Rapping can get you jailed, tortured, or killed in the southwest African country of Angola; nonetheless, its hip-hop scene is thriving. With plummeting oil prices pushing Angola’s long-standing regime to the brink of collapse, the country’s conscious rappers and other vocal activists might give the regime its final shove and change the lives of 24 million Angolans.
But Angola’s dictator and ruling party were once considered among Africa’s most resilient, and its petroleum economy among Africa’s most robust. So how did a few rappers and hip hop artists become such a threat?
Rapper MCK mocks the threats on his life by his own country in “Cadaver Andante,” meaning “walking corpse” (2013)
June 20th, 2015 began like any other dry season day in Luanda, capital of Angola; the oil-rich elite awoke in their high rise apartments after a Friday night of drink and dance at modern nightclubs, while a few miles away, people pushed carts down dusty roads to market, selling food and handmade goods but also cell phones and CDs.
These market-goers reflect the 70% of Angolans who live on less than $2 a day. They include many parents who have lost children, since nearly one in five Angolans die before their fifth birthday; and many children who have lost or never known parents, since the Angolan Civil War wracked the country on and off from its 1975 independence until 2002. The war—in which dos Santos’s MPLA party armed child soldiers and traded atrocities with opposition groups, backed by the USSR and the US respectively—is still written across Angola’s shelled buildings and mangled bodies.
Little of this troubled Jose Eduardo dos Santos, President of Angola for the past 36 years, who on June 20th awoke in one of his many palaces, built with his $20 billion net worth (one sixth of the country’s GDP). He looked out on Luanda, a veritable Dubai of southern Africa, whose rapid, post-war development and modernization hang in the shadow of the millions of Angolans left in crushing poverty.
That morning, like every morning, state-owned petroleum enterprise Sonangol prepared to export its daily 1.9 million barrels of oil, of which 15% goes to the US. Sonangol’s money rebuilt Luanda, made dos Santos’s daughter Isabela the richest woman in Africa, and sustained Angola as the darling of international investors, including the US, China, and its former colonizer Portugal. But on June 20th, oil prices had just taken a nosedive; dos Santos was beginning to sweat.
These issues were on the minds of thirteen activists—several rappers and hip-hop artists as well as journalists, students, and professors—who gathered in Luanda on June 20th for Angola’s most dangerous book club. The men were there to discuss two books: From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation by American scholar Gene Sharp, a handbook for replacing dictators with democratic governments and a guiding force of the Arab Spring revolts, and Tools to Destroy a Dictator and Avoid a New Dictatorship by Domingo da Cruz, an Angolan scholar present at the meeting. Nito Alves was also present, an activist who at 17 had been arrested and held in solitary confinement for selling T-shirts describing dos Santos as a “disgusting dictator.” And of the three rappers present—at the time best known by their stage names, Samussuku, Cheik Hata, and Ikonoklasta—the last one would soon become an international symbol of freedom of expression, now better known by his given name: Luaty Beirão.
Ikonoklasta sets his song “Revoluçao” to a graphic newsreel from the Angolan Civil War (2014)
Tipped off about meeting, the nervous regime moved in. Police caught the group off guard and detained all thirteen. Over the next two days, more police searched the homes of the thirteen detainees, seized all of their phones and computers, threatened their families, and detained two more activists, bringing the number to fifteen. All would eventually be accused of planning a coup d’etat and constituting a threat to state security.
Since then, what have become known as the Angola 15 (#Angola15) have languished in Luanda jails, awaiting whatever faulty justice the regime has to offer. Two female activists would also be accused but not detained, and outside of Luanda another peaceful activist named José Marcos Mavungo was jailed, annotated the hashtag to #Angola15+2+1. Whichever way you hash it, the regime’s trampling of justice garnered greater outcry than it had bargained for.
What little dignity the Angolan constitution affords detainees—namely, the right to know why you are in jail once you’ve been there for ninety days—was not extended to the Angola 15. On September 20th, with the terms of their detainment still undefined, the 15 began a hunger strike. After two weeks, all stopped except for Luaty, a collective decision that he, as the most well-known and vocal of the 15, should continue.
And continue he did. He didn’t eat for 36 days; a day for every year of the regime, two weeks longer than the longest hunger strike ever held by Mahatma Gandhi. (If anyone knew how to hunger strike, it was Gandhi.)
Across Angola and around the world, awareness and protests mounted against the treatment of Luaty and the Angola 15—and against the oil-thirsty Western governments and multinational corporations who continue to flirt with this dictatorship. Demonstrations in several European cities have gone peacefully but only made little significant impact; demonstrations across Angola have captivated the nation but been brutally suppressed.
It is important to understand the Angola 15 and Luaty Beirão in the context of Angola’s political and musical history.
How did rap become such a thorn in the regime’s side? To be fair, it isn’t the only thorn: “There are rappers in the youth activist movement, but the movement cannot be defined as a ‘rap based movement,'” says Mariana Abreu, Angola Campaigner from Amnesty International, Southern Africa Regional Office. “Rap is one of the tools used to criticize the government and seeks its accountability, but the movement is also composed of students, academics, and people with different backgrounds.” The tools feed off each other, rap inspiring activism and vise versa. Rap is just the most audible, a genre that insists on being heard. It was a fitting tool for Angolan youth deprived of their voices, made more poignant by conscious rappers’ union with academics and activists.
Luaty’s hunger strike was the culmination of decades of mounting pressure between Angolan hip hop and the Angolan regime.
Ikonoklasta and other Angolan MCs spoof their country’s corruption and backdoor deals in “Sr. Diplomata,” feat. Cacique’97, Sagas, Bob Da Rage Sense, & Sir Scratch (2010)
“To talk about the relationship between rap and the government in Angola,” Abreu says, it is necessary to discuss the 2003 case of “a young man called Arsénio Sebastião ‘Cherokee,’ [who] was reportedly drowned and killed by the President’s Police Guard because he was singing a song by MCK.” To be precise, they tied Cherokee’s elbows behind his back, marched him to the beach, and forced him out to sea. He was survived by his wife and two children.
The event became a national scandal, and the rapper MCK (pronounced “MC Kappa”), still a university student, found himself at the forefront of an underground movement critical of the regime (and funding the education of Cherokee’s children). But underground it would remain: with elites glutting on oil wealth, rebuilding Luanda for themselves, and crushing all challenges to their authority with a well-armed military and police force, state restriction of expression and assembly was too strong for people to risk. Plus, many Angolans were willing to accommodate a corrupt, oppressive regime if it maintained relative peace.
MCK begrudges impoverished life in Luanda in “Atras do prejuizo” (2006) (Audio starts at 0:26)
Of course, either in response to this repression or for personal preference, plenty of rappers steered clear of politics. In Angola, “hip hop started in the 1990s and it was not political at all. These days there are also bling and car filled videos done by Angolan rappers,” says Marissa Moorman, a professor of African history at Indiana University and editor at AfricasACountry.com who has written a book about Angolan music.
Criticism of the regime, rapped or otherwise, has traditionally been met with a heavy hand, but “Rap itself is not criminalized,” Moorman continues. “I bought the [very anti-regime] MCK CD Proibido Ouvir Isto in the airport some years ago. Censorship is rarely direct, in other words—though you won’t hear MCK or Ikonoklasta or Brigadeiro 10 Pacotes played on RNA (Radio Nacional de Angola).”
Brigadeiro 10 Pacotes literally dumps his thoughts in “O Kambwá está nos matar” (2013)
For many years, this sort of indirect censorship fit the needs of dos Santos and the MPLA: they would never publicize these conscious rappers, but apart from the occasional imprisonment or disappearance of a journalist, activist, or rap fan, the regime had no real need to go into the slums and punish people for trading transgressive CDs. In the perceived powerlessness and voicelessness of Angola’s poor, the elite felt secure.
But discontent mounted among these poor and even within dos Santos’s circle. “Since the end of war in 2002,” says Moorman, “the political climate has gone from one of optimism and expectations of new political and economic dispensation [of] revenue that once went to war being re-directed to social services,” to a bitter realization that the benefits of peace and petroleum were reserved for a select few. Anger built, especially among Angola’s youth, who make up a vast portion of the population and have never known any rule but dos Santos’s. Mobilization, however, was slow; the MPLA remained brutally efficient at squelching open rebellion, and many young people who dared speak out were discouraged by their parents, out of fear for their children’s lives and fatigue over conflict.
It took the Arab Spring to spark the first ever anti-government protests in Angola. Inspired by the examples of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, where young people in particular used social media (and music) to organize themselves against seemingly unassailable dictators and force their resignations, Angolan rappers called on their fans and fellow activists to publicly denounce dos Santos and the MPLA.
“Rappers were among the first to organize demonstrations against the government in March of 2011,” says Moorman. Luaty in particular took to the stage to rally Angolans for the first March 7th protest. That day, when “it seemed that there were more journalists there to cover the event than protestors” as Moorman remembers, the 17 brave demonstrators were all arrested, including Luaty and fellow rapper Carbono. But a robust protest movement had begun; in late 2012, looking back on the cycle of demonstrations and crackdowns that March 7th had initiated, Luaty described the first protest as “A non-event that became the biggest political event in the country’s recent history.”
Luaty/Ikonoklasta says 32 years of dos Santos is “too much,” invites audience to March 7 protest (2011)
In Angola, protesters face high stakes. “Those who have challenged President José Eduardo dos Santos’s government in recent years have been subjected to extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and torture by state security forces,” says Abreu, the Amnesty Campaigner. But each new oppression has seemed to embolden the opposition even more.
In May 2012, a few former MPLA security officers protested against mistreatment under dos Santos. The two leaders of the protest were disappeared, one later confirmed to have been thrown in a river and fed to crocodiles. In advertising a protest against these disappearances, another activist named Alberto Ganga was shot dead. Embattled journalist Rafael Marques de Morais continued investigating and publishing reports about corruption in the country’s oil and diamond trade, earning him a six-month prison sentence. Human rights activists have been imprisoned and tortured. And still, Angolan rappers, scholars, journalists, and activists went on sending a strong message: we are not afraid.
When oil prices crashed in the summer of 2015, the regime reached its most vulnerable and paranoid point. Its detainment of the Angola 15 and subsequent crackdowns on demonstrations organized by the mothers, wives, and children of the 15 are increasingly seen as acts of insecurity, not strength. Protesters on August 8th “were peacefully demanding the release of the activists when armed police used batons, dogs and beatings against the mothers, wives and other relatives of the activists in order to disperse the crowd,” Abreu says.
Carbono is among the rappers calling for the 15’s release. He and fellow conscious rappers have been ripping on the regime for years, like in their Wu-Tang Clan inspired “Arquivo Polémico” (2011)
But from inside jail, Luaty built enormous momentum with his hunger strike. According to Abreu, “Weekly vigils have been organized in Portugal…an Amnesty International petition has collected more than 40,000 signatures supporting them from citizens all over the world; six UN experts have issued a communication calling for their immediate release; the European Parliament published a resolution calling for their release,” and over a dozen international organizations and nonprofits have publicly denounced their detainment. “All these events, and many others that were not mentioned, demonstrate the movement in support of the activists detained is worldwide and constantly growing,” says Abreu.
Excitement built as the the trial of the 15 was scheduled to begin on November 16th, overshadowing what should have been by far the bigger event: the November 11th celebration of independent Angola’s 40-year anniversary. “Currently, the government is expending as much energy discussing the case as it is preparing for these celebrations,” Moorman said. “Many are concerned about whether there will be a fair trial. Government spokespeople and MPLA loyals can only take the position of ‘wait and see and let the justice system do its job.’ Up to this point, many violations of the Constitution and due process have been committed in this case (and others), so there is not much faith left.”
From the trial’s first day, the 15 have paraded their unity and their defiance of the regime. They entered the courtroom barefoot, since they spent most of their detainment barefoot, their request for boots only answered a few days before the trial. Also, they have quotes about freedom and democracy inscribed in Portuguese on their prison uniforms, such as “no dictatorship can hold back forever the advance of a society.” As a result, the court has added charges of damaging state property to their original charges of plotting to overthrow the government (remember, this is all for holding a book club).
As of December 7th, 2015, the trial is ongoing. It is a major test for the dos Santos regime, which has attracted more attention than it bargained for, and at a time when its oil-fed bargaining chip is somewhat diminished. It is a test for international investors in Angola, whose reaction to Angola’s potentially flagrant injustice will be put on public display. And it is a test for Angolan hip hop, not only for those rappers sitting on the bench defending their nonviolent protest, but for rappers and artists across the country, political or otherwise, to react accordingly as their freedom of expression continues to be utterly violated.
And if the trial does push the dos Santos regime closer to the brink of collapse, Angolans may look to these conscious rappers and activists to help bring about the reform they’ve rapped about for years.
MCK pays homage to legendary Angolan musician Teta Lando with a rendition of his song “Irmão ama o teu irmão,” meaning “Brother, Love Your Brother” (2014)