Why you should care
Because, it turns out, the dual moniker “rapper-activist” still means something in Africa.
The author is a jazz musician based in New York. His latest album is The Now.
Gaunt and shaggy, Luaty Beirão looks like the vegan he is. And then he opens his salty mouth. Several years ago, Beirão, who raps as Ikonoklasta, strutted onstage before a thousand fellow Angolans and unleashed an epithet-laden freestyle against the powers that be. Risky enough in the country where Jose Eduardo Dos Santos has presided for three decades over a kleptocratic and repressive regime. But Beirão, true to his nature, went further. Spotting one of Dos Santos’ sons in the audience, he directed him to tell his Daddy it’s time to step down: “We don’t want him here anymore: 32 anos é muito [is a lot].” This musician has only one thing to prove: He will not be silenced.
Each of us chooses between being an actor of change or a spectator.
—Beirão’s Fortificando a Desobediencia
Ikonoklasta’s hip-hop challenge bred four years of non-violent protests against the regime, and this week they all came to a head. Beirão and 16 others, including a few fellow rappers, went on trial, accused of an attempted coup d’etat. (They were arrested at a book club, discussing a treatise on non-violent opposition to dictatorship.) Now President Dos Santos faces a difficult choice: convict Luaty and his comrades, and risk making martyrs; or pardon them, and give some air to a movement that’s been smoldering among the hip-hop generation. As for Beirão’s decision? He’s been making it, over and over, for the past five years.
The son of a former spokesman for Dos Santos’ MPLA party, Beirão took a life-altering trip from Morocco to Angola — by foot — after university. Back at home, he began to turn up the volume in increasingly open displays of public dissent, bucking Angola’s post-war trend toward quiescence and civility. After that 2011 performance— which enflamed the crowd to chant “ZeDu Fora!” [Dos Santos Out!]—he was blacklisted from major venues. Beirão refocused his energy on organizing small political rallies denouncing Angolan democracy as a farce and Dos Santos as a corrupt dictator. Punishment was swift. Pro-government thugs attacked Beirão and his colleagues, leaving him hospitalized with a bleeding skull. On a flight to Lisbon he was framed for drug smuggling––someone hid cocaine in his mountain bike and tipped off the Portuguese authorities, who quickly let him go. Finally, on June 20, Beirão was arrested in the capital of Luanda and held for nearly five months without trial.
They want us stupid and anesthetized. Let’s not offer our minds without resistance. Read and knowledge will set you free.
His crime? Beirão and his comrades were caught en flagrante discussing a book by non-violence guru Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. The Angolan government accused the activists—rappers, engineers, professors, students, journalists and one low-ranking soldier––of fomenting a coup-d’etat. The United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the European Parliament all quickly denounced the charges and called on Angola to release the detained, to no avail. Next move: Beirão. The rapper embarked upon a 36-day hunger strike against their detention without trial. Risking brain damage and organ failure, he attracted media attention across Europe. In response to images of a rawboned, barely conscious Beirão spreading across the Internet, the Angolan government announced a trial date of November 16 for all the accused.
Angola has one of Africa’s strongest militaries. It exports massive quantities of oil to international players like China and the U.S. Dos Santos’ ruling MPLA has a monopoly over natural resources, mainstream media and the entire machinery of state. So why is Dos Santos, in power for 36 years, afraid of a plucky rapper? By Human Rights Watch’s count, some $32 billion in Angolan revenues have “disappeared.” The President’s own daughter, Isabel, became the richest woman in Africa and the continent’s first female billionaire.
While the average Angolan is aware that the vast riches produced by his native land are constitutionally designated to benefit every citizen, most are wary of violence after a 27-year civil war and intimidated by fear of the state. So anyone courageous enough to speak out against the status quo is considered a foe. Recently an Angolan ambassador tellingly called the Arab Spring the “biggest horror faced by Africa” since colonialism. Rafael de Morais, an Angolan journalist and government critic who also suffered jail time, claims the regime knows that the silent majority is tiring of the situation and will rise up if given space: thus all protests must be suppressed. Beirão became Public Enemy #1 because he’s fearless and because he scores the truth to a beat that can reach the masses.
Nothing is eternal: All empires fall.
—Fortificando a Desobediencia
But by shushing the provocateur Beirão, the regime has unintentionally created a cause-célèbre. Whatever the results of the trial, Luaty and his fellow rapper-activists have succeeded in showing the world the hidden face of Dos Santos. African politicians and protesters have long harnessed music to a cause, including for the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements. But Beirão has been one of the first African rappers to openly court death for the sake of his political ideals. His “I’m An Angolan Kamikaze” proclaims itself a “suicide note to my parents.” In it he charges the President with direct responsibility for Angola’s misery and addresses him eye-to-eye: “You’re a piece of iron, man, cold and lifeless. Your heart, if you have one, beats on the other side.”
Next move: Dos Santos.