Critics frequently trash hip hop because commercialism dominates the genre. But, as Bakari Kitwana notes in his new book Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, the music serves a higher purpose as a “voice for the voiceless” and a bridge across America’s racial divide. Artists like New York-based rapper Immortal Technique provide that voice, heightening awareness within a community desperate for change.
For both jaded hip hop heads and political activists, Immortal Technique’s music is refreshing. At a sold-out venue, teenagers fall silent as Immortal Technique – also known as Tech – kills the beat and reminds them: “Blacks and Latinos get the worst education/ while devils run America like Birth of a Nation/ affirmative action and reversed discrimination/ that shit is a pathetic excuse for reparations.”
On a recent trip to Chicago, Tech toured Roberto Clemente High School in Humboldt Park and then attended a hip hop open mic night down the street at the Batey Urbano, a youth center in the heart of this slowly gentrifying Puerto Rican neighborhood.
Tech encouraged the kids to be revolutionaries by working together and contributing to their community. He explained that the only way for black and Latino people to find a way out of poverty is to own, produce and maintain control over their resources. By empowering themselves, he says, these kids can overcome the racism that he argues is a distraction, a side effect, of our society’s corrosive inequality. “America speaks one language: money. America’s religion is capitalism, ever so much more than Christianity,” he said. “But believe me, the white left is still racist.”
Tech’s activism and authenticity derives from hard life experience. He was born in Peru 27 years ago and his family left when he was 4, fleeing an escalating civil war. They landed in Harlem and, while not delving into his childhood, he admits it was rough. “I tried to go to [college] but I ended up going to prison,” he says.
His epiphany occurred as he rode the corrections bus upstate. “Prison is not the rite of passage that makes you a man. All that hustlin’, robbin’, stealin’, that didn’t make me a real nigga at all,” he says. “When I came home from that and I put money in my mother’s pocket to help support my family, that made me a real nigga.”
During his time behind bars, Tech devoured books about history, religion and civil rights. He wrote often in jail and when he got out, he took that material and eventually produced two albums, Revolutionary Vol:I and last year’s Revolutionary Vol:II. Ambitious titles, but the man has big goals, and with his multi-faceted appeal and a new album, The Middle Passage, scheduled to drop in early fall, he is poised for battle. Vol:II sold 45,000 copies on Immortal Technique’s own label, Viper Records. Moving that many units is an impressive feat in today’s music industry, in which five companies control 90 percent of the music distribution. He and a few other rappers, including M-1 of Dead Prez, organized a hip hop union last fall called G.A.ME. (Grassroots Artist MovEment), whose members receive free healthcare in New York and Philadelphia. “You make more of a political statement by owning a record label than anything you could possibly say on a record,” Tech says.
Despite his progressive political message, sensitive ears will be offended when Tech raps graphically about abortions or what he would do to the mothers and girlfriends of his enemies. But getting caught up in the language misses the point. Tech’s gritty irreverence is precisely what lends him credibility among wary, young hip hop fans. As one aspiring emcee at the Batey told Tech, “I don’t usually like underground hip hop or Latino rappers, but your shit is raw, I love it.”