Mitra Qayoom recently had the opportunity to interview one of UK’s most talented and inspiring rappers, Lowkey, who has recently returned from a trip to Venezuela.
M: I found the information provided by Lowkey very inspiring and hope that those of you reading this will also be inspired by the people of Venezuela and their struggle for an equal world. In order to understand the situation in Venezuela and why Chavez is so popular among the poor but hated by the rich, I believe it is best to speak to the Venezuelans directly or to someone who has visited the country. Stories have a greater impact and are less distorted when they come from these sources.
What were you up to before your trip to Venezuela, since the release of you new album? Soundtrack to the Struggle got released in October and after its release you went on a national tour. How would you describe the experience?
I think that was a learning process. I did some things wrong and some things right. The best part of it is being able to travel to places that you have never been before, being backstage and not seeing what the crowd is like. We did a launch party in Highbury, when I walked out there, it was incredible and I couldn’t believe how many people where there. It was like that on the tour, Manchester we had a huge amount of people, six to seven hundred people, Birmingham, four to five hundred people, Leeds, five hundred people. I have spent in essence almost a third of my life doing this and to see now, when I start singing and everybody singing it back to me, it feels more true to me. The music I make now is more true and honest. As a rapper there is quite a lot of pressure to not be yourself because you are surrounded by so much ego and it is important to speak what is your truth. To speak that and then to hear it sang back to you is one of the best feelings in the world.
What’s your favourite track on the album?
When I first made the album I went through phases, at one point it would be one thing and at another point it would be another thing. But overall maybe, ‘Terrorist’ because I have had other people sing it back to me and it feels good.
M: Before we hear Lowkey’s response to his visit, here’s a bit of background on Venezuela. On his third voyage in 1498, Columbus explored Venezuela, and at the time the area was inhibited by Arawak, Carib, and Chibcha Indians. Another Spanish explorer gave the country its name, meaning “Little Venice.” Simon Bolivar led the liberation of the country from Spain, and Venezuela was one of the first South American colonies to revolt in 1810, winning its independence in 1821.
Hugo Chavez took presidency in 1999, pledging political and economic reforms to give the poor a greater share of the country’s oil wealth. In 2002 the rich overthrew Chavez in a coup, but he was brought back to power just two days later, by an outpouring of support from his supporters, the poor. Chavez has been elected three times as the country’s president and is still highly popular among the poor but hated by the opposition.
What did the Venezuelans think of Hugo Chavez?
He is hugely popular among the poor and in the barrios (mountains with houses built on them). The rich have the flat land and the poor are on the mountains, much like in Israel and the West bank. Palestine is mountainous but Israel is the flat land, so you can see they’ve taken purposely the flat areas and left the mountainous areas to the poor. One thing that Chavez has done, which is so great I have to say, is, if you are a person who lives in the barrios, and you live at the top, and you work in the centre of Caracas, it will take you something like three hours to get to work. What he has done, is, built cable cars that go through the sky (which is not only a great view), into the centre of Caracas. So it’s a trip that would take three hours to work but has been reduced to fifteen minutes. It’s completely free and the carriages are clean enough to eat off. On the one hand people would say, you need to get rid of poverty completely, but then, on the other hand, you look and say while this isn’t perfect, this is a progression towards a fairer country, so of course people that live in these neighbourhoods love Chavez.
We went to another neighbourhood and did a show with Hip Hop Revelucion. People who invited me over there are these young guys who’ve opened up 31 hip hop schools across the country in Venezuela, schools that help teach maths and science. They teach hip hop, they take them out to the country, they teach them how to plant food and how the take it out of the ground and wash it and cook it. They have political debates as well, as part of their programme of education.
We went to this other neighbourhood where there were quite serious floods in Venezuela soon after Chavez became president and a lot of people died and lost their houses. He took all the people that lived there and built them an entire neighbourhood to live in. There is no rent; no paying for the houses and the people there loved him. It’s not rocket science, if you give to people, you put hospitals and schools in places where there haven’t been hospitals and schools ever, people will love you.
There was an 87-year old woman that was learning to read and write for the first time in her life. How come a woman who is 87 years old has not been provided that her whole life? It hasn’t been her choice; she hasn’t thought, I could read and write but I don’t want to. She’s been in a position where that hasn’t been an option for her. And this is why people don’t like Chavez, because ultimately he is taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
The way we are encouraged to view the situation is absolutely wrong and false. The only reason they call him a dictator is because he’s been elected so many times. He’s been elected democratically more times than any other president in the world. For us to have a Queen and a monarchy in this country, and call Hugo Chavez a dictator is the height of hypocrisy. The country is more democratic than this country, 100 percent.
On 2 December 2011 in Caracas, 33 Latin American leaders came together to form the new regional bloc, pledging closer economic and political ties, the US excluded. Hugo Chavez said at the inauguration: “As the years go by, CELAC is going to leave behind the old and worn-out Organization of American States.” It looks like the country has a strong anti-imperialist stance?
It was really inspiring because it felt like, not only the way the country was run but also the way people interacted with each other, on a human level – it felt very inspiring and very different from what I’m used to here. It was also inspiring to be there during CELAC, the new South American and Caribbean alliance, excluding the United States and Canada. It’s good because I think it shows a sort of movement across the region, of governments stepping away a little from Washington and a little bit closer to Caracas, so I think it’s a positive thing.
I watched a documentary where in the deprived parts of the city, people had the constitution up on the walls of their shops. As the customers entered the shop they were required to read the constitution and educate themselves on the laws of the country. Is that so everywhere in Caracas?
From what I saw, the idea of political participation is so heavily encouraged. You walk down the street and you have the constitution and the laws available in government subsidised shops. What kind of dictatorship encourages the people to know the laws of their country? Outside of the train station and the university, there are people sitting there with computers and pieces of paper, asking people to register to vote.
The opposition own a lot of the media, which is backed by the foreign money from the United States. They call him a monkey in the private media, and he hasn’t shut them down. People stand on the street and call him anything under the sun, nobody gets sent to prison. So how can we call this a dictatorship, when we have people in this country who are facing charges for writing stuff on Facebook? Ultimately the elite fear the political participation of poor people, because when you have political participation of poor people, it’s not going in favour of the wealthy. It will favour the poor and of course poor people are the masses and the majority in most places in the world, and if they get more of a say its bad news for certain people.
There is a racial factor to this as well. When you look at the poor, they are every colour under the sun, when you look at the opposition and the wealthy; they are almost all exclusively blond. They are the descendent of the Spanish and the Portuguese colonisers, and the poor are the descendents of the indigenous and the African. Chavez is not only struggling to make a fairer and equal Venezuela, he is also trying to make a fairer and equal world. We met a few students from Palestine who are over there getting an education. They are trained, housed and fed for free. The best thing about this is that they are not encouraged to stay in Venezuela; they send them back home so that they can use this knowledge to the betterment of their people. How can anyone look at this situation and say this is bad?
Chavez’s health hasn’t been great with the recent diagnosis of his cancer. He claims the cancer is all cured and he is fine, but there are rumours claiming, he has as little as six months left. How much of that is true, nobody knows. If this were true, from what you saw, do you think his supporters will continue to fight his revolution after he’s gone?
As you know often people who have cancer, they have chemotherapy and they have relapses. Regardless of the individual, what he has started in Venezuela, I don’t think the counter revolutionaries will be able to stop. I believe that it is already in motion and it will continue forward. I think that’s the best thing that he could possibly leave. Yes he has an incredibly strong personality and people are voting for him rather than the party he is a part of, but also because of the ideas he had and the things he tried to do. These things will defiantly continue pushing forward, whatever happens.
You mentioned you did a show with Hip Hop Revolucion. How did that go?
It went really well. This time of year in Venezuela it seems to rain for about forty five minutes every day, you don’t know when it’s going to rain. And the show was outside. It rained when the show started and damaged a little bit of the equipment. But then after that a lot more people came; we had about three to five hundred people. And of course, it’s good for me because it puts me in a position where, nobody actually understands what I’m saying, so I have to find a way to make a bridge and relate to people in a way that they can understand me. We did well and filmed footage of it for the documentary. Jody did a speech as well and it was a great show.
What are your future plans?
To be honest I think my future plans change on a day to day basis. My album was a few years in the making and that was my ultimate aim. I do feel at the moment to start making a new one, possibly go back to university or move to Venezuela, or possibly to pack it in and start writing some type of book. I have so many different ideas in my head. There are so many things I would love to do, it’s just finding the right thing at the right time to spend your time on.
What’s your message to those who support you and look up to you?
Thank you very much for the support. There is no need to look up to me. The more bridges we build, not just between each other, but around the world and the collective struggle that we have to better the world, the more we can progress and push in the right direction. I don’t want the moral of my story to be about self glorification, I want to start something that I can continue. I think that’s the best thing you can give to the world, the best effect your presence could have, you started something that kept rolling.
Mitra Qayoom is an Afghan activist and writer. Mitra is a member of Afghans for Peace, an alliance of Afghans from various ethnic, religious, socio-economic, cultural, and political backgrounds with a united vision for a democratic, all inclusive, just and peaceful Afghanistan.