Chalked Up to Collateral Damage: An Interview with Immortal Technique by Matt Conover

When I met Tech, as his road manager referred to him, he was writing notes for his show, which was about to begin at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia— a part of the Martyr Tour he’s doing in support of a recent mixtape release. He had a set list scrawled on three paper plates, written in blocky magic marker letters. He wore a desert digital camouflage jacket with woodland camouflage pants, black leather Nikes and an Oakland Raiders cap with marijuana leaves depicted on the underside of the brim. He stood up to shake my hand, clutching a Blackberry in the other, and met my eyes fully before he sat down, eyes shifting again between plates and his phone. I sat down on the couch perpendicular to his, and listened to the dulled sounds coming from the openers upstairs. He still seemed extremely focused on the phone, and I sat next to him dumbly for fifteen seconds before he looked up with a glare and asked if I was ready.

Over the next fifteen minutes or so, whenever Tech made a serious point, he would look up with a stare that was not so much intense as it was earnest. The Peruvian-born, Harlem raised rapper has ideas which would lead most to label him as a “radical” or a “conspiracy theorist.” In his music, he delivers his ideas with a sickly sweet flow on top of theatric production. In conversation, he speaks slowly at first, working through concepts with clear-headed passion, until he reaches conclusions and his speech quickens, perhaps betraying the personal, emotional impact the issues have on him. In either mode, his ideas roll into your head and live there. He has an addictive, socially unacceptable and relentlessly empathetic brand of politics, but Tech comes across as so sincere that you can’t help but wonder about the truth behind his viewpoints.

As such, I felt compelled to fact check the interview below, and the endnotes that follow this interview attempt to verify or illuminate some of his statements. I am not trying to prop up his ideas, but after researching what he said, I believe Tech’s ideas should not be dismissed out of hand. The issues raised in this interview should at least be explored and contemplated, and the endnotes aim to aid such reflection.

GADFLY: So it’s been about a week since The Martyr dropped. What has the reaction been like so far?

TECH: Overwhelming. It has been less than five days and we have had, I don’t even know the numbers because when we checked 3 days ago, it was close to 300,000 by the end of the day, by now maybe 400,000. We are going to have a new influx of people that are promoting it and putting it out to as many individuals as possible.  Incredibly important, to me, was the fact that we were capable of reaching just so many people. We never had anticipated this. MediaFire[i] thought that we were pirating movies or something. They called us up like, “What the hell is going on? What did you put up there?” I said “Oh, sorry, it’s just an album.” So I mean just an incredible response.[ii]

GADFLY: How did you intend to market it? Was it supposed to be a mixtape, or is it an album that you are putting out for free?  I’ve heard people call it both. Or does that difference matter?

TECH: The Martyr is a collection of previously unreleased and new tracks that reflect what’s going on in this society, and every other society that’s been on the brink of economic ruin and mass corruption. The decision to put it out came about when I just had a stockpile of material I was not going to use for The Middle Passage [Immortal Technique’s next album]— so I wanted to give thirsty fans something. I had to let them know that real hip-hop isn’t dead. That’s a very cliché term, but by “real hip-hop” I mean non-corporate controlled hip-hop, stuff that doesn’t try and sell you a watch. I am not trying to market myself; I just put me on a record.

GADFLY: Speaking of current events, I know you were up at Occupy Wall Street back in September, what were your impressions of the movement when you were there?

TECH: It was blossoming when I first got there; I saw it develop a lot. I saw that there were a lot of individuals that were there because they were genuinely concerned.  I saw people that were there just to be there because there is nowhere else to be because of money. I think the large majority of people that are there are really, really intelligent, fed-up people. People who have seen corruption and the complete destruction of America’s economy come by the hands of people that have removed themselves from any accountability for what they have done.  It would be interesting to see them focus on creating polling blocks, focus on doing things that affect local elections, that affect local politics and then be able to push that into a larger frame of affecting national politics.  I think they need to fight the fringe groups that are trying to take control of them, and you have an incredibly difficult job of fighting with the Democratic Party, which is obviously going to want to take control of them. Rather than fighting people, I think it would be better for them to find commonalities with certain groups within Republican and conservative realms. There are people within both parties that are genuinely dissatisfied. Pull them out of that sphere of thinking that they just have to toe the party line no matter what. At some point you are going to have to think for yourself instead of always being led by someone within your party.

GADFLY: You’ve been calling for a revolution, in your music, for years. Do you think Occupy Wall Street is a part of that?

TECH: I think it’s a piece of it.  But when you talk about revolution you have to understand that the reason I use it in my music with a lot more focus now is because I don’t want to give people the idea that I’m sitting here romanticizing about dead bodies in the street, people getting shot. Periods of complete anarchy are just about the last thing we want, but at the same time I know that if society isn’t willing to conform and help the needs of the people that it claims to represent, that it uses as batteries to power its machine, then it really only has two options: Literal repression, fascism— a complete autocratic regime controlled by an oligarchy and regional governments that hold everything down and keep people in line because they are terrified of the consequences; or a simple acceptance of certain amount of responsibility for what’s happened, what’s wrong with the country.

There was a sign that was really interesting at Occupy Wall Street. It said, “I’ll accept that human beings are a corporation when this government puts one of them in jail.” Nobody that did anything wrong, that was predatory, put out predatory loans, actually had anything happen to them that’s negative.[iii] Yet someone can steal a soda from a store and then go to jail for 2 years.[iv]  It doesn’t even make any sense to tell you.  Oh, you know what, I am a human rights violator, dictator of some country and I ordered a massacre. Yet here comes a person who signs to continue to bomb another country based on intelligence that is not true.  There is no connection to Al Qaeda – they have no weapons of mass destruction, no nuclear weapons, no chemical weapons – oops – sorry – now it’s a democratization effort.

What would happen in America if someone made that mistake with us? I’m talking about innocent civilians, random individuals who have not a fucking thing to do with the violence; they just want to live in peace. Random men and women in Charlottesville, random men and women in Richmond, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, all over the place, bombed the fuck out, killed, murdered, slaughtered. Chalked up to collateral damage. Where is the accountability for that? We haven’t even given so much as an “I’m sorry, whoops.”  It’s been “Fuck you, we are here to stay now. We might move our combat troops out but our embassy is always going to be here and we are always going to be intricately linked to your government no matter what it is. Until the insurgents tear this shit down.”

GADFLY: Is that what motivated your organization in Afghanistan?[v] Maybe a feeling of shared guilt because your country—

TECH: You know what it is? It is a study of history. When you see the Taliban and you study what they are, they are a group of orphans.  They were orphaned by the war against the Soviets. Many of them received some education, but instead of receiving a secular education, it was one totally rooted in scripture. Imagine what their lives would have been like with a little bit of love and a little bit of care.  Someone who really knows love in their life can’t take somebody into a stadium and stone them to death for some trivial crime. At some point when you look at the history in Afghanistan, you have to realize that they are such a young country. Most of their adult population was wiped out in a brutal revolution against an unjust system, which at the time just happened to be a Soviet system that was threatening the culture of a people that were living there for thousands and thousands of years.[vi] We didn’t have a problem with the most conservative, fundamentalist elements back then, but we have a problem with them now. We didn’t call it terrorism.[vii]

What is terrorism then? Is it an action, or is it an action against certain people?[viii]  If that’s the case then it doesn’t really hold a very strong philosophical argument. [ix] So it’s murder when I kill you, but it is not murder when you kill me, why? Because I’m a different color, because I’m a different race? No? Then what is it?  Because right now we are not calling what they did against the Russians terrorism. IEDs blowing up stuff, bombs. You know, I know the people see the difference and they say “Oh no, terrorism is about attacking civilians. That is the big difference. We [Americans] are not attacking civilians.” At that point I kind of lose respect for them.

You can use anything to try to convert it into a rationale saying, “That was a viable military target.” So many [extremist] militants came out saying “Oh yes, on 9/11, we didn’t just attack a civilian target, there weren’t just civilians involved. There was a command center. There were labs. We were attacking the financial center.”[x] If we [as Americans] are willing to deny them that claim and say, “No, you just killed civilians. That’s a really cheap excuse that you used to attack our people.” Then what’s our excuse for blowing up a hospital, blowing up a school? Whoops, we killed a wedding party.[xi] Sorry, we got the wrong people. We don’t care who died, because it doesn’t really fucking matter; we’re not going to be held accountable for it anyways. I am not a religious person but I believe in God and I think those people are going to be held accountable for what they did, within the compass of their own self.

GADFLY: In “Ultimas Palabras,” on The Martyr, you talk about those people. Who are they exactly?

TECH: The people who control the corporations, the people who control the companies are so high up and so well in place that they take on these non-assuming roles. I think Americans don’t even realize how close we are to having some sort of economic aristocracy.

The point when we are discussing the way music reflects real life, the way that painstakingly, over the years, what I have said is really a metaphor for what’s happening to America. It used to be about, or tried to be at the very beginning, about what was right.  It has stopped being what was right for America; it started being about what was right for companies that are in control. That was what this speech [in “Ultimas Palabras”] kind of spoke about.

At some point, where do we confront that within ourselves?  We have to be responsible for that.  We are responsible for all these things that are happening.  And then it really begins to sink in how powerful we are: Because if we’re responsible for it, then we have the power to change it. Not just see it.

----

[i] A website which hosts files, including The Martyr.

[ii] I emailed Viper Records, of which Tech is president, about the numbers he gave me off the top of his head, and on November 17th their CEO Jonathan Stuart responded that the number was now 370,000 and still climbing. According to the numbers on the popular mixtape site DatPiff.com, these figures put Tech’s mixtape in the same neighborhood of popularity as many mainstream mixtapes from major label rappers whose tapes have been out for much longer. In the same week that Tech dropped The Martyr, rising star ASAP Rocky released his mixtape, LiveLoveA$AP. Rocky, who just signed a record deal worth three million dollars with Sony/RCA, had managed about 90,000 listens and just 28,000 downloads as of November 29th. Tech seems, at least, to have the internet’s ear. [UPDATE: On January 12th, Stuart told me via email that the download total had hit "500,000 WITH NO IDEA OF WHERE IT WILL END UP…..."]

[iii] This could be considered factually incorrect in one sense, and conceptually illuminating in another. Multiple firms, including Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, have paid settlements with the SEC for various kinds of securities fraud, each for hundreds of millions of dollars. So in one sense, these firms have been punished, though one federal judge has called such settlements “half-baked justice at best.” That judge, Jed S. Rakoff, actually deemed the most recent settlement with Citigroup to be inadequate as such settlements do not require the companies to actually admit to wrongdoing, just to negligence (thereby shielding them from far more damaging investor suits). He said, in a very well written fifteen-page ruling, that such settlements have historic precedence, but no basis in reason. “The policy of accepting settlements without any admissions serves various narrow interests of the parties,” he said before going further to state that the rejected settlement was “a very good deal for Citigroup.” The SEC’s way of exacting justice on these financial firms is not in the best interest of the public, he said: “The partly successful resolution of their competing interests cannot be automatically equated with the public interest,” before forcefully concluding: “Finally, in any case like this that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth. In much of the world, propaganda reigns, and truth is confined to secretive, fearful whispers. Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found.” So it seems fair to say the firms have been lightly punished, and it is true that the executives who run them have faced little to no personal repercussions, and certainly not jail time.

[iv] I thought this statement was hyperbolic, and I was right. It’s only seventeen months, not a full twenty-four. It might be an exceptional case, but, really, this actually happened.

[vi] This statement exaggerates the facts. In 1997, the adult population of Afghanistan (interpreted as individuals aged 15-64 years) was approximately 11.5 million, based on data from the World Bank. Estimates of the casualties from the Afghan-Soviet conflict (December 1979 to February 1989) and the ensuing civil war (which ended in April of 1992), range from 1 to 2 million. The rough examination of this data suggests that while the number of casualties was significant relative to the adult population of Afghanistan, that population hardly seems to have been “wiped out.”

[vii] This bit of tragic, historic irony is well known, though seldom explicated. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, United States National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter, the U.S. began providing covert aid to the Afghani rebels, the Mujahedeen before the Soviets even invaded Afghanistan: “Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.” He states that the U.S. was attempting to lure the U.S.S.R. into the “Afghan trap” later in that same interview. Footage exists in which Brezinski says to the Mujahedeen that they will succeed against the Russian invaders because “your cause is right and God is on your side.” The U.S. not only provided material and fiscal aid, but also rhetorically validated the Mujahedeen’s jihad.

[viii] By their own definition, the U.S. government cannot commit an act of terrorism, and given the history of the government’s defining of terrorism, it seems reasonable to assume that this an intentional move. By the definition in the 2002 National Security Strategy, the U.S. Government could still in theory commit terrorist acts: “terrorism— premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.” By early 2003, this was amended (via the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism) to the version of the definition that now appears in the U.S. Code. According to the U.S. Code Chapter 38, Title 22, the term “terrorism” means “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” The last prepositional phrase indicates that the U.S. government has already moved past Tech’s line of questioning. The official definition describes terrorism not as an action against a certain kind of people (noncombatants), but rather by an action committed against a certain kind of people by a specific group.

Tech later insinuates that the U.S. military action in Afghanistan could be considered terrorist because of the toll it has had on civilians there. Anyone can learn from Wikipedia (or its multiple legitimate sources) that by 2003 U.S. military action in Afghanistan had already taken the lives of more civilians than the September 11th attacks, and to date the civilian death toll has doubled.

Now that both Tech and the previous paragraph have more or less implied that the U.S. might be committing acts which could be considered terrorist in nature, it should be said that the U.S. does not intentionally target Afghani or Iraqi noncombatants. Though it does not intentionally not target them, and as the high civilian death toll in 2003 indicates, said policy was established very early on in the war. As the Deputy Secretary of Defense said in an interview on October 28, 2001 to a question about early criticism of the U.S. bombing efforts, “I guess my main reaction is we lost somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 people in a single day. We’re now being threatened with weapons that could kill tens of thousands of people. We’re trying to avoid killing innocent people, but we have to win this war and we’ll use the weapons we need to in this war.”

[ix] The famous linguist Noam Chomsky has explored that philosophical argument and in a way similar enough to Tech that it merited an endnote: “It is important to bear in mind that the term “terrorism” is commonly used as a term of abuse, not accurate description. There are official definitions of “terrorism”, for example, those of the US and British governments, which are quite similar. But they are not used, because they do not distinguish between good and bad varieties of terrorism. That distinction is determined by the agent of the crime, not its character. It is close to a historical universal that our terrorism against them is right and just (whoever “we” happen to be), while their terrorism against us is an outrage. As long as that practice is adopted, discussion of terrorism is not serious. It is no more than a form of propaganda and apologetics.”

[x] The “extremists” attacked the targets because of their importance, but it was their symbolic importance, not their strategic importance as Tech says. Osama bin Laden, in an interview just a month after the attacks, said that, “The Sept. 11 attacks were not targeted at women and children. The real targets were America’s icons of military and economic power.”

[xi] U.S. bombs have destroyed a maternity hospital in Baghdad and a children’s hospital in Rutbah, Iraq, both in 2003. I could find no reports of schools that had been destroyed by airstrikes in either Afghanistan or Iraq. In one incident, a school was bombed because it had been occupied by Taliban forces, but no civilian casualties were reported in that case. There are some who say U.S. or NATO attacks have destroyed schools, but they fail to cite specific reports. Tech is correct in saying our bombs have destroyed wedding parties. In July 2008, a U.S. airstrike killed forty-seven civilians at a wedding party. A year later, another wedding was attacked in Afghanistan, but neither the Taliban nor Western forces would claim responsibility.

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