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Rebel Diaz: A musical legacy of activism

Rebel Diaz: A musical legacy of activism

Rodstarz of Rebel Diaz stands on the roof of the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx (JANET UPADHYE/The Bronx Ink).

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.

G1 of Rebel Diaz (JANET UPADHYE/The Bronx Ink).

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.”


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“All the young women understand that this is a space where they don’t have to act like what they see on TV in order to get their message across,” says Teresita Ayala, one of the event's co-organizers.

For Women’s History Month in the Bronx, it’s all about rap

Kathleen Adams, far left, thanks the audience and holds up the official Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen Vol. 4 banner to close the March 5 women's rap event. (Photos by: Camilo H. Smith)

Brittany Barker had a tense look on her face as she walked out onto the stage. She looked elegant in a black dress ensemble, and in her eyes she had a seriousness that made her look like she was ready to take care of business. The 17-year-old took her time approaching the microphone and looked out into the crowd as she pulled it closer to her mouth. The crackle of cheers and applause that started when she was called out to perform had started to die down. She said the title of her poem, “Latina Woman,” and the crowd hushed.

“She is celibate and the old men touch her and watch how she squirms accordingly,” Barker said from memory, and several claps broke the audience silence. “To the colonial Latino mind, a woman’s role is to be three things: attractive, submissive, inferior.” The audience roared again with appreciation.

Barker was one of about 17 performers who participated in the reproductive rights, women’s health hip-hop concert called Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen, held in the South Bronx on March 5th. Her poetry was a fitting addition for the audience of mostly young Latina and black women who came to hear this kind of empowering verse, whether accompanied by a beat or delivered acapella.

Brittany Barker, 17, recites her poem, "Latina Woman," at the fourth annual Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen event at Hostos Community College.

Nearly 500 people turned out for the show that ran from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., the fourth event of its kind and the third held at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture, which helps support Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen through city arts grants. Recognized as part of Women’s History Month — celebrated every March — the free performance was developed to showcase the presence of women in the hip-hop world and to promote social activism for young women.

“It’s a pure space of transformation and expression in marginalized communities,” said DJ Chela, an artist-activist who has been part of every Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen event.  “Every year is powerful.”  Chela, who lives in Brooklyn, says she has an affiliation with the legendary Bronx hip-hop collective, the Universal Zulu Nation..

Bronx women face some of the worst health obstacles in the country due to high rates for women with HIV/AIDs, domestic violence against women and obesity — and all of these issues were part of the program at this year’s Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen. Its founders, rapper Teresita Ayala and Fordham University graduate student and political activist Kathleen Adams founded the event four years ago, after they met at a social forum in Atlanta in 2007, to address these problems in a public way through the spirit of hip-hop.

“If you think about women of color, we usually meet in the kitchen,” Ayala said,  explaining where the duo came up with the program’s name. “That’s the central location for us to talk, whether it’s about abortions, domestic violence, or good things. Everything happens in the kitchen.”

This year the event’s theme was: “Let’s Get Active!”  The slogan was meant to remind audiences of the importance of exercise and proper nutrition—a particularly timely message given that the Food Research and Action Center just this month named the South Bronx as one of the hungriest congressional districts in the nation.

Even show host Lucy Herrera encouraged the audience to stop drinking carbonated soft drinks, for example. “If you feel that necessity of that little fiz that soda gives you, switch to lemon and seltzer. It’s like lemon-aide, but without all that sugar-rrr,” she growled.

Rapper Maria Isa mentioned another problem, sometimes a fatal one, for women in the Bronx. “You have to stop and say no to domestic violence,” she said between songs, “Letting [abusers] know that you will have to be treated like a Queen and if they don’t, that’s fine. You go to another throne.”

According to the latest NYPD statistics women were the victims in 3,721 domestic violence cases, a total that was second to Brooklyn with 4,702.

Such statistics underscore the motivations of the group’s organizers, who want the yearly event to help women learn about social organizing and to give women a place to address the community issues that concern them.  Organizations that set up tables outside the theater had to fill out an online form at the event’s website and give a description of their group and its politics to be included in the event.

“All the young women understand that this is a space where they don’t have to act like what they see on TV in order to get their message across,” says Teresita Ayala, one of the event's co-organizers.

“This is pretty much like a ‘speak out,’  said Ayala, 30, who is from Chicago, but came to the Bronx to form the rap group Rebel Diaz.  “All the young women understand that this is a space where they don’t have to act like what they see on TV in order to get their message across.”

The images of female rappers in mainstream media usually carry highly sexualized themes. Not so for the performers at the show at Hostos.  And the audience appreciated the difference.

“I love seeing people, young women, walking tall, speaking proudly,” said queer activist Charles Rice-Gonzalez, the executive director of Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, during the first half of the performance. “Here, women are carving their space, putting their brand on the hip-hop world.”

Rice-Gonzales had set up a table outside of the theater to hand out fliers for his organization and collect signatures for the academy’s mailing list. Next to him, several other groups also gave  away information about rights organizations, abortion clinics, women’s health and other social activist issues. One group, Guerrilla Republik, sold politically militant t-shirts and hand-made poetry books. Another, Mic-Women’s Health Services offered information on medical abortions and the morning after pill as its members handed out pens shaped like microphones.

Kathleen Adams, the co-creator of the event, and a Fordham urban studies graduate student said this year’s show aimed also to educate the public on reproductive rights, especially at a time when the nation’s lawmakers recently voted to cut support for Planned Parenthood. Adams has been working as a women’s activist in the Bronx over the past four years. Originally from Ohio, she won a “Power of Woman” award from Planned Parenthood last year.

The anti-abortion movement is focused on the Bronx right now because of its high abortion numbers. Live births in the Bronx represent about 17 percent of the 126,774 live births in all of New York City, according to the most recent figures from the city. In 2009, abortions in the borough made up 23 percent of the 87,273 citywide total.

And with Congess voting to cut spending for Planned Parenthood and the recent  anti-abortion actions at the organization’s offices here, the borough has made it into the national headlines on the issue. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr.’s recent public comments that linked abortion to “genocide” stirred the debate even more.

“With this event, we wanted to be political and organize people in the Bronx, especially with Ruben Diaz Sr.,” who, Adams said, “talks down to women.”

In her view, he does not care about the rights of women. “His political actions and mission is actually making the Bronx worse than better. We need to change this,” she said.

Diaz, the New York State Senator and church pastor responded to the remarks Adams made about him following the event. He told the Bronx Ink, “I am pro-life. I am anti-abortion and I am anti-gay marriage. If those three things makes me anti-women … that I talk down to women,” said Diaz, tossing the accusations aside, “I’m sorry for that. And I will not change.”

Despite the Diaz flap and the national debate, Adams didn’t blanket the event with pro-choice materials. “It’s not just straight about abortion,” she said. “We discuss abortion, but it doesn’t have to be as blatant as that.”

And it wasn’t. Back on the stage, the co-founder of the event Ayala was the last rapper to speak to the audience. She’s clearly proud of the event that she’s helped create at Hostos and how it helps her reach out to younger inner city lives with her rhymes.

“The only way that young women listen is through music,” she said. “Hip-hop is the soundtrack to the hood.”

Her closing message to the audience, delivered  in a powerful acapella rap repeated the uplifting refrain:  “You are who you’ve been waiting for.”

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