Rodrigo, aka Rodstarz and Gonzalo “G1” Venegas, members of the South Bronx hip-hop group Rebel Diaz, inherited a family history of struggle and survival. As children, they moved frequently because their parents, Chilean political refugees, never gave up hope of one day returning to Chile. “Half the time we didn’t even unpack,” said Rodstarz. “We were children growing up in exile.” But now, the Venegas brothers have found a home in the Bronx.
Their parents were supporters of Salvador Allende’s socialist government. They became political prisoners when Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody coup on Sept. 11, 1973. After three years of torture in a Chilean prison, they were able to escape to England, where Rodstarz was born in 1979.
The Venegas family spent their first five years of exile in Chertsey, a small town in Surrey. Rodstarz has very little memory of that time. “We don’t think Chertsey really exists,” joked G1, who was born five years later in Chicago, the family’s next stop in exile. “Most British people have never even heard of it.”
Rodstarz, the older brother and unofficial spokesperson of the duo, has braids down to his waist and a welcoming presence. He gives hugs out like handshakes, likes expensive sneakers (despite their capitalist underpinnings) and wears a t-shirt that says “No Human Being is Illegal.”
G1, the younger, quieter brother, wears sunglasses inside the studio and has his hair up in a Samurai-style ponytail. “Only because it’s hot,” he said. G1 lays the beats and produces the music while Rodstarz grabs the audience with his stage presence and trenchant vocals.
Their parents had a love for revolutionary Chilean folk music from artists such as Violetta Parra, Silvio Rodriguez, and Victor Jarra, whose hands were broken by Pinochet’s military to stop him from playing “subversive” music. And though their parents don’t understand hip-hop, their music provided a tenet for Rebel Diaz’s own sound: it requires a social message.
“The drive we have is unstoppable,” Rodstarz said, “because we carry the weight of history on our shoulders.”
Their ability to build a movement in the streets started at an early age. A 12-year-old Rodstarz used graffiti, an urban artistic expression of rebellion, to bring his friends together. He would sneak out to do graffiti late at night in Chicago, dragging his sleepy seven-year-old brother with him. “One time we got caught when my mother found a pillow that was supposed to be me under the covers,” Rodstarz remembered. “But she wasn’t mad because when she was younger she also ran out of the house to do political graffiti promoting her socialist ideals.”
Rodstarz and G1 have always had a love for hip-hop. At the age of 10, Rodstarz became a B-boy, or a break-dancer. “Every single day after school in Chicago I was break dancing on the roofs or in the parking lot,” he said, “My friends and I would set up some cardboard and be out there for hours.“ Eventually that passion for hip-hop would lead to Rebel Diaz.
Rebel Diaz, the hip-hop group, was born in Hunts Point after G1 moved to New York City to study music engineering at New York University. Rodstarz came a few years later to record music with his brother who got free studio time through the university. Hunts Point had affordable rent, so that’s where Rodstarz stayed. “I was blessed to end up on the best block in New York City,” he said. Hunts Point became home.
Invited by a local community organization called Mothers on the Move, Rebel Diaz played their first show at an immigrants rights march in Manhattan in April 2006. Rebel Diaz spoke directly to the community with lyrics like these:
“This music is resistance it’s the voice of the poor,
I’m on the side of the workers, the teachers and lunch ladies,
On the streets with brown mammies raisin’ our brown babies,
I’m with youth organizers cleanin’ up the Bronx River.”
And from the start, they were a success, with several other New York City organizations asking them to perform for their events and music festivals.
Within the first year they were hosted by international organizations allowing them to eventually tour in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Guatemala, and Chile. These tours solidified their appeal and allowed them to hook up with other Chilean political refugees doing similar work. The music was a vehicle to deliver their message but they also dreamed of a space for others in their community to be able to learn and create.
They created the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx (RDAC-BX) in November 2008 with money from the North Star Fund and a Union Square award. RDAC-BX is a hip-hop community center where young people can drop in to get political education and learn practical skills. They can create their own music with software like Pro Tools and attend workshops on topics such as the history of hip-hop and social movements.
Their collective space is housed in an abandoned warehouse near Hunts Point on a back street by the Bruckner Expressway. “It was once a candy factory,” said G1. “It stood empty for many years before we got a tip from a friend that we could rent it at a reasonable price.”
The front door is an extension of a skillfully graffitied wall. It leads into a spacious room with a red brick floor, comfortable couches, a stage, recording studio and roof access. Local music artists live in the apartment upstairs.
The space was created because their parents passed the torch of struggle to their children and Rodstarz still feels the responsibility. “My feeling is that if my father withstood three and a half years of physical torture for a cause,” he said, “the least I can do is make music and encourage others to make music that uplifts.”
Rap artist YC the Cynic of Hunts Point credits the brothers with giving his music more of a social message. “I grew up with injustice, so I know it well,” he said. “But Rebel Diaz helped me find the words to describe it. Without them, my lyrics would sound more like what you hear on the radio.”
But Rodstarz immediately dismissed the idea that he is a mentor. “Mentorship doesn’t exist in our community,” he said. “A lot of those terms come from an idea of power. I’m 10 years older than YC but I learn from him too.”
Rodstarz distinguishes the collective from non-profits. “A lot of times in the non-profit world there ends up being a sort of messiah complex,” he said. “They want to empower inner city folks. But we don’t need anyone to empower us. We got power.”