Rebel Diaz rap about activists' 'radical dilemma'

Thursday, February 20, 2014
Rodstarz, left, and G1 of Rebel Diaz.

Radical Dilemma
Rebel Diaz
Released December 4, 2013

Rebel Diaz's much-anticipated debut album tackles a quandary faced by many activists - the "radical dilemma" of trying to change the system while being trapped in it. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward spoke to the Bronx-based activist rap duo, made up of brothers RodStarz and G1.


On your album's title track, "Radical Dilemma", you rap: "My radical dilemma is a bit of a problema, my people like whatever, tryna get the cheddar." You say it was inspired by the book Soledad Brother by jailed Black Panther George Jackson, and being stuck in the system when you're trying to work for radical change. Tell us about the song.

G1: In the foreword to Soledad Brother, Jonathan Jackson Jr - George Jackson's nephew - speaks of the "radical dilemma" his uncle encountered as a federal inmate advocating prison abolition. The nature of this dilemma was how George Jackson was forced, due to his condition, to work towards small prison reforms that bettered the daily lives of him and his fellow inmates, all while still practising an ideology and long-term goal of prison abolition and systemic change. Today, we organise from the perspective of our current reality - an open-air prison police state, where people are drowning in debt and struggling to feed their families and have a roof over their head. How can we attend to our current needs, a circumstance that affects us all, while still building revolution and ideals for systemic change? Therein lies the radical dilemma!

It brought to mind Jeff Schmidt's book Disciplined Minds in which he notes that the net political output of a lot of politically progressive professional people will be right-wing, since the corporations for which they spend most of their time working are neoliberal.

RodStarz: I haven't read the book, but from your question I can see what he's talking about. Nowadays, corporations are pushing this "team mentality". I have friends who work for corporations and talk about their job as "my company" or "we" as if they had a stake in the ownership! I can see how these types of corporate tactics can lead to a more right-wing view. We have even heard of companies telling their employees who to vote for. When you work for corporate America the idea is that you're a robot. Follow orders. Make us lots of money. Over-consume with the money we give you. Repeat.

It also brought to my mind a comment I often hear from non-activists, that they're too busy trying to survive to have any time for activism. Yet then I look at the activists and they're struggling to survive too, but they manage to find the time to try to change things.

G1: Working multiple, low-wage, part-time jobs to feed a family is the reality for many in the US - and this makes it difficult for people to participate in community meetings, rallies, marches etc. That being said, however, the Young Lords or Black Panthers did not receive a grant to start their work in the community. The non-profit NGO [non-government organisation] system here in the US dulls the blade of a social movement by professionalising community work and making it managerial and bureaucratic. what we've done in the Bronx is try to find ways to create autonomous "pockets of resistance" - small spaces where community organising, political education and cultural expression can occur, while also developing fundraising models for self-sustainability. This way, our work is not determined by outside funders.

You're the sons of Chilean activists and you're touring the new album in Chile at the moment. How's that going and how is the current political situation that you're witnessing as you travel around?

RodStarz: The trip is going great! The weather is beautiful, the people are warm and it feels good to be back in our homeland. We have had the honour of performing with Chilean MC Ana Tijoux and Palestinian MC Shadia Mansour in Santiago. We were invited to perform at a huge festival in La Serena with Chico Trujillo. We got some shows and building sessions lined up in the poblaciones [cities, towns, villages] with the young folks doing political organising through Hip-Hop in Santiago. The political situation in Chile is that right-wing President [Sebastián] Piñera is finishing his term and in March, moderate President Michelle Bachelet will take power for the second time. The situation on education still has not been addressed and in March, the students will most likely take the streets again. The attacks on the Mapuche community continue as they keep getting charged with terrorism for defending their land. Among young people there's very little faith in the political parties, right-wing or left-wing, as the supposed democracy of the past 24 years has yielded little change. Post dictatorship, there are still activists getting killed, and the neoliberal economic model is in full swing. You see that there's lots of new money and old money surrounded by a large population of poor people. It will be interesting to see how people react to Bachelet's second time being President - and if that promised change ever comes around.

You've played a festival in Chile in the past called Planeta Rock and said: "It was amazing being in Chile and participating in a festival named after the Afrika Bambaataa track." Your new album track "The Origins" features Bambaataa - tell us about that and your recent celebration of the 40th anniversary of Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation.

G1: Through our community work in the Bronx, we have had the privilege of becoming close to Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation. They have chapters that do great community work in the Bronx, and we respect their history and commitment to the betterment of Hip-Hop culture. We were honoured to rock at the 40th anniversary and share the stage with legends that paved the way for what we do today. The "Origins" track was recorded live at South by South Bronx, a Hip-Hop festival we organised last year which featured Bam, Kool Herc and other pioneers. The quote is dope because he is painting a picture of the context in which Hip-Hop was born.

The lyric in the track "North" on the album flips from Latino immigrants fleeing their homes and "going up north", to the fact that it's due to former US marine corps lieutenant colonel "Mr Oliver North". What do you think of the fact Oliver North still hosts a show on Fox News?

RodStarz: Fuck Fox News! That's what we feel. They lie and are right-wing propaganda. They serve the same interests Oliver North served back then, so nothing they do surprises us.

You have a song on the album you say addresses internal racism in the Latino community - can you tell us about that?

RodStarz: Yeah, the song is called "La Patrulla". It features a really dope MC named King Capo, who is from the Dominican Republic, via Brooklyn. The idea is that there are so many divide-and-conquer tactics being used to divide the black and brown communities here in the US. In New York City, as opposed to Chicago or California, the racial lines are blurred more in that there's a huge population of Afro Latinos/Latinas. In that community - especially the Dominican one - there's a huge case of internal racism. Right now in the Dominican Republic they passed a crazy racist law, TC 168-13, that takes away the citizenship of anybody of Haitian descent. More than 200,000 people will be stateless! This mentality is seen in New York. We don't address it directly in our song, but we do by making our lyrics in Spanish about young black and brown men killed by the police. In Spanish language media, they rarely address when young black men are killed! Univision just gave an exclusive interview to racist murderer George Zimmerman and made him a victim - and never spoke of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old he murdered! The song addressed police activity in our hoods and aims to show we are all under attack!

You say the album's taken two and a half years, yet you left off one of your strongest tracks from that period, "Work Like Chavez", which you released to mark the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez last year. Why?

G1: We love the song - it's one of our favourite beats, but we felt it was a song for a specific moment in history. Throughout the years, we've done many songs responding and reacting to events in the news. We felt this album was more about proposing then reacting, so we tried to fill it with songs that are timeless testaments to love and humanity, rather than specific references to an event in history.

"Work Like Chavez" was produced by London-based musician, writer, speaker and activist Agent Of Change. You've teamed up again with him on one of the album's most infectious tracks, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short". Tell us the song and what you love about Agent Of Change.

G1: Agent of change is the homey! He always sends us his freshest beats and we've had the privilege of working with him the past few years on a number of songs. He's not only a dope musician, but also a deep thinker and an awesome family man. The song's chorus was written by Rodstarz and is the story of our life - not having the ends to get by and falling "a day late and dollar short" - yet always knowing, despite the lack of funds, our human value is what's important.

The hook on "Revolution has come", is: "Revolution has come! Time to pick up the gun!" However, you stress that your "goal with this song is to convey the message that Revolution is Love". It reminds me of hip-hop activist Solomon Commisiong when he says: "I am unremorseful in my views because they are rooted in love for other people and the true equality of all, not just a few." Can you talk about the seeming contradiction of rapping about reaching for your gun while spreading love?

RodStarz: We don't see it as a contradiction. We love our people and community enough that we do feel that if weapons need to be used to defend those ideals of justice and liberation, then that's what needs to be done. However, we also understand that revolution is a process and there's many steps that need to be taken in organising and building community power that come before the taking up of arms. The Zapatistas organized for 10-15 years, if not longer, in the Lacandon Jungle before they ever took up arms in 1994. In the video for "Revolution Has Come" we have kids holding up books during the parts that say, "time to pick up the gun". In this case, the gun is a metaphor for the weapons we can use now! Education! Teaching the young people about the struggles of the past so that they can prepare for the future.

Tell us about the sample from the late, legendary rapper Tupac Shakur that closes "Revolution Has Come": "I wanna say stop the violence, I wanna say the violence ain't good. But you can't ask me to tell 'em stop the violence, 'cause I can’t tell nobody who's hungry what to do, unless I'm ready to feed 'em."

G1: That sample is from an interview he did in prison in 1994. The interview and quote reveals a maturing Tupac, who was in tune both with the ideals of the Black Panther Party as well as the streets and ghettos across the US. To us, it's a brilliant quote, because it speaks to the idea that without justice, there can be no peace. If folks are hungry, they will do what they have to do in order to survive. We can say stop the violence - but what's more violent? A gun? Or a criminal system that denies equal basic access to food, clothing and shelter?

Some might say Tupac has left a mixed legacy. His parents were active members of the Black Panther Party and Tupac's image went from angst to gangsta. What does Tupac and his family mean to you?

RodStarz: We identify with Tupac in respects to his "dilemma" of merging the worlds of his family history and the reality of the streets of the US during the violent 1990s.

You have a great visual side as well - tell us about director Sense Hernandez and Beast Factory Films.

G1: Sense is a beast! We met him in 2011 through artist friends of ours from Chicago and have been working together ever since. He has an amazing eye for detail, is a super technical sound editor and always manages to realise the vision of our crazy ideas. In the first two videos we did with him, we have dia de los muertos [day of the dead] face painting, Barack Obama robbing a corner store... all this while always contributing and telling us honestly when our idea is toooo crazy!

In talking about your new song "Gain the World", you've said it's cool to be carefree but you've also got to be conscious. Want to expand on that?

RodStarz: There was a hit song out here last summer called "I Ain't Worried Bout Nuthin". This is not a direct response track, but we do address it, in that living the conditions we are living under, it is downright irresponsible to say you ain't worried about nuthin! In The Bronx, kids are getting killed and stopped and frisked by NYPD [the New York Police Department] left and right, gentrification is taking away what little housing was available, schools are looking more and more like prisons, and we gonna act like everything is cool? The rap music industry and capitalism in general is pushing an individualist agenda. We live in the "selfie" era - and we just want to show an alternative. Like G1 says in the song: "I worry bout me, but I worry bout you, cuz I can't succeed if you don't do, too."

Tell us about the remix of your acclaimed song "Which Side Are You On?" featuring dead prez and Rakaa Iriscience - and how you updated it.

G1: We recorded stomps from a room full of people at our community centre. We recorded a 10-piece protest marching band called the rude mechanical orchestra and then sampled a live remix performance of the song featuring Grupo Raices, an Andean folk group based in California. We wanted to keep familiar elements of the beat while providing a refreshed sound to welcome the featuring MCs on the track. Rakaa had heard the original and reached out to us during the MySpace days to tell us he loved the song - so we had always wanted to put him on the remix. And of course we had to put our comrades dead prez on there to speak truth, like only they can!

"We The Movement" features Kalae Nouveau. You've said: "We believe that the inclusion of women into Hip-Hop is so important – we don’t believe in the misogynistic lyrics that corporate America hip-hop pushes." Tell us more about that and your inclusion of Kalae Nouveau.

RodStarz: Women have been a part of Hip-Hop since the start, from graffiti writer Pink, to Cindy Campbell - which is DJ Kool Herc's sister - having the idea to throw the first ever Hip-Hop party, to Pebbly Poo, Roxanne Shante, to Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Rah Digga, Bahamdia, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill, etc. But we can't sit here and state that they have been given equal footing in Hip-Hop - just the fact that we are even answering this question verifies that. But that's what capitalism and patriarchy have imposed on all of society - not just Hip-Hop. I think that having women in Hip-Hop, like having women in the guerillas or part of a movement, is super important and necessary! It gives balance. Sadly, the rap music industry has silenced these powerful voices and you don't hear many dope female MCs get the play and recognition they deserve any more. Kalae is super dope - she's like a younger sister to us. We met her in 2009 and she supported the RDACBX [Rebel Diaz's community centre] work we were doing, she performed with us in Atlanta and Fort Benning, Georgia at the Shut Down the School of the Americas Protests and she came with us to the US Social Forum in Detroit in 2010. She can sing and rap with the best of them! We also recommend Aja Black of The Reminders, Narubi Selah, Shadia Mansour and - one of our favourite MCs - Ana Tijoux from Chile.

"Get On The Floor" has that 4/4 stomp about it. You came to the Bronx from Chicago. Tell us what you still love about Chicago House music and that scene.

RodStarz: In Chicago, I'm not sure you can call House music a "scene" - it's just everywhere! You can't avoid it. Growing up in Chicago as a Hip-Hop head, half the time you were at House music parties, waiting for a couple of Hip-Hop songs to get played, plus all the girls were at the House music parties! In Chicago they had Hip House, Ghetto House, Deep House, etc. Some of the first lyrics I memorised were by a Hip House MC named Fast Eddie. The first time I heard [Hip-Hop pioneer] KRS-One's name was when I heard Chicago Hip House MC Kool Rock Steady dissing him in a track saying KRS-One you aint nobody! Ha ha ha. It worked in reverse 'cause then I found out who KRS was and liked Hip-Hop that much more! Nowadays Chicago has Juke music and Footworking - a super dope street dance that the young folks do. To me it's all Hip-Hop - just different regional adaptations.

You use music website Bandcamp rather than Spotify to distribute your music. Like to tell us why?

G1: We use Bandcamp because of its easy interface and analytics. Also we can sell our music or give it away or even have people name their own price in exchange for their email. We definitely are looking into our music being available in other venues like Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, Pirate Bay etc. Ha ha ha ha ha.

Listen to and buy the album here. Read a GLW interview with Agent Of Change here.

From GLW issue 999