Reaction; thoughts? Why is he a threat and what does this tell us?
The reality rapper on conspiracies, the presidential race, the industry’s flaws and his many run-ins with the US government
Felipe Andres Coronel, aka Immortal Technique, is more than just an underground hip-hop legend – he’s an activist, humanitarian and a revolutionist. Born in Peru and raised in Harlem, New York, the 34-year-old has struck a chord with those seeking an alternative voice in hip-hop. He represents a thorn in the side of the mainstream with his messages about class struggle, religion, government and institutional racism.
He is currently touring the UK and will be performing with Lowkey – a British hip-hop artist and activist – at a sold-out Electric Brixton tonight.
What are the themes of your music?
A better response is: go on the internet and steal all my music and listen to it. If it speaks to you, then feel free to support me. But if you want a real answer to that question, I’d say that the music I make is very personal, passionate and tells a story of sacrifice. There are a lot of historical and political references. People ask me: ‘Why do you rap about politics?’ I’ve always tried to reflect real life in my music and go beyond the experience of the inner-city ghetto of America. I like to have multiple dimensions in my music.
What do you make of Lowkey and the political/conscious hip-hop scene in the UK?
It’s a very positive thing to have multiple dimensions to any hip-hop scene. So I always think the voice of reason is great to have. People such as Lowkey and Akala rap about real life. Reality rap is what I call it. I think the UK has a rich culture of immigrants who are coming from Africa and Asia and share experiences that are so unique, it’s only right that they document it and recount their struggles too. Without that diversity you’re going to end up like we did in the States, and I hope that never happens. We are fighting a real guerrilla war in America in terms of getting independent music out, getting out music with a message. They are resisting. We’ve found a home-base to fight from in the jungle. They’ve found it too hard to wipe us out; we’re not going anywhere.
Who is resisting and why are they doing it?
It’s more the industry. There are forces within the industry who like very much what I do. Why? Because it’s a money-maker. It’s more people who see the music I make as a threat to the status quo of hip-hop. They don’t want people to hear about Palestine, slavery or torture. They want us to just dance and sing and smile and pretend that the world is OK. They believe hip-hop is sheer entertainment. Entertainment can be used for many things: to inspire and educate but also to pacify, to keep people stupid and preoccupied with things that aren’t important.
Where does the anger in your music come from?
I think it’s righteous fury. If someone shot your mother you’d be angry, right? But would you be wrong for being angry? No. I’ve heard people criticise me for the most ridiculous things, calling my music abrasive. If you’re troubled by the words I speak, then you should probably hang yourself because the world is going to tear you apart or is too real for you to accept. I’m not offended by fuck, shit, pussy, dick, motherfucker. You know what I’m offended by? I’m offended by seeing a child in Gaza who has had his skin burned off by white phosphorus. I’m offended by seeing the graves of civilians that are there because they are the “collateral damage” of a drone strike in Afghanistan or Pakistan. I’m offended when I see people perverting Christianity, Islam or Judaism for their own political purposes so they can justify taking land or killing people in the name of something.
How have you evolved as an artist since your first album, Revolutionary Vol 1?
I just used to write rhymes in my mind and then I tried to find beats to fit them. By Vol 2 I was mastering and perfecting the flow and by The Third World album my flow had a developed a lot more. I had to learn to breathe with my diaphragm rather than my lungs. I learned to expand my arms so I get the extra 10% of breath that opera singers do when they sing. I had to go to a breathing coach, and there is no shame in that. If [rapping] is your instrument, learn how to use it.
Who are your musical influences?
Most of my lyrical influences came from people who didn’t really do hip-hop. Like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali – people who I thought were incredible speakers. But in terms of rap, I’m talking KRS-One, Ice Cube, Chuck D, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, Big Punisher, Lord Finesse, DITC.
What was involved in making the 2011 documentary film The [R]evolution of Immortal Technique, and what did you learn?
That I hate documentaries about my life but at the same time I loved making this. It was a seven-year-long project. We went everywhere. We did hip-hop shows from one corner of the Earth to another.
What places hit you the most?
Afghanistan in terms of seeing struggle, poverty and strife. But in Haiti after the earthquake, I saw some of the worst conditions in my life. I saw a 10-year-old girl who had become the surrogate mother of all these little three- and four-year-old girls whose parents had perished. She was feeding them and giving them water so they wouldn’t die. That is a 10-year-old girl! There were four or five families in one tent. When I went to Peru I saw a 10-year-old girl prostituting herself on the street. That affects you differently.
What do you make of Obama’s first term as president?
Why are we held prisoner by this two-party system when neither of them represents the true values of America? Romney’s position is fairly deceptive. Obama painted him as a man who will say anything to get elected. That’s what Romney is. Romney said he wasn’t anti-abortion when he was governor of Massachusetts, then when he was running for the Republican party he is the most anti-abortion guy in the world. He said he would start a war with Iran but when he realised the economic and political reality of starting another war and how much America is against it, he began mirroring Obama’s policy.
What should the world expect if Romney becomes president?
I think he would make it end up looking like [George W] Bush’s third term as president. Obama is still a war president. He didn’t shut down Guantánamo Bay; he deported more people than Bush did; he supposedly ended the war in Iraq just to expand in Afghanistan; he signed the National Defence Authorisation Act, which is very draconian. I have a lot of problems in actively supporting someone like that.
In your song Point of No Return you say the government is after you. How much truth is in that?
I’ve definitely had a lot of run-ins with the government. They have tried to do my father for taxes; they thought I was hiding money with him. I have had my passport confiscated and have been questioned by Homeland Security upon coming home – not from Afghanistan but anywhere in the world.
Do you see yourself making music forever?
In some capacity yes, but the soul has to develop in some form. I like writing books, stories and essays – I may do that. I use to teach ancient history in prison for children. I found a lot of gratification in that because I saw people’s lives turn around.
Your lyrics contain a lot of religious messages. What does religion mean to you and do you follow a faith?
If I told people I was a Muslim, people wouldn’t say: “Wow, that’s wonderful you’ve found inner peace in your life by embracing Islam.” They’d ask: “What type of Muslim are you? Are you one of them fucking Wahabbi, Sunnite, Salafi psycho-niggas? Are you down with Hezbollah and them?” If I told people I was Jewish, they’d ask: “Do you support Israel and do you support the colonisation of Palestine?” It’s irrelevant whether you call yourself a Christian, Muslim or Jew because if you don’t reflect that in your life, you aren’t that at all. I have always been hounded by people about it; people try and pry it out of me. I believe in God and have a faith that’s very personal to me. That faith is between me and God. We have polarised religion, rather than it being a personal reflection of your relationship with God and how you communicate with God. I’d rather be friends with a good atheist than a bad religious person. Your religion is suppose to ennoble you, but if all it makes you do is become contemptuous of other people, or make you say other people are going to hell, your religion has failed you, or rather, you have failed your religion.
What struggles do you face with being a “reality rap” artist and people trying to pinpoint any sort of hypocrisy in your life?
I don’t shy away from anything. As human beings, we’re all works in progress. If I can get some constructive criticism, you’re helping me grow as a human being. Sometimes I realise I need to grow. It happened with me trying to take the word bitch more out of my music. I’m not a “gay-rights champion”, but if I’m going to talk about people being oppressed in my music, then aren’t some people oppressed if they don’t have the right to marry the person they want in a society that’s supposed to be free? They shouldn’t be punished by a government because of the way they are born.
Do you feel a lot of your music is about conspiracies?
I wouldn’t call it conspiracy. I would suggest people research – for example when I said Bin Laden was part of the CIA and people said “that’s not true”. There was a poll in the US and it showed less than 15% knew Bin Laden knew was employed by US. When people say it’s a conspiracy I welcome the criticism, because the music I make is backed by historical facts. I’m not afraid to be wrong or debate it. I won’t allow people to marginalise my music.
What do you do in your spare time?
Read, sleep, work out, box, spend time with people I love.
Why do you use the N-word so frequently?
I would say I use it less frequently than I have before. I have made a conscious decision to replace it in the music I make. I understand a lot of people have used that word to express camaraderie. In the States we remade the word to be something that reflected unity among ourselves. I think it was a confidence-builder and a way of showing that hip-hop could supersede any of the stereotypes thrown on top of them. The only problem is that when it became corporatised, someone else decided what those stereotypes would be replaced with.
Will you continue to use the word?
I think eventually I will have to phase it out. I don’t want to be 50 years old and yelling to my children like that. I think what people need to keep in mind is the way individuals are introduced to that word is incredibly unique for everybody’s experience. There is a certain power in reclaiming language.
Do you ever see yourself starting a family?
I was born with the disease I inherited from my father – it’s called responsibility. It prevents me from dropping seeds in random women and not taking care of children like a man should. When it’s time for me to have a family, I intend to dedicate my life to that. It’s hard to juggle that as an artist and a revolutionary.