When I mentioned to my friends that I might be interviewing Immortal Technique, the response was overwhelming. Everyone seemed to have an issue or question they wanted to hear the legendary MC address. During the nearly two year span I've been writing this column, I can't remember getting so much positive feedback about a potential story idea - a powerful testament to Tech's position as a respected voice for social justice in the hip-hop community.
Out of all the requests I received, I was particularly moved by one. My friend Lupe Pimental mentioned that Immortal Technique's "Poverty of Philosophy" had been the soundtrack to her personal initiation into activism. Lupe has been a big inspiration to me since 2011, when I saw her sacrifice her freedom while protesting a racist anti-immigration bill that was signed into law by then-Governor Mitch Daniels. Lupe and five other students were aggressively arrested by Indiana State Police while peacefully assembled in Daniels' office, simply hoping to explain how the bill would make college tuition fees unaffordable for undocumented youth.
So it only seemed fair to invite Lupe to address Tech herself as I headed to the Vogue to interview the MC before his Thursday night appearance last week. During our thirty minute talk Tech pontificated like a hip-hop Noam Chomsky, backing up his theories of racial equality and working class liberation with arcane historical facts.
NUVO: I write a lot about international issues in this column, so I wanted to ask about your 2008 trip to Afghanistan. You traveled there with Omeid International to help facilitate the opening of an orphanage in Kabul. What did you take away from this experience on a personal level?
Immortal Technique: I had been approached about doing this sort of project in a lot of other potential areas. The thing that triggered this was the people at Omeid International were actually from Afghanistan. They had the ability to facilitate the trip in ways that would have been impossible otherwise.
I wanted to set a precedent and show people if we can be successful in an area with the type of opposition you find in Afghanistan, what's to stop other people? We did this without any help, I didn't check in to any embassy and I didn't ask anyones permission to do this shit.
For me that trip was the ultimate trump card and I'm not looking for props from people. I think all forms of altruism are born ironically from some need to feel loved and wanted and embraced. Also ironically, I think all forms of selfishness and greed are justified through the idea that you're helping people. "I run a sweatshop but if I didn't have a sweatshop these people wouldn't have a job. They would starve and their economy would collapse." As if owning a million fresh water lakes and offering someone in the desert a cup of piss to drink makes you generous. You're not a humanitarian, you're not a charity and you've got no swagger to educate anybody. You are just taking advantage of downtrodden people.
It was interesting to see the monuments they left to the people who tried to conquer them. There were Russian armored cars and tanks and Taliban personnel carriers that were destroyed and left on the side of the road. Kind of as a guide to tell people, "you came here but you were not able to conquer us. We are the unbroken people."
But there's a catch 22 to that thinking. You are so willing to fight to the death to overthrow every oppressor that comes in, but in the process you will literally decimate the next two or three generations of doctors and lawyers, artists and musicians. The people that basically create Afghan culture have been wiped out.
When I look at that it brings me back to the foundation of what people were struggling for in the first place. I've seen many rebel groups that started out with a quasi-leftist view but then ended up confronting the economic reality of running a revolution and before you know it they are narco-terrorists. Oh yeah, you're for the people my nigga? But you sell cocaine and heroin? It's like if I was rapping about all this positive shit but at the end of the night I was robbing old ladies and date-raping school children. It negates all the good.
Obviously we heard horror stories from people. We went to Bin Laden's old hideout, we ran into people who were not friendly with us being there. But they were forced to acknowledge that we were not there as part of any government. We weren't trying to takeover or American-ize anybody. That wasn't the purpose, the purpose was to say we want to give you the ability to learn your own history. Revolutionaries don't talk to the people they talk with the people. It wasn't like I went there to bring them freedom, but I found freedom among them. Everywhere I went I learned something new, not just about the area but about myself.
It humbled me as a human being. I looked at all the things I had that I took for granted, all the people I had in my life. I thought about people here who bitch about not having the food they like to eat, when people there don't have food. You complain because you grew up without a father, go to an orphanage and see someone who grew up without a mother or father. It took me going to Afghanistan to really understand this.
NUVO: You travel a lot. During your trips to Afghanistan or Haiti do you have time to soak up any of the local music culture?
Immortal Technique: In Afghanistan they still had cassette tapes. I can't necessarily rock that. But it was interesting to hear the sounds they had, the instruments they used, the way they sang about love and the way their souls were torn. I was impressed and I found it ennobling.
Haiti was less violent than Afghanistan, but I saw more poverty if you could imagine that. Not to say that Afghanistan is not poor, it is very poor. When I went to Haiti it was shortly after the disaster. I saw people lined up for miles to fill up a one liter container of water. People were living in tent cities, four or five families living in one tent. Disease is rampant, there were outbreaks of cholera. That shit is from the 19th century. People are dying of diseases that could be prevented if they had gone to CVS in Indianapolis.
We did a show in Haiti with a lot of local hip-hop artists, myself, Cormega and Styles P. They showed us a lot of love. I speak a little French. I could communicate and they were really grateful.
NUVO: You say a lot of things the government doesn't like. You visit a lot of places the government prefers American citizens don't visit. I'm curious if you catch any flak or feel paranoid, particularly in light of all the NSA scandals?
Immortal Technique: I don't know about paranoia, but it's worth having a healthy amount of concern. But I'm not going to allow that to deter what I do. I'm not at home building a dirty bomb. I'm not trying to destroy America.
I want to demonstrate that the first Americans will not be taken for granted. We may not run America, but we make America run. Spanish was spoken on this side of the world before English was. There's a gigantic history of indigenous people here that never bowed to the Aztecs, never bowed to the Spaniards and never bowed to the Americans.
I want Americans to understand that this country was built on stolen land. For instance, look at the indigenous indians in Ohio. They were allies with the British during the war, yet when the British lost the war they ceded that territory to America. How? That shit didn't belong to you.
When the Mexicans lost their war with America, they ceded territory in California, New Mexico and Arizona that technically belonged to Native American people that had never been conquered. The Yaqui people had never been conquered - not even by the Aztecs. They fucked the Aztecs up and sent them home.
Whenever I travel I'm able to have these conversations with people. I'm able to open the door to individuals. I'm able to go to people and say it wasn't just black people that were slaves back in the day. A lot of white people came to America as indentured servants. They worked all day in the sun, and what did they have? Not a lot of melanin in their skin - so their back was white and their necks were red. An obvious tribute to their status as working class individuals. A plantation master is not going to marry his daughter to any of these poor white trash. He doesn't look at you as an equal, he uses you as a buffer between him and the brown and black workforce that built the infrastructure of America.
At this point I passed the mic to my friend Lupe who asked the following question.
Lupe Pimental: We suffer through many defeats in the battle for social justice. Sometimes I find that very discouraging. So I'm curious how you maintain your motivation?
Immortal Technique: What motivates me is hearing personal stories from people. Some of the stories aren't easy to listen to. After I perform "Dance With The Devil" I always give a speech about how rape is something that happens everywhere, not in some dark alley in the poorest parts of society. It happens at the most prestigious schools in America, the most prestigious organizations like the military. There's no higher honor in this country than being a military officer. They treat you like gold, yet look at the rape statistics in the military. When I talk about that people come up to me after the shows and say "that happened to me when I was a child and I always blamed myself." People tell me about their addiction issues. I hear things like "I was trying to get clean and I heard a song of yours talking about leaving the past and I wanted to get clean."
When I step back I'm motivated by people's personal struggles. That's what makes me want to do this. I wrote a lot of my songs not out of hatred, but out of love for people's concerns.
NUVO: What are your thoughts on immigration reform?
Immortal Technique: I have a song on my new album The Middle Passage that's structured toward the immigration issue. I don't think it's a controversial issue. The fact is the government is trying to disenfranchise people who have paid into America. They always say "immigrants are getting these services for free." Well you're getting a lot of labor for free. You're getting a lot of people who are paying into Social Security and they'll never get it back. People are paying into a system they'll never receive any benefit from.
I've met people from El Salvador and Mexico who are in the military and they are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Compare that to these chicken hawk conservatives who are clamoring for them to leave. Yo dude, when it was time for Vietnam where were the Sean Hannity's, the Ted Nugent's and the Bill O'Reilly's? Where was George Bush? The Texas Air National Guard - you think his daddy had nothing to do with that? They were scared. Just say you were scared to go to Vietnam homie, people were fucking dying every day. Every week there were 500 casualties. Think about how crazy that number is. The deadliest day in Afghanistan is about 28 causalities.
NUVO: I ask this question to a lot of people, from Chuck D to Bobby Seale. Do you think music is an effective medium to spread the message of social justice?
Immortal Technique: People always call me a "conscious" rapper, and I respond by saying that conscious doesn't mean you're going to do anything. If you took a survey of people in this city and asked them if they thought the government was corrupt, or if the president was a liar - most of them would probably say yes. But if you ask them what they are going to do about it, the answer is nothing. They're gonna go home and let the cable TV wash over their body. They're gonna leave it alone and forget it. That's the difference between being conscious and active. A lot of people are conscious but they are not physically doing anything about it.
Looking at it from that perspective it's hard to imagine that someone is going to be motivated by one thing I say. I think I can effect change in some ways, but I can't make the decision for someone to step out of themselves. All I can do is provide an example of a world that is fake, even though you might think it's real.
I have friends form Eastern Europe who are rabidly anti-communist and pro-American. They repeat false racial narratives delivered from a white supremacist perspective. I explain to them that in Eastern Europe the Russians held you by force after World War 2 for forty plus years. People were trying to get the hell out of all these places controlled by Russia. Even though the Russian's claimed they had a superior system to American capitalism, they still couldn't explain why all these people wanted to leave.
Just like the colonies in America when they first set up shop. You had a European colony run by people who claimed they were running away from religious persecution, but as soon as they got there they started religiously persecuting other people and telling them how to live. People used to leave in droves. They were leaving the colony to go live with the Native American people. Because the Native Americans didn't judge them as much. People were running away from them because they lied about every single reason that brought them here. "We want religious freedom and our own land." Yes, but in this capitalist society why are you so ashamed of those other reasons that brought you here? Why is this capitalist society so ashamed of its motives? Why are you ashamed to say you came here for gold? Why are you ashamed to say you came here for slaves? Why are you ashamed to say you're in it for the money?
Just deal with the reality that your fucking mythology is based on and then I can have a conversation with you as a regular human being. If my music can facilitate that conversation, then the choice for someone's change is up to them and it's not my responsibility to fix your fucking life.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features international underground hip-hop tracks from Africa to Latin America to the Middle East.
1. Criolo - Mariô
2. Baloji - Buy Africa
3. OQuadro - Balançuquadro
4. Ondatrópica - Suena
5. FOKN Bois - Only Your Walkings
6. Zuluboy - Siyoyisusa Siyimele
7. Karol Conka - Corre, Corre Erê
8. Didier Awadi - Roots
9. Art Melody - Farafina
10. Sadat & Alaa Fifty Cent - The Mixing Secret
11. Karol Conka - Boa Noite
12. Baloji with Konono N°1 - Karibu Ya Bintou
13. Bradez with Kwaw Kese - Wossop (Remix)
14. Ko-Jo Cue - Aden Koraa
15. Criolo - Grajauex
16. Ana Tijoux - Shock
17. Bamboo - Bibi Yangu
18. Smockey with Sibi Zongo - Fo Toumda Yè