Siobhán Kane talks religion, politics and prison with Immortal Technique ahead of his show at The Sugar Club this Saturday.
It was perhaps when Felipe Coronel moved with his family from Lima, Peru, to Harlem, New York in 1980 that his future was decided, coinciding as it did with the early imaginings of what is now termed the “golden age” of hip-hop. Coronel’s youth was full of friction, and he ultimately spent over a year in prison. Reflecting on his future, it was here that he started seriously working on his rap skills, and considering what moved him – and upon his release he started studying political science at college, which became a touchstone throughout all of his subsequent work.
Earning a reputation on the streets as a fierce freestyler, he won several MC battles, such as Braggin’ Rites, putting money aside to fund the recording and release of his debut Revolutionary Vo1. 1 (2001) which was a stellar record, containing one of Coronel’s most well-known pieces of work – “Dance with the Devil“, a winding, evocative narrative, focussing on the character Billy Jacobs and his attempts to join a gang. The narrative is devastating, moving, and resonates, filtering samples from Henry Mancini’s theme from Love Story and Mobb Deep’s “Survival of the Fittest” which is where Coronel is caught, somewhere between the ethereal and the visceral.
In the last ten years he has released Revolutionary Vol. 2 (2003), and The 3rd World (2008), collaborated with everyone from Mos Def (on the brilliant “Bin Laden“) to Public Enemy (“Field Nigga Boogie“) and taken his alive, politicised mind into community work, visiting schools and prisons; and since 2008 has been involved in The Green Light Project, putting some of the monies from his last record into establishing an orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Some of this emerges in the documentary that was made about him in 2011 – The (R)evolution of Immortal Technique, which illustrates his passion for disseminating not only hip-hop as a form, but how a conscious and contemplative engagement with society can matter, featuring other sympathetic thinkers such as Chuck D, and Cornel West. Immortal Technique’s ethos is perhaps best captured on something like “Point of No Return” – “this is the point from which I can never retreat”, and ahead of his return to Ireland, where he says he has been treated like a “brother”, he talks to Siobhán Kane.
From an early stage you committed to talking about less-obvious things in your rhymes. The more socially-conscious aspect of rap has always been there, but in the last decade it has been eclipsed by other kinds of conceits, yet you remain a beacon, do you feel that the older you get the more compelled you get to contemplate more politically-inflected concerns?
I think that this necessity is not born out of age, that stereotype is one that we have to break. I have seen people become more active in their old age, whereas they were blind either purposefully or apathetic in their youth. Whereas I have also seen people who start life with such a hopeful view, and end up cynical about everything, including the most important part, which is the ability to create change in the world.
Had you always been quite politically engaged, or was it taking classes in political science that really inspired you on, was there anything in particular you had come across that resonated strongly?
I believe that more than schooling or other factors, personal experience, and actually being able to see and live some of these great struggles has made them more relevant and put them into the proper context. I think that I have always been interested in understanding what makes people the way they are. Human emotions are really a microcosm of how we behave when we group together like a pack, and display the very base of our animal instincts or live up to the greatest aspirations of a civilization.
What are your thoughts about the state of politics in America at the moment; Its foreign policy, Obama, the complexity of domestic policy? It often seems that America’s domestic policy reflects some of the harsher foreign policies – there is a kind of disregard for the individual, yet equally there are people who fight for the marginalised.
In this world there are barbarians and there are civilized barbarians. We point to the barbarians that we can easily identify – those from the days of old. Those who forged the crumbling iron swords we see in museums, those who dressed in animal pelts, and spoke harsh gutturally intonating languages. However we find it more difficult to look at modern society, from Britain to America and see barbarism in anything but the most extreme elements of a so-called “foreign society.” The actions of people who commit violence around the world become animalistic, harsh and murderous, until you see the way a society that will okay sanctions on a country where it knows the primary people to die because of them will be hundreds of thousands of children.
However one murder by a so-called foreign national, or an act of brutality captured via video, will be the basis for the self-deluding analysis of barbarism. The practice of slavery and for example, human sacrifice, is that only done at an altar in ancient Sumeria, or in ancient Aztec society If that is the barbaric aspect of human atrocity, then why overlook religions, and people alike in the 1800’s were burned at the stake, it is only the ego and the very two-faced pride of the talking ape we know as Homo-Sapien. The philosophical questions start pouring out – if the gods of the ancients required a blood sacrifice to keep their worshippers terrified of choosing to worship, are the gods of the modern men any different?
Tell me why Jesus Christ isn’t a blood God if Europeans spent the better part of 500 years killing Indigenous people in his name. Those that have a religion close to their heart, you need not get defensive. These things are not after all, really done in the name of religion but of the selfish greedy nature of a talking ape. That has no nationality. It lives within the spirit of an imperfect human being who refuses to evolve and save itself. Stubbornly choosing this world of illusion, because we are unable to come to terms with the fact that being a talking ape trapped on a floating rock in space might be our place in history. Now if we would like to change this, we cannot think as if time were linear. As if Obama, Bush, Stalin, Churchill were all a different species of men, they were men who held power over other men. They are not all equal. For example, some European monarchies sponsored the colonization that presided over a mass genocide that eclipsed Hitler’s insane vision. Is it the reason for killing that makes us barbarians? Or the excuses that we give for it, that makes us civilized barbarians?
It seems that when you were in jail, it really provided a definitive turning point in your life, where you decided to take a different path. Had you already known that you had some talent as an MC, or was it something you stumbled upon there?
I don’t really think you can paint all human beings with one broad stroke, despite what I mentioned about power and the odd proclivities of human behaviour. I think people adapt to being caged differently. I have seen people that do not understand a world outside of being incarcerated, they have been institutionalized. Looking back, that was probably the most frightening thing about it, staring at a possible future of emptiness, complacency and marginalization. Being around criminals and cut-throats was not terrifying for me, Miss. I spent the greater part of my youth around people who had varying degrees of morality. My favourite past-time was dissecting the selective nature of this morality when examining the lives of those who have, and those who have nothing. I wasn’t terrified into acting right. I still had fights there, I still came out of prison angry and poor. It was the personal responsibility that I had to confront that put me on the path I am on now. The person who you avoid fighting, but that you need to confront in order to achieve what you want in life, is you. The others are extras in a movie that your mind hasn’t figured out how it wants to end.
You have always preferred to be independent, and you used money saved up from winning some battles to record and release Revolutionary Vo1. 1 in 2001 – was it hard to access studio time, and all the facilities that are needed to record and release a record? Did you find that there were some really supportive people out there?
I think that there is something to be said about doing things independently, and with a major label. I think people have to get over this idea that anyone does anything alone. Surely, neither yourself nor any of your readers believe that. I had a lot of help, it was just organic, I had a vision and I had people who were friends, who had home studios, who had time to kill and also who had the time to give me advice. I had people believe in me. And I had some that didn’t who also motivated me with their doubt. But negative reinforcement can only go so far. I had to mend some friendships with people who I had disagreements in the past, in order to forge a more progressive direction for the amount of work that needed to be done.
Where did your love of rap come from? Had you liked other kinds of music, also, or did that just harness your imagination? Growing up in Harlem it must have been all around.
When I came to America as a child, I found hip-hop to be a very honest and pure art, people freestyling their hatred and their joy, their hopes and pain. They expressed their truth, and sometimes there was embellishment, but the script sold the movie. Now, just like Hollywood, the dialogue mostly sucks, with a few rare exceptions, and the film is sold by the CGI effects rather than the real story. I guess I just saw hip-hop for what it really was and I thought she was beautiful. She didn’t need to put on make up in the morning for me to think so. She was just naturally that way.