Venezuela: the hip-hop revolution

Boogie for your right to defy gringo imperialism, y’all. From Reuters, May 23:

CARACAS – Among the shabby high-rise tenements overlooking Venezuela’s capital, hip-hop beats rather than the usual gunfire kept the Caracas neighborhood of Pinto Salinas awake one night recently.

Bass notes echoed from a small stage as teen-agers in baggy sports clothes and fat sneakers, many of them black youths descended from African slaves, listened avidly to an instructor before themselves rapping in Spanish over a thundering sound system.

In a twist in Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s self-styled socialist revolution, his government, which has long pumped proceeds from oil sales into health and education for the poor, is paying for rap-crazy youths to prime their rhymes as an escape route from drugs and violence in some of Caracas’ toughest neighborhoods.

“We’re used to seeing corpses, used to seeing people kill each other every day in shootouts,” said Alfred Garcia, a 20-year-old rapper from Pinto Salinas who helped organize the workshop on hip-hop culture.

“Shooting can break out at any time … but not tonight,” he said. “I know the bad guys … I spoke to them and told them this event was going on. They said they wouldn’t bother us if we didn’t bother them.”

Held in poor neighborhoods across Caracas, rap workshops are run with government funds by Tiuna el Fuerte, a collective of young artists and musicians born out of a failed April 2002 coup against Chavez.


“This is a turntable, this is a mixer,” a 21-year-old instructor in combat pants who called himself MC klopedia told wide-eyed children who clambered onto the stage at Pinto Salinas for a class on hip-hop basics. Some could barely walk.

“There is gangster rap, there is hardcore rap … Hey pay attention!” he snapped as two toddlers scuffled.

Older brothers, some wearing dark glasses and headscarves and holding pitbull terriers on chains, looked on approvingly at the rap class.

After oil production soared under 1950s dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela began building scores of high-rise apartment complexes across Caracas known as ‘superblocks’ aimed at providing healthy spaces for urban living.

But overflowing with rural migrants and virtually unpoliced, many hillside complexes like Pinto Salinas are now as prone to drug violence as the chaotic shantytowns that have sprung up around them.

As marijuana smoke mixed with the solvent stench of graffiti artists’ spray paint, the budding rappers at Pinto Salinas described their daily reality in neighborhoods known as “barrios” a world away from the plush malls and guarded condominiums of wealthier parts of the city.

“Come to my barrio, to see I am not lying, where the bullets are a concert of pure death, not salsa,” one rapper chimed. A friend puffed a “beatbox” rhythm into a microphone with his mouth while another “scratched” vinyl records.


The project was born out of the political upheaval that has characterized Venezuela in recent years.

Leaving a rehearsal at their university in 2002, members of a band mixing salsa with hip-hop from a Caracas neighborhood similar to Pinto Salinas bumped into a march by Chavez opponents that was part of a coup that briefly toppled him.

After joining thousands of other Chavez supporters in the streets to help restore his power, some of the band members vowed to support the former paratrooper’s “revolution” using music and art.

The government put the young musicians on the payroll, gave them transport, a sound system and a plot of concrete-covered land in the shadow of a “superblock” complex as a base.

Covered in creative graffiti, much of it critical of Chavez’s sworn enemy U.S. President George W. Bush, the spot overlooking a busy highway is a hangout, concert venue and school for everything from sound-engineering to circus skills.

“We are armed and fighting,” said one of the collective’s founders, 32-year-old Piki Figueroa. “Our bullets are music, dance, painting, poetry, video and images.”

Critics denounce Chavez’s neighborhood programs as wasteful populist measures aimed at currying favor among the masses.

Members of the collective say they support the government with reservations because they worry about corruption. Tiuna says it had little grasp of the reality of barrio youth culture, something they want to help change.

Proudly watching her son perform, rapper Garcia’s mother Egle Mijares said she was hopeful the project could limit the number of bullets flying around Pinto Salinas on most other nights.

“They’re getting rid of all that adrenaline they have,” she said of the budding street poets. “They’ve fallen in love with rap so much that they’ve given up crime.”

See our last post on Venezuela.