blog, Beat Knowledge. So why doesn't he rap?
"I've never really tried it," he says. "I'd probably sound stupid - you need a cool voice. Also, I can write articles and stuff easily enough, but the abstraction of poetry doesn't come naturally to me."
Cartier not only has the voice and poetry, he also has melodies that can mould themselves into listeners' minds. "Never Be A Slave", a curse on colonialism that name-checks Aboriginal Australians, shackles itself to the subconscious like a pair of unbreakable manacles.
Unlike most emcees, Cartier also recognises the chain that links racism and sexism. "While sexism is truly a problem in hip-hop, I would identify the primary problem as being hip-hop's hijacking by the white power structure," he says.
"It is that structure that aims to further perpetuate misogyny."
Support the artists by buying the album or listen to it and download it for free below...
MARCEL CARTIER TELLS GREEN LEFT ABOUT SOME OF THE KEY SONGS ON THE ALBUM...
"Get Your Hands Off Africa"
"This song speaks to the exploitation of Africa, both in colonial times and today under neo-colonialism. It points to the fact that the development of Europe came as a consequence of the pillage and rape of Africa. It addresses the role of AFRICOM in the US agenda to assert dominance over the continent through puppet regimes, and the demonisation campaign against governments that dare to be independent, such as ZANU in Zimbabwe."
"Unoccupy the World"
"This song touches on the US wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Libya, and the propaganda war that has long been waged against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The final verse from guest artist Rodstarz of Rebel Diaz addresses the war being waged against the black and brown community INSIDE of the US. By tying together domestic and international issues, we strive to make the connections between the lack of basic necessities in our communities and the aggressive posture of the US ruling class toward the oppressed peoples of the planet."
"Hands off Syria"
"This song has been quite controversial. It was never written to be a 'Pro-Assad' song, but rather to present a message of anti-imperialism without exception, and to present a more balanced picture of the situation on the ground in Syria. The 'balance of forces' that I speak to aims to ask the question: if the current government falls, what will fill the vacuum? Will it be progressive? Or will it be a neo-colonial proxy regime?"
"History Will Absolve Us"
"This song is completely unapologetic for standing up for one's convictions and principles, regardless of whether or not that view is particularly popular at the moment, even WITHIN the left. The second verse calls out segments of the left who have been complicit in the re-colonisation of Libya by siding with a reactionary proxy army."
AGENT OF CHANGE TELLS GREEN LEFT ABOUT HIS FAVOURITE HIP HOP BOOKS...
"I'm a book person - I generally read for a couple of hours a day, so I get through quite a lot of them. In terms of hip-hop, my favourites are Jeff Chang's 'Can't Stop Won't Stop - a brilliant history of hip-hop; MK Asante Jr's 'It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop' - dealing with the social, political and cultural issues connected with the hip-hop generation; and, perhaps, Billy Wimsatt's 'No More Prisons', which is a fascinating, old and opinionated book about organising around the hip-hop generation. Bakari Kitwana and Michael Dyson have written some very interesting stuff too. Believe it or not, I also thought Jay Z's 'Decoded', which he wrote in collaboration with the brilliant Dream Hampton, was really insightful."
Carlos Martinez, also known as Agent of Change, speaks in London this year.
"99 to 1".
"Never Be A Slave"
"Get Your Hands Off Africa"
Marcel Cartier talks to RT.