Hip Hop – Art as an instrument of political struggle

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he street is the common element to represent the hip-hop movement in different cities around the world – said the Brazilian rapper Emicida. The streets and social exclusion commonly characterize this movement, which emerged during the 1970s when block parties became popular in New York City among African American residing in the Bronx, in economically segregated urban areas. Nowadays, hip-hop properly denotes the practice of the entire subculture, and rap music, sometimes used as its synonym, is actually a musical element inside hip-hop. Other stylistic elements are: scratching, break dancing, and graffiti writing. As an artistic expression, hip-hop has become an instrument for excluded young people, mainly in big cities, to claim their identity in spaces where violence, drugs and crime often dictate the rules.

Film "You Are God", presented in Berlin during the event Polish Spring 2013
Film “You Are God”, presented in Berlin during the event Polish Spring 2013

During a series of debates – part of the Polish Spring project – Political Critique Berlin Club presented a debate: Art as an Instrument of Political Struggle – Political Transformation in Poland (link to the video in Polnish/German) about a legendary Polish hip-hop group Paktofonika. The film titled Jesteś Bogiem (You Are God) presented to Berlin´s public a dramatic story of the most important hip-hop group in Poland who became a symbol of times of capitalist transformation. The lives of Magik, Rahim and Fokus is a story about dreams, both achieved and failed, and the struggles of making them come true in the brutal reality of impoverished Silesia and fledgling music industry. Inspired by a true story, the film was also an opportunity to observe Poland as the processes of capitalist regime transition and growing social exclusion expand in the cities.

As the Polish Spring series of debates promoted by Political Critique in Berlin was held in June 2013, the German capital was the host of one of the most important hip-hop festivals in the world, the BeLaSound. An event and a cultural bridge between Germany and the Latin countries in Europe and America. Below you can read an interview with one of the most prominent Brazilian rappers going by the name of Emicida. It’s an overview of how hip-hop has become a social movement around the world. As an artistic movement, with voices coming from many cities and bringing together their social problems, one can say hip-hop is also an intrument of political struggle.

Interview with the Brazilian rapper Emicida, from “Revista Fórum”, June 2013

Your music very often deals with social issues. Why have you chosen this way? What is the meaning of releasing your CD at the Occupy Movement (Mauá – São Paulo, 2013)?

Emicida – First, it is important to show that there are cultural activities taking place in the stigmatized spaces of São Paulo. Most people believe that the only activity in these places is drugs and dealers. Releasing my CD at the Occupation and the video of my new album means sharing a new idea about this place. Showing the life and the power of people who live here. And, well, my history is also related to the history of social movements. My mother many times took part in social movements for occupations. Very often we walked together in demonstrations with the well-known movement called MST [Movement of Rural works without land] in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia. You know, we stayed there, drawing the new lines of social camps and marking the land.

The Brazilian rapper Emicida "The Hip Hop saved my life"          Foto: Luciana Faria
The Brazilian rapper Emicida “The Hip Hop saved my life” Foto: Luciana Faria

The name of your first mix tape was “For those who have already bitten a dog by starvation, well, I came far”. You’re actually in a better situation now than at those times. Nowadays, we could say you’re a black guy from the peripheries that has come to the mainstream and many young people from those places where you used to live listen to your music.  How do you feel about it?

You know these thoughts come up every single day of my life. This is a real responsibility because in the last 30 years, our people fought against each other, you know. So, somehow, this should explode inside hip-hop. As we pass through many places and gather large audiences, there are people who are against what we’re doing. I respect the opinions of all of them, but they need to have better arguments. If I would pay attention to what some say, I would just be the poor black man from the slums. There are many barriers to overcome and these barriers become bigger when you achieve something. I am fighting, man, and I know what I am seeding here. There is a politician who made a speech about the 125 years of abolishing black slave trade in Brazil. He summarized the slavery’s consequences well. I agree with what he said that the 300 years of exclusion and violence suffered by black people needs much more than 300 years to be repaired.

Due to the growing popularity of rap, the new generation is being called to play in places for middle and upper class. How do you handle this?

Well, you go to some places and gather more people, but, since 1995, the playboys (richest youngsters) are playing music by a rapper group called Racionais. I’ve seen many things. When we went to beg, in the place where I lived, in the neighbourhoods of Vila Zilda São Paulo, we used to see some of those playboys, with theirs nice cars, driving down the streets, listening to rap sounds. We saw that and were very surprised. We said: These playboys don’t understand what they’re listening to. Well, on the other hand, I can’t tell them that they shouldn´t listen to rap music.

Are you for the quotas for black people?

Yes. I think there should be more quotas. There is an interesting question about this. We have a big difficulty to think outside the white point of view. We live in a situation in which a black person denies his or her own culture and colour, “the Black is only the other, not me“, so to speak. While going to many events I realized that the colour of the audience changes according to the price of the tickets… There is a documentary about Bob Marley, where he talks about it. The first concerts Marley played in US, there were only white people in the audience, and this intrigued him. He believed that black people in his own country – Jamaica – could criticize him for playing for white people. Somehow I also struggle with it, because of this stupid thought that we’re sharing the rap with white people, when, truly said, we just reach many more people around the world. I can play in a disco with tickets costing around 60 EUR; in Cooperifa (Cultural Cooperation of Periphery); or even play for free, on the streets. We are together with the funk in the peripheries more than ever. There is a conservative perspective inside hip-hop which fragments the culture from the slums. I don’t like some funk music, but I do recognize it as an authentic cultural manifestation. I agree with a quotation from Hermano Viana, an anthropologist and cultural researcher: Funk for me is a much more convincing proof of Brazilian art life than many voices and guitars.

In your leads, you often use the language of the streets. On the other hand, you also admire great poets and writers as Mário Quintana. Where these two tendencies meet when you compose?

There is a quotation from Sérgio Vaz, the poet of Marginal Literature: When we goes, we really goes. But the grammatically incorrect use of this phrase in Portuguese (with similar meaning in English) means much more than a simple mistake. It means that people talk the way that is spoken in places they come from. For music this is a kind of an interesting tool. In fact, formal and standard language forms have no rhythm. It would be difficult to use short words, as we do, without using idioms. So, when I use short words, when I create new words, changing syllables and so on, it creates an interesting musical effect, it seems much nicer than using standard language. I am a fan of Mario Quintata, a writer, because of his endearing simplicity. I have some of his books but it doesn’t mean that I should change the way I express myself, even if it is not the standard language. On the other hand, I really want to make rap that I appreciate. Ideologically speaking, there is a challenge not to feel obliged to say exactly the things that most people want to hear. Some people believe that I should rap in a similar way to other rappers. Well, some rappers really do it amazingly. With all the respect, I don’t need to compete with the group Facção Central to produce the hardest music, so to speak. There is a space for everyone. My goal, for example, is to achieve the musical intensity of samba, that’s why samba is my guideline. The same way rap can speak about even the most drastic situations, as for example in “The Diary of a Detainee”, I believe that rap must say things like samba musician Cartola used to say. One can say that this way rap becomes more commercialized. But for me this relationship with poetry is extraordinary, and I understand that it makes people both laugh and cry.

Do you often study history of music?

I´ll tell you something interesting. I do study more history of music, than music itself. I am curious. There are two things we should never lose in our lives: curiosity and persistence. And I have both [smiles]. I believe that the music that I do is a continuation of many styles. I use elements of jazz, blues, samba, and I am always trying to figure out new references. My intention is to build a link between our culture and my generation. I actually consider my generation uninformed, one that doesn`t know the good things created in our country.

And how did you get interested in books? The media stereotype young people of the peripheries as always linked to crime, having no knowledge or interests, and you are an exception…

But it is on the contrary, really. When people take their time to know what hip-hop is, they discover that marginality is the last thing it can be linked with. Marginality and hip-hop are a common perception used by the media to sell. Brazil comes from a recent dictatorship and now we´re actually living in a dictatorship of communication. Well, we don´t have an instrument or broadcast to compete with the traditional media. They do what they want and share what they want. They criminalize the struggle of the people. Today I am in the mainstream, and it is a quite crazy when some artists approach me and say: That was great, man; you’ve said what had to be said.

But these people don’t do it…

[smile] That is the point. When they have the opportunity to talk to more people about problems, they don’t do it. In the end, the dirty work is on rap, and we take the fight. Well, it is amazing how hip-hop in Latin America has become a social movement.


Emicida, whose name is Leandro Roque de Oliveira, was born in 17th August 1985. The Brazilian MC is considered one of the biggest revelations of hip-hop in Brazil. The name “Emicida” is a fusion of the words Emcee (master of ceremonies) and homicide, due to his frequent victories in the battles of improvisation his friends began to say that Leandro was a “killer” and “kill” their opponents through rhymes. In 2012, in a concert in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, at the Hip-Hop Stage Barreiro (an event that brought together several artists and activists of street culture), before singing the song “finger in the wound”, which talks about communities and poor areas unoccupied and victims of police violence, Emicida asked the audience to raise “the middle finger for the police, which vacated the poorest families”. The rapper was making mention the Occupation Eliana Silva, also in the city Belo Horizonte, where landless families were displaced on May 12, 2012. Soon after the show, Emicida was taken to the 36th Precinct Sectional Barreiro. At the end of the night, the rapper was liberated. For disagreeing with the content of the police report, he refused to sign it.


Interview: Igor Carvalho and Renato Rovai/ Revista Fórum June -2013

English translation and Edition: Tainã Mansani, Konrad Zwoliński


Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.