As the Winter Solstice promises the world brighter days in the coming future and the end of the current Mayan Calendar suggests a new era of transformation, No Borders Iceland—an activist movement working with and for refugees—is preparing to add weight to the journey of radical social change and transformation.
Under the auspice of No Borders, two Puerto Rican rappers—Rayzer Sharp and M.I.C. of The Welfare Poets, an Afro-Caribbean hip-hop band based in Harlem, New York—will be spending the next three weeks in Iceland, performing alongside local musicians and poets, facilitating workshops on the history of hip-hop as cultural resistance, and studying state repression and activism in Iceland.
Music of the oppressed
“The band was founded back in 1990 at Cornell University up in New York where we were students,” Rayzer tells me. There they started writing rhymes about the history of oppressed people, which they hadn’t been taught in high school. “We focus on oppressed people everywhere,” he continues, “trying to use our culture to help people around issues such as police brutality, the death penalty and environmental protection.”
The band retains strong ties with liberation movements in their home country of Puerto Rico, which have fought a long struggle against US occupation. “For over a hundred years, since the ousting of the Spanish rule of the island, the US has occupied and ruled Puerto Rico,” M.I.C. explains. “We basically have the status of a colony.” This, they say, has led to the exploitation of the country’s rainforests and natural resources, a forced turn from agricultural economy to an industrial one, countless US army bases, and particularly the persecution of those committed to fight for liberation.
As Puerto Ricans abroad, however, it can be hard for the Welfare Poets to keep a firm grasp on their home country. “Therefore, it’s very important for us to be able to speak to the people there through music,” M.I.C. explains, “to communicate with them and open up a dialogue.”
Talking about the people to the people
This approach seems far away from what mainstream hip-hop represents. “Like anything else that gets co-opted and industrialized, the current mainstream hip-hop is junk food, it’s garbage, it’s not good for you,” M.I.C. says. “But even though these rappers sell a million albums,” Rayzer continues, “there are millions of people who don’t buy their albums. And we are trying to get to those people on a local level.”
By looking at hip-hop from a grassroots perspective, they argue that it’s still a pure art form coming from the inner-city youth who need an outlet to express themselves. “When you go to different places in the US and elsewhere, you see that the majority of hip-hop is being created in the streets. And it’s talking about the people to the people,” M.I.C. asserts. “That’s what hip-hop is: finding and creating that outlet, no matter where you are or who you are.”
Seeing society’s short historical memory as one reason for the commercialisation of hip-hop, the band is also involved in community education and organizing. That’s in fact how M.I.C. entered the picture approximately ten years ago. “We were running an afterschool program in Harlem around hip-hop and he was a student in the class,” Rayzer recalls. Having noticed the talents and potentials of this sixteen-year-old, Rayzer invited M.I.C. to join the group.
On the right path
When No Borders invited them to come to Iceland, they didn’t hesitate to accept. “The cops tried to stir us up the day before we were supposed to come here,” M.I.C. tells me. They were filming a music video on a rooftop in New York when the cops stopped them. This would typically have resulted in small fines for trespassing, but this time was different. “My shirt had a Puerto Rican independence flag on it, so they made an association between us and Los Macheteros,” an armed Puerto Rican resistance group that has been fighting for independence for a number years. The Poets were arrested and kept in jail for thirty hours until they got out with the assistance of lawyers and all charges were dropped.
One of the policemen told M.I.C. that a few surveillance groups have been following the band and their associates for a while. “This means we’ve been doing something good,” he says. Rayzer adds: “If you are doing work that’s effective, the system is going to come down hard on you. But it doesn’t stop us. It makes us very clear that we are on the right path. My biggest concern, however, is the lack of awareness of our own people who are being put to sleep by people like Obama.”
But wasn’t Obama’s election generally seen as a cornerstone victory for people of colour in the US? “Some people are still caught up in that spectacle,” M.I.C. says. Rayzer points out that many black and people have made the issues around Obama “this black and white thing,” meaning that people feel like they are being personally attacked when the president is criticised. “No matter what this man looks like,” Rayzer says, “if he’s not for you, he is not for you. It’s an illusion and everyone is mixed up in it.”
They are aware that Obama’s election was a complex situation for some radicals. “But it was very clear to us,” M.I.C. says. “We don’t support someone who’s not for the benefit of our people. We knew from the beginning who he was, where he stood, what people stood behind him, and we knew his record as a senator in the state of Illinois.” He calls Obama a “puppet of both the left and the right,” supported by warmongers. “So we wanted to put him into the right perspective before his first election.”
“Before the elections people came up to us and said: “Yo, you gotta give him a chance!” Well, if that’s your strongest argument, then OK,” M.I.C. says. “But after he’s gotten his chance—and he’s done all those negative things—you have to be able to hold him accountable.” They bring up the bombings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. “He has his kids, but he also blows up kids,” Rayzer adds, “and now they even have drones at the Mexican borders.”
The Welfare Poets believe people are stuck in a false idea of democracy, choosing between Obama and Romney, who they believe are the same person, with the same intentions and destructive future plans. “Romney would have been better,” Rayzer says. “It wouldn’t put have all those people to sleep.”
Check here for a list of some of The Welfare Poets’ events in Iceland.