“We’re Not Organizing the Poor, We’re the Poor Organizing”

Rodrigo Venegas
Gonzalo Venegas

Few artists blend hip-hop and leftist politics like Rebel Diaz. We sat down with the group to talk about American imperialism, the current mass movement in Chile against neoliberalism, and the connection between hip-hop and community organizing in times of alienation and austerity.

Brothers G1 (Gonzalo Venegas) and RodStarz (Rodrigo Venegas) performing as Rebel Diaz. Wikipedia

Interview by
Jack Delaney

Rebel Diaz is a hip-hop duo made up of Chilean-American brothers G1 and RodStarz. Hailing from Chicago, Rebel’s music and convictions were formed in a family of leftist political refugees that escaped the US-backed Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Now based in the South Bronx, the brothers are known as pillars in their community for providing outlets to young artists and producing hip-hop that challenges the status quo of the music industry and capitalism at large.

Rebel Diaz’s style blends hip-hop with lyrics that draw from class struggle and anti-imperialism, pointing to the inhumanity of US immigration enforcement, the thuggishness of American empire, and the struggle for liberation from an undemocratic economic system.

Jacobin caught up with Rebel Diaz in the South Bronx to discuss the implications of American imperialism, the current mass movement in Chile against neoliberalism, and the connection between hip-hop and community organizing in times of alienation and increasing austerity.


JD

Rebel Diaz’s lyrics often focus on US militarism and imperialist aggression. How has that aggression shaped your views?

RV

US imperialism has had one of the largest influences on our life. We’re products of the first 9/11, September 11, 1973, when the military dictatorship funded by the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. As a result of that, I was born in England in exile, as my parents were refugees, and G was born in Chicago. We’re a product of that displacement.

We’re part of many stories. There’s Chileans born in France, born in Sweden, born in Germany, and we’re a part of that exile community that grew up under the tables of political meetings during the ’80s and early ’90s, along with folks who were fighting for international change. Whether its Central Americans — from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala — or whether it’s Palestinians or Puerto Ricans fighting for independence, that was the environment we grew up in. An environment of solidarity, an environment of internationalism that was very much anti-imperialist and anti-militarization, because it had been directly affected by it.

JD

The coup created lasting social, political, and economic chaos that we’re still seeing the effects of today. Over a million Chileans have recently taken to the streets against the Piñera government. Can that movement defeat neoliberalism in Chile?

GV

That movement arose because neoliberalism is in crisis, capitalism is in crisis. The coup that happened in ’73 ushered in the era of neoliberalism. The rise of neoliberalism was the result of capitalism being in crisis at the time. Now, forty-five years later, we are at that point again.

We’re thankful for all the young people on the streets, because their actions have made people listen. It’s been thirty years of a supposed democracy, but we still see the remnants of that dictatorship: the same constitution, the same players, the same oligarchy involved. So it’s only natural that there would be an uprising.

Some people just want to reduce it by saying, “It’s just a transit fare hike,” and that’s all there is to it — if there are small reforms, the people’s demands will be answered. But it’s much larger than that. We see people on the streets demanding a new constitution, demanding that the military be off the streets.

If this movement can defeat neoliberalism, it’s the beginnings of something worldwide.

In Chile, where the neoliberal experiment first developed, we see it’s like a canary in a coal mine. They privatized the pensions and the public infrastructure in the ’80s, which in some places in the world they’re still trying to do. We see that in a way, because it was an experiment in neoliberalism, that the people in Chile are facing the brunt of that system. Whether it be in terms of wages, housing, transportation, food. We were in Chile recently and the price for a gallon of milk is the same price as in the United States, and you also have wages that are at poverty levels.

But to your question, the reason why there are a lot of young people being politicized is because there has been a lot of groundwork laid down for the last thirty years. We learned about the ability of using hip-hop as a tool for organizing from folks in Chile that were doing it in the early 2000s and the late ’90s. You talk about the student rebellions, in 2006, there were the pinguinos, which was young children out there protesting. Fast forward thirteen years, and a lot of those young people are in their twenties and thirties; add the younger generation that’s coming up now, and there’s a lot of discontent. It’s a deep discontent, that’s more than a transit fare hike. It’s about changing the entire social order.

JD

Do you see any parallels to the current state of affairs now compared to the late ’60s and early ’70s in Chilean politics?

RV

I think what hasn’t changed is the brutality of the police. You look at uprisings that have been getting a lot of media attention for the obvious reason that they are allied with the US government, like Hong Kong. But we don’t see the death toll in Chile: the official number of deaths in Chile is twenty-two, though it is likely higher. I think it was like 150 women raped, and that’s just the ones that have been reported, thousands incarcerated, and hundreds have just disappeared. We have to be clear that these are tactics that are taught by the Israeli military, that are taught by the School of the Americas here in the United States.

So if you look at the similarities, it’s copy-and-paste imperialism: it was back then, and it is now. What’s different is that you are also dealing with young people who for thirty years have been sold a lie. The hashtag they are using is #ChileDespertó, which means “Chile woke up.” That’s not to say the young people in Chile have been dormant; there’s been historic student mobilizations since 2006 and 2011. Resistance isn’t new; if you have a boot on your neck that’s not allowing you to live a dignified life, people will eventually want that boot taken off of their neck, and that’s what young people are approaching it as.

As before, there continues to be a state repression, murdering innocent protestors who are fighting for a better tomorrow, for a dignified retirement, against transit fare hikes. But what’s different is now there’s technology to document everything. You’re seeing the pacos, as we call the police in Chile, doing cocaine in open air, and what they call the montajes — setups — where the cops themselves are doing the looting, and burning down the train stations. This has all been documented by young people, in the same fashion as the people who do Cop Watch here in the United States. We’re seeing it in real time, where in the ’70s, that was shared as oral history. But I do think that they are killing people at similar rates as before.

JD

Your parents were militants in Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) during the Allende government and consequently fled following the Pinochet regime. Could you speak about your parents’ experience in the MIR and personal consequences of the US-backed Pinochet dictatorship?

RV

La MIR represented a unique structure of militancy, and it has been duplicated and studied by everyone, from the leaders of the Bolivarian Revolution to other movements of liberation. Not everyone could just join: you had to earn that spot by proving your militancy. As a result of that, they were a bit to the left of Allende and the Popular Unity movement. They believed in arming the people; they believed that a revolution had to be defended, it couldn’t just be something that could only be won through the ballot. We’ve seen that model be defeated by violent military interventions, in Venezuela and other parts of the world.

As to my father’s contribution, he was a chemistry student and part of a MIR contingent that was responsible for explosives. As a result, he disappeared for two years and was a political prisoner for four and a half years. He was tortured by School of the Americas’ trained military officers. My mother had to flee by herself in the trunk of a car, and she escaped to the Colombian embassy, where she received political asylum, first with Colombia and then Sweden. Eventually they reunited in England.

So the consequences were definitely severe, but they were also very lucky because they weren’t killed. And I say that because they always talk about how many of their friends were killed. They suffered the consequences, but they are survivors of that era.

JD

Continuing with the MIR, what lessons can be applied from the MIR in the struggle against globalized capitalism today?

RV

Their discipline. Their militancy. Their unapologetic internationalism. Seeing that the struggle against capitalism couldn’t just be in one place, it had to be global.

They were students of the concept of Che Guevara, of being the new man, or hombre nuevo. So their whole concept was that you had to be the best — if you are going to be a doctor, you have to be the best doctor. If you are going to be a lawyer, you have got to be the best lawyer. In our upbringing, those were a lot of the values we had. If you meet children of Miristas, besides being pretty crazy because of the traumas we all carry, we’re all driven by the same motor for change.

And we carry that history. My uncle, Victor Toro, a founding member of the MIR, always tell us, con todo la forca de historia, with all the strength of history. We didn’t have religion growing up, so instead of Sundays going to church, we were at political meetings, and our consciousness was inspired by the idea of being the best, at the top of our game. That’s the elite mentality that the MIR had, and there’s flaws in that as well. But it has given us a motor, as a group, to keep going. We’ve been rocking for thirteen years, and at times you may feel defeated, because maybe you’re not a top-selling artist, but what can never be taken away from us is the roots of struggle — which is why I feel Rebel Diaz is going to be around for a long time.

JD

Are there any trends you have noticed in the American-backed coups of leftist governments and the suppression of worker-led movements in Latin America?

GV

Oh yeah, absolutely. We followed and supported closely the Bolivarian revolution and the pink tide at the time, the rise of [Nicolás] Maduro and [Hugo] Chávez, [Rafael] Correa in Ecuador, and [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] in Brazil. Fast forward to now, and a lot of those movements have been overturned. There was a victory against fascism recently in Argentina, but at the same time, the response to that was a wave of fascism against the pink tide.

You’ve got [Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, Lenín Moreno in Ecuador — now exposed as a traitor — and [Mauricio] Macri in Argentina: we have to be clear that they are all products of US hybrid wars. The old-school way of doing coups, like they did in ’73, that shit don’t fly any more. In terms of going in with tanks, it’s bad optics and too expensive. So in this new era, there’s a new hybrid war, not only in Latin American but in the Middle East as well.

What we have been seeing lately is the role the United States plays in covertly creating manufactured dissent within Latin America. In Venezuela, you have attempts to topple the Bolivarian revolution, with the United States funding different nonprofits and NGOs that are really fronts for the CIA. We’ve seen that happen throughout Latin America.

As hip-hop artists, we’ve seen that the state department has a program that is a remnant of the Hillary Clinton era. They called it “smART power,” which tried to use hip-hop culture to go overseas where the United States has geopolitical interests, and to try to utilize those spaces to create native leadership that’s opposed to popular movements. You’ve got this dude, Juan Guaidó in Venezuela, who didn’t come out of nowhere: he was molded and advised all throughout the last decade by this hybrid war strategy.

The United States’ new way of intervening is a little bit different than it was in previous decades, but it is definitely part of a longer trajectory, which is a continuing legacy of intervention and the destabilization of popular power.

JD

As you see it, what role does the media play in US imperialism?

RV

The media is a weapon used by imperialism. There’s a war that’s being waged on us by the media. From a point you don’t see, there’s some of the largest uprisings historically in the world in Chile, and you don’t see it covered in the media. But you sure do see the “uprisings” in Venezuela and Hong Kong, because those movements benefit the interests of the rich; they benefit the interests of capital. So we have to be clear that the media are mostly spokesmen in many ways for the state.

We were in Ferguson in 2014 during the rebellion, reporting for teleSUR English, and we were taken aback by how literally the police spokesperson would come give the media a statement, and a second later, we see CNN and Fox News say, “We’ve got it in from a direct source that indeed there is no tear gas out here” — while we all felt the tear gas burning our eyes. We’ve seen firsthand how the media literally is just repeating what the police state or what the state is putting out there.

So we have to be real clear about that. When it comes to the media in Chile, instead of showing that people out there are fighting for a better tomorrow, you see the media focusing on la delincuencia or the cases of vandalism, stressing the criminal element to this movement.

I definitely think the media are the spokespeople for the state. At the end of the day, the same corporations that are lobbying politicians are the same ones controlling the information you get. Nowadays, if you aren’t in the algorithm of folks who are posting about the protests in Latin America or in Haiti, you won’t get any of that information. You’ll be stuck in the land of distractions and paying attention to the things that are irrelevant when there’s something more important, which is people all over the world struggling against capitalism.

JD

Since the Bolivarian revolution, we have seen open hostilities displayed against Venezuela. A study released earlier this year found that US sanctions have killed an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans. In 2010 and 2015, Rebel Diaz performed in and visited Venezuela. Based on what you saw during your visit and your experience there, how has US imperialism contributed to the situation in Venezuela?

RV

Ever since Hugo Chávez took power, the United States has been involved in a covert war, which has involved the media and a funded opposition. Corporations have been hoarding their own supplies to create discontent. Things like toilet paper, condoms, diapers, pads and tampons, shampoo are increasingly difficult to get.

But as a response to that, we see the resiliency of the Venezuelan people and young folks who are part of the hip-hop community and are learning to become self-sustainable and growing their own food and creating cooperatives, work co-ops making clothes. For example, there was a group of fam we met out there that were like, alright, you don’t have shampoo, let’s make our own shampoo. Let’s start creating — and they had this whole thing of being “prosumers,” in which they were consuming what they produced, really creating alternatives to capitalism.

What we experienced in Venezuela, for example, we were there on tour in 2015, and we took some homies, some crew from the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, from the Bronx, and I remember my homie kept saying that he couldn’t believe they have a minister of culture out here. It’s kind of funny, because here we live in a country in which the concept of having a minister of culture, or government-appointed official that’s in charge of supporting culture, is unheard of.

JD

In previous statements, Rebel Diaz has described hip-hop as having a basis in community organizing. As we see the rise in the popularity of socialism in the United States, especially for young people, what role can politically charged hip-hop play in getting young people to organize for a better future?

GV

We don’t make the distinction between politicized and non-politicized music, or conscious and not conscious music. Everything is political. We realize that there is a difference between the hip-hop culture that was born right here in the Bronx, that was born in poor communities throughout the world, and the rap music industry, which is the corporate pimping of that culture.

We know that a corporate-driven rap industry is always going to reflect the values of capitalism and the values of late capitalism even worse, being filled with violence, misogyny, and all that. To us, that doesn’t mean it’s not political, that music is political as well, because everything is political. That music represents the values of the dominant class. That’s what we are exposed to. For us, we feel that’s a terrain to be contested at all times, too.

For us, we talk about hip-hop culture being a culture of collectivity, a culture of community. Where we’re sitting right now, we’re in the Bronx, where park jam started erupting in the South Bronx and Kool Herc was bringing his sound system out. There was a level of organic organization needed to even take those public spaces and create culture. You needed to have the dude that was going to draw the flyer, and there wasn’t social media, so you had to hit the streets and get the flyers out the block. You had to get the b-boy crews to come through, somebody had to come set up the sound system up, you needed security so the dope boys from the neighborhood wouldn’t steal your sound system. So there’s a level organization needed organically in hip-hop culture, and in a lot of ways, it’s still prevalent today in poor communities throughout the world. So that’s why hip-hop and its culture is alive and well.

The challenge lies within: How can we not divorce ourselves from reality, and from people who are bearing the brunt of late capitalism? We’re originally from Chicago, and all around the world, people are like, “Oh Chicago’s crazy, y’all are shooting each other up.” To that I say, in 2012, they closed fifty-four schools in Chicago. That’s the structural violence, the real deal violence. For us, it’s terrain to be contested.

JD

As capitalism dictates, we live in times of alienation and increasing austerity. How do you think that has translated into art, specifically hip-hop?

RV

Whenever there’s austerity measures, the first thing that gets cut is art programs. Things that are considered to be extracurricular. Gym, physical education, after-school programs: they all get cut. Even before hip-hop started, there used to be programs in the Bronx — it was common to see kids playing the trombone, trumpet, saxophone, and there were musical programs — that’s why you had such amazing jazz and salsa bands coming out in the early ’70s. All that gets cut, and we see the response; alright, if you cut our arts programs, we’re going to turn the city into a canvas and do graffiti on your trains. We’re going to turn the turntable, which is usually a feedback device, into an instrument and do scratches on it. Hip-hop was a response to austerity measures in many ways.

Fast-forward forty-six years, and hip-hop culture is still reinventing. Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers says hip-hop didn’t invent anything, but it’s reinventing everything. I’m talking about hip-hop culture, not the corporate-driven rap music industry, just to be clear. So I think that the responses are going to be that, a response to these austerity measures, because we are living them on an everyday basis.

JD

Your past statements have stressed the need to be able to “organize the block.” For community organizers, what have you found to be the most successful strategies in getting working-class neighbors conscious to fight for socialism?

GV

We just came back from Barcelona, and we were wildin’ because we saw all these different forms of co-ops and different ways of organizing that we didn’t even know we were doing in our time setting up the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective here in the Bronx. The way we could frame this is, the organizing needs to center your life. In the United States, where there is a nonprofit industrial complex, it turns community organizing into a job, into a profession, into a managerial role in your neighborhood. We’re not trying to be the buffers for the war of capital on people. We’re not organizing the poor, we’re the poor organizing. The lessons we’ve learned in the Bronx and in our travels have been that whatever organizing you’re doing has got to center your life.

We don’t consider ourselves activists or organizers in that sense. We’re cultural workers that do organize, but again, at our time at our community center in the Bronx, it’s always been about centering people lives around the ideas of collectivity and the ideas of survival. Because that’s really what it boils down to. The reason why people are on the streets in Chile is because living has been made miserable. Everyday life, getting to work, feeding your family has been made miserable by late capitalism. Any type of organizing that has got to be done, really building power in our neighborhoods, has to center around that, and that everybody has something to contribute. Not everyone is going to be a revolutionary, but everyone can commit revolutionary acts, everyone has something to contribute to a process of building power in our neighborhoods.

RV

As organizers, if we aren’t organizing our immediate area locally, then what are we doing? We’re preaching to the choir. When you deal with communities that are on the front lines of experiencing oppression — whether the police, the state, unemployment, lack of access to proper housing — when you’re poor, you deal with that on an everyday basis, and I think that if we’re not organizing on that level, then we’re preaching to the choir, and the ultimate challenge is facing that head-on. When you deal with communities that are oppressed, you are going to deal with the contradictions of capitalism head-on, and that’s work. At times, folks are scared of the hood, they’re scared to come organize because they aren’t from there. That’s cool because we’re organizing ourselves regardless, I think that’s important, but it’s important that we need to organize from the bottom up. There’s a lot of talk in politics of left and right, and we like to say we aren’t with the left or the right — we’re with the bottom against the folks who are at the top.