Subverso brings a global hip hop perspective to Detroit’s struggles
By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Since the emergency management occupation of Detroit began earlier this year, some of the most energized criticisms have come from the city’s hip hop community. Subverso, a resident of southwest Detroit, has been among these strong voices of resistance.
“The very concept of an EM can be seen as an attack on the culture out of which hip hop was born,” says Subverso.
The Chilean American grew up in southwest Detroit, living in the city for the first 10 years of his life before spending five in Chile with his family. He has been back and forth since and has been living in Detroit for the past two years.
Chile is a nation that has seen much political and social upheaval over the past several decades and living there has given Subverso a dynamic understanding of oppression in the modern world. He raps in both Spanish and English to be able to communicate with a wider audience.
Land grabs, rising education costs, environmental threats and anti-union actions are all conditions the Chilean people have had to experience, conditions that are eerily similar to those Detroiters are currently facing. Chile gained worldwide attention in 2011 and 2012 for mass student protests.
Youth in Chile often use hip hop music as a tool of political expression, an opportunity to project their words against a seemingly monolithic system of oppression that has affected every aspect of their society.
“In Chile and in Latin America broadly, hip hop has a long history going back to the mid-1980s,” says Subverso. “Although initially it developed through ‘imitation’ of what arrived from the United States on radio and TV, it has grown and matured as a very ‘native’ culture of the urban poor and more recently, of many rural and indigenous young people.
“We’ve always seen hip hop as a tool for building solidarity, self-empowerment and dignity,” he adds. “But we also use it as a voice of resistance, a way to express our day-to-day experiences of oppression, poverty and discrimination, basically by ‘keeping it real’ and describing the reality of our neighborhoods and the injustices we see and feel in our societies, while also proposing alternative visions of how society should function.”
In the United States, gaining popular appeal is difficult for rap artists that express strong political convictions, but in Chile and many other nations around the world, many of the most popular artists take a political stance. Subverso has released numerous music videos over the years, including the songs “Informate,” “Te Quieren” and “El Padrino,” with several gaining hundreds of thousands of views across the world, a substantial amount for an independent artist.
“Many Chilean rappers, DJs, b-boys and graffiti artists have joined these struggles, (by) participating in neighborhood organization or in direct protest actions on the streets or by creating spaces for political education among fellow hip hoppers,” says Subverso. “The beautiful thing is that this has occurred while we have also seen a boom in the actual quality of the hip hop being produced.”
Subverso says hip hop music is a powerful way for artists to express the truths and wisdom of the poor in their own language, without feeling inferior or disadvantaged when confronting the authoritarian and derogatory discourses of the media, the academy and traditional politicians towards the poor.
His artistic and social efforts are now focused in Detroit, where he hopes the hip hop community can be used to combat the city’s emergency manager.
He recently was featured on the song “Own It,” a critique of the corporate land acquisitions happening in the city. Also featured on that song are Will See, S.I.R.I.U.S., Sage, BRYCE and BlueLadyFireTide. The song was performed live June 27 at Will See’s CD release party held at the Cass Corridor Commons.
“Regarding the EM situation in Detroit,” says Subverso, “I would say that this is a moment that clearly calls for unity, and we need all the hands we can get in this struggle. I think hip hop has the potential to be part of this process, whether it’s on the walls of our neighborhoods, in our songs or by providing clear information and suggesting forms of participation at the activities we organize within the hip hop community.”
Subverso says he hopes his music and social engagement can serve as an inspiration to youth throughout Detroit and around the world.
“I believe we must not underestimate the power of art to mobilize and crystallize certain aspects of social struggles,” he says. “Art isn’t going to change the world all by itself, but it is a key ingredient in strengthening rebellion, political education and ‘active hope’ for social and political change.”