Burning Down Babylon
By Ari Paul
Crossing over from the sea of wealth that is Manhattan’s Upper East Side into Spanish Harlem (or East Harlem), you can see the contrasts New York’s Ricanstruction — a Puerto Rican punk/Afro-Latin beat band — have experienced. The ghetto attributes abound: Soviet-style public housing, malt-liquor bottles on the street, an excessive NYPD presence. This Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood is one marked by resistance, insists Not4Prophet, Ricanstruction’s lead vocalist. Everything from the political graffiti to the murals of Che Guevara to the community gardens exudes both resistance and autonomy.
Ricanstruction hesitates to classify itself; Not4Prophet doesn’t even like to use the word “anarchist” to describe the band’s politics. Songs like “Mad Like Farrakhan” and “Bulletproof” bring Latin beats (and political experience) to fast-paced vocals and guitar riffs. Slower, darker rhythms in songs like “Abu-Jamal” (about American political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal) feel more like the finale of a tragic opera with Not4Prophet’s pleading tone, often inspired by Bob Marley as much as Jello Biafra.
While failing — thankfully — to fall into the rock-rap genre that gave us Rage Against the Machine or 311, Not4Prophet’s love of hip hop is essential to the band’s ability to fuse the resistance culture of white anarchist punks and his own Spanish Harlem community. Their latest release, Love + Revolution (Uprising Records), includes appearances from hip hop icons such as Dead Prez and Chuck D from Public Enemy. The band members are still active artistically and politically on their home turf.
As of late the band has grown in numbers as well as in its means of expression. Formerly a four-piece, the band has picked up Taina of Anti-Product as an additional vocalist. And along with the filmmaker Vagabond, Ricanstruction’s members and music have appeared in several short political films. Their recent feature film, Machetero, starring Not4Prophet and Isaac De Bankole (Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes), has already been shown on the West Coast, in Canada, and in New York.
Not4Prophet came to the United States from Puerto Rico when he was five years old. As a non-English-speaker in his new country, he was referred to remedial education, an experience he found condescending and now sees as an all-too-familiar part of the immigrant experience. Raised by Puerto Rican nationalists, he was pushed to rebellion after witnessing the destruction of lives by cops, poverty, and drugs in his community. He started sneaking into CBGB when he was 12 years old and began adding bands like the Clash and Dead Kennedys to his musical and political repertoire. This mixture eventually created the band’s mission of encouraging the tradition of resistance in East Harlem and bringing that experience to the New York punk scene.
You described Ricanstruction as forming organically. What do you mean by that?
Not4Prophet: Basically, it was cats on the street [that] were just kind of around. A lot of us were graffiti writers. We didn’t necessarily look at it as a political act, even though it is a political act. It was just for voiceless people trying to get their names known. But as we became a little more aware, we tried to figure out what things we could do to battle or resist the system. Then our graffiti started to become a little more politicized.
But a lot of people weren’t graffiti writers. And that’s when people started discovering their talents: People could play instruments, and then there’s a band.
It was just something that came about, because we didn’t have any political power, we didn’t own or control anything. All we had was — for lack of a better [term] — our natural abilities.
When and how did you guys have a political awakening?
It’s a funny question. As Puerto Ricans or as minorities, your life is political from the jump. You don’t have a political awakening, but it happens for different people for different reasons.
The moms of the cats who get killed by cops, those moms may not have thought they were political and next thing you know they’re activists. So for everybody it’s their own thing. For me, walking down the street every day, cops are stopping me just because I fit a description. One day you realize, “Okay, this is all political.” And you start figuring out what you can do about it or you don’t, but you’re still confronted with a political situation.
There’s the concept that punk is very white music. For you to have entered that scene what has it been like — or do you not agree with that?
I grew up listening to hip hop, so that was our music. And that was . . . music of rebellion, and punk was also music of rebellion but for a different group of people, which tended to be white. But, I mean, the first punk bands that I liked weren’t white. Bad Brains, Black Flag had tons of Latinos in the band — the Adolescents, or Dead Kennedys. And those were the bands I was listening to, not because they had people of color in them, but because I happened to like those. So, I personally never saw punk as white, but I do understand that it is, compared to hip hop, white music.
We’ve never thought of ourselves as a subculture. As Puerto Ricans we were already a counter-culture. Any time you stand up against the system, in any real way, you cease to be a subculture people can ignore and you become a counter-culture. I think for me the problem I always had with punk as we know it is that it tends to be a subculture and it tends to not embrace other aspects of struggle politics.
You get these subcultures where people say “this is pure punk.” Yeah, but right now you sound like Good Charlotte, so what threat is there to the system if the system can co-opt you based on your sound?
My definition of punk is something that is going toe-to-toe to try to dismantle and eventually destroy a system. If you’re saying, “No, no, no, we work outside the system and we live off the grid,” then you’re not doing anything to dismantle or destroy the system. Maybe in some ways you’re disrupting the system.
For us, we’ve always wanted to free Puerto Rico, with the understanding that eventually we free everyone else. But I think a lot of punks create these little ciphers for themselves, and they’re fine with the fact that, “Oh, I’m not corporate!” We got called punk because we’ve always been DIY and anti-corporate. We are whatever you want us to be as long as you understand that what we are is something that is trying to thwart this system.
So when you take the stage at CBGB — in addition to working with artists like Dead Prez and Chuck D — do you ever feel like you confuse people?
Most of our base has been anarcho-punks. And they know that they have to create coalitions with others. Dead Prez is on a corporate label. But there’s the understanding, the question we ask ourselves: “Why does Dead Prez feel the need to be on a major label? Why did Public Enemy? Or Rage Against the Machine?”
I think a lot of punks get into that “punker than thou” thing. They say, “Oh, they’re sell-outs!” I say, “Maybe they are sell-outs. Find out why.” Why do disenfranchised people or so-called minorities feel the need to deal with the corporations? Why do they feel the need to use inexpensive housing given to them by the city rather than squatting?
We — as minorities — know that the system has been created to either destroy us or make us part of the apparatus that runs the machine, whether it’s cleaning toilets or working behind the counter at McDonald’s. That’s what we exist for in the capitalist system. We don’t have the liberty to be all crazy and pretend like we can do whatever we want. We have to be more methodical and we have to be revolutionary and have more of a concept of what that entails before we do anything.
You want to replace the system?
We’re not trying to replace anything. Let Ari be Ari, let Not4Prophet be Not4Prophet. People here in East Harlem don’t consider themselves anarchists, but there are tons of people in this community who feed and clothe each other. They see a cat on the street with no place to live and they bring them in. People want to call that anarchism because somebody named it. I personally feel it is instinctive.
And that’s how people in most of these communities live until the forces of evil come in and say, “No, this is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to work for me. You’re not supposed to support your brother or your sister.”
Is East Harlem, or any other place that you’ve lived, self-reliant or autonomous?
Less and less. My parents weren’t anarchists; they were Puerto Rican nationalists. Because of the fact that they were here, and not only the U.S. government having problems with them being nationalists, but other Puerto Ricans who were like, “Oh, you guys are scary. I agree with what you’re saying but I don’t agree with you on political tactics.” So they had no choice as nationalists but to create these little autonomous communities. They had collectives where they would all live together. That’s how they lived and they didn’t call it anarchism. They didn’t call it nationalism either. They called it survival.
And that’s another thing, when we talk about squatting. There’s a squatters’ movement and there’s squatters. Squatters are people who don’t have a place to live and would be homeless. They don’t wave the squatters’ flag, or any flag, they just need a place to live. Because if you’re Puerto Rican or African American and you wave your squatters’ flag, then you’re out of there and in prison the next day.
There’s always been autonomous communities around here, but it’s harder, because if you walk around East Harlem, especially at night, you’ll see a cop car on every corner. That’s a real challenge. And there’s a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s. And they replace the bodega. It’s still New York; it’s still the United States.
Could you talk about your new movie, Machetero?
It’s about the liberation of Puerto Rico from the perspective of a cat who is basically saying, “I want to liberate Puerto Rico but I want to liberate myself and I want to liberate everybody.” So he’s this ideal ideology of freedom.
We’ve used the music of Ricanstruction to tell the story. On the one hand, it’s our way of talking about ideas we have as — for lack of a better word — anarcho-independistas. On the other hand, it’s a way to talk to our community about ideas that are not so specifically nationalist in the way people think of Puerto Rican nationalism, because it’s always been socialist. So we’re injecting ideas of — for lack of a better word — anarchism. We want to make it a natural and organic thing, not us saying, “Hey, we’re anarchists and this is what we’re about.”
How do you describe the Puerto Rican experience in relation to the United States?
We’re the only colonial subjects. There are a lot of neo-colonial subjects in this country, but our experience for over 500 years has been strictly a colonial commission.
Pedro Campos, the nationalist leader, once said the U.S. wants the birdcage without the bird. This country could do quite well without having Puerto Ricans, but it’s the island that’s of value. Whether it’s as a strategic military location to watch the rest of Latin America, or the fact that the U.S. has nuclear missiles in Puerto Rico, one of the problems nationalists have always talked about is the fact that if somebody was going to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. and they had nuclear missiles of their own, one of the first targets would have to be Puerto Rico — even though we have no military.
By the same token, in disproportionate numbers we have been fighting in U.S. wars since World War I. We were made U.S. citizens in 1917 and then sent off to fight in Europe and then it happened again and again. We don’t have a say-so in that. Bush is not our president. We’re not allowed to vote.
The only other U.S. citizens besides us who can’t vote are felons. That’s a phenomenon no immigrant has to experience because once they become American citizens they get to vote.
I only speak Spanish to people who don’t speak English, like my parents. I never really cared that much about Spanish any more than English because they were both colonial languages that were forced on us. But at the state we’re in now, you come to realize even Spanish becomes an act of resistance for us. The U.S. tried to make English the official language of Puerto Rico. And the people fought it. In the court of law in Puerto Rico, the spoken language is English.
Ari Paul has also written for In These Times, Z,Time Out Chicago, and Citizen Culture. Reach Ari care of Clamor.