‘You Have to Listen to the Streets’: Rebel Diaz on Hip Hop and the Chilean Constitution

‘You Have to Listen to the Streets’: Rebel Diaz on Hip Hop and the Chilean Constitution

‘You Have to Listen to the Streets’: Rebel Diaz on Hip Hop and the Chilean Constitution

Brothers Rodrigo “RodStarz” and Gonzalo “G1” Venegas, who make up Rebel Diaz, discuss the role of art and music in Chilean activism.

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In 2006 the Chilean American brothers Rodrigo (RodStarz) and Gonzalo (G1) Venegas formed Rebel Diaz, a hip-hop duo based in Chicago and the South Bronx. With a distinctly Chilean flare, sampling elements from local and Indigenous folk music, Rebel Diaz’s hip hop marries class struggle with international solidarity. Their lyrics lambaste capitalism and racism in the United States and imperialism and fascism in Latin America.

The duo’s songs have explained immigration rights for Spanish-speaking migrant populations during Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and have expressed support for the Chicago teachers’ strike and Black Lives Matter. Through their music, the brothers have called for Puerto Rican liberation, denounced New York City’s stop-and-frisk policies, and supported anti-fascist and anti-racist movements.

Their art and politics draw from the radical humanism of Chilean folk singer Víctor Jara, the left-wing Nueva Canción Chilena (new Chilean song) folk music movement, and their family’s status as political refugees who fled or were exiled from Augusto Pinochet’s regime in the 1970s.

I spoke with Rebel Diaz and discussed Chile’s mass uprisings to form a new Constitution, the movement’s broader implications in Latin America, and how the year-long rebellion is shaping art in the region.

—Jack Delaney

Jack Delaney: Chileans have overwhelmingly—78 percent of voters!—demanded a new Constitution. For decades following the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the people have been calling for a Constitution that places power outside the hands of the elite. What does this win mean for working class and poor Chileans?

Rodrigo Venegas: It shows that the struggle in the streets was heard nationwide. Their demands for a life of dignity translates to a vote that opens up the doors to a new Constitution. This is a beginning to open up a space where the people can have access to health care, education, pensions, and Indigenous rights. It’s a victory for the working class.

Gonzalo Venegas: The Pinochet Constitution had it so that poor, working-class people were disposable in favor of property and capital. Discarding it is a first step toward a Constitution which centers people and not corporate interests and the neoliberal model.

JD: We saw reports of state violence following the uprising that kicked off in October 2019. Hundreds of demonstrators have been wounded, maimed, and blinded, while others have faced torture, sexual assault, and rape. Thirty-six Chileans were murdered at the hands of state forces. Your artistic inspirations stem from Víctor Jara who was similarly tortured and murdered under the Pinochet regime for his politically charged music. How have artists like Jara and the Nueva Canción movement inspired the fight against state repression for a new Constitution?

RV: When we were out there, the soundtrack in the streets was Víctor Jara. On every corner, we heard his song “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz,” or “The Right to Live in Peace.” At the same time, we have artists that are inspired by the Nueva Canción. Artists like Portavoz and Ana Tijoux were also the soundtracks to these struggles. Groups like Inti-Illimani, who are members of Nueva Canción, performed at the peak of the uprisings in front of the people. They performed the anthem, “El Pueblo Unido” [The People United]. The culture of the Nueva Canción has been brought back to the forefront of Chile’s struggles through the uprisings.

There was a video that went viral of a musician hiding behind a shield on the front line. On a saxophone he played Víctor Jara’s “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz.” It was inescapable to hear the music of the Nueva Canción in the streets.

JD: What role is music and art currently playing fighting against neoliberalism and the movement to form a new Constitution? Conversely, how is the movement shaping art and music?

GV: Our big inspiration aside from the Nueva Canción and its legacy is the hip hop movement that emerged in Chile in the early 2000s. It was an explicitly organized political hip hop movement. You can see that movement in the 2006 Pingüinos rebellion of the young and school children that were protesting against the bus fare. Some of those kids became leaders of the 2019 rebellion. This generation that came up around the politicized hip hop is a testament to the power of culture in educating, agitating, and organizing.

RV: Not only the music but the art, the comedy, the wit brought to the protest. People were showing up in different costumes that made a mockery and a joke of the political establishment. They made it accessible to the majority of the people. Graffiti was also something that was impressive. In Santiago, the walls are telling you what’s going on the street. It’s the newspapers of the people. That creativity among the Chilean people was as important as the front lines.

GV: We have to mention the hit of November 2019 that wasn’t on a record label, “Un Violador en Tu Camino” [“A Rapist in Your Path”]. The Chilean feminist women’s movement popularized street performances of that song. It blew up in Chile, and thousands of women were performing it in Mexico, Europe, and across Latin America. It speaks to the role of sexism and misogyny as being integral to capitalism, the neoliberal model, and how women can resist it.

JD: In the US, we hear a lot of talk about simply voting for change, which often yields a continuation of the status quo. While Chileans voted for change, the struggle was accompanied by a mass movement fought in self-defense. How did militancy play into the win for a new Constitution?

RV: We wouldn’t be having a new Constitution if people didn’t resist in the streets. It’s that simple. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now if it wasn’t for young people deciding to take to the streets and to bravely resist militarized oppression from the state. Here in the US, the parallel is that we wouldn’t be having conversations about defunding the police or Black Lives Matter if it wasn’t for the people in Minnesota, New York, Oakland, and Louisville also taking to the streets.

The difference is people in Chile never left the streets. They’re probably protesting right now. The movement showed its discontent with not only those that wrote the Constitution but those that passively upheld it. It was discontent with the whole political class, left and right. That’s going to translate over to this new process, where 78 percent of people voted for a constituent convention.

JD: What can the left learn from the movement in Chile? What made this win successful?

RV: You have to listen to the streets. Young people that are leading are also rejecting the left and the right. Historically, we saw Ferguson and Baltimore get co-opted into voting for Hillary and now with Biden. We saw people legitimately resisting police murder across this country turn into voting. Biden’s first response to the murder of [Walter Wallace Jr.] was “let’s keep the violence off the streets.” We’re getting the same messages from the people that were supposed to channel the political street energy into voting for Democrats. What people can learn from the struggle in Chile are the tactics, like the front line and the second line, and how to resist a militarized occupation. What the people in Chile have demonstrated is a political education class for the rest of the world.

GV: What we can learn from the movement in Chile, that forced the hands of the business class, is that the level of unity isn’t just left versus right but people versus capital. We have to make these connections that it isn’t just Democrat versus Republicans or Black versus white, but in a manner that Chile represented, a struggle of people versus capital.

JD: What are the movement’s implications for Sebastián Piñera’s government?

RV: This uprising managed to ridicule Piñera to the point that if an election were held today, the votes wouldn’t be that different [from the Constitutional referendum] in getting him out of office. If things got worse, capital would have been willing to sacrifice Piñera. What saved him was the November 15 agreement. Without conceding a vote for a new Constitution, Piñera would have been forced by the people to resign. That concession bought Piñera time. If it weren’t for the pandemic, those protests would have kept on rolling in full force. The pandemic has shown the flaws of the Piñera government in which they have chosen profits over people. The protests had Piñera on the ropes.

JD: Your family fled as political refugees during the dictatorship and was engaged in resistance with Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria [La MIR, or the Revolutionary Left Movement]. What does it mean specifically to your family and for those formerly associated with organizations like La MIR that Chileans have moved to rewrite the Pinochet-era Constitution?

RV: For my parents and their generation it’s been super-inspiring to see the uprisings. For them, for all that the Pinochet dictatorship did to their lives, seeing his Constitution voted out was symbolic death to the Pinochet era. The fact that it’s 2020 and we still have a Pinochet Constitution is very telling of the level of influence that the dictatorship had and still has on Chilean society. To see young people, kids who are in their grandchildren’s generation, take to the streets, breathed an extra bit of life into my parents.

GV: One characteristic of La MIR is that they were critical supporters of [Salvador] Allende, they were not part of the Unidad Popular coalition. For the elder Miristas, it’s inspiring to see that it’s being autonomously organized and rejects the entire political class. The young people haven’t been duped.

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