Columbian hip-hop land rights activist visits UK

Tony Gosling tony at
Wed Nov 10 21:35:39 GMT 2010

Introducing Jota Ramos - Colombian Social Activist Rapper

Jota Ramos on Music and the Haga Que Pase Tour
Jota Ramos talks to Aspecks about his music and 
the Haga Que Pasa tour which combine to reflect 
the reality of life in Villa Rica, Colombia. Jota ...

And in Spanish

Jota Ramos: when music is stronger than weapons
October 21, 2010

During the nineteenth century, there was a large 
migration of slaves to Latin America, especially 
to Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. To this 
latter nation came a group from the Congo, to a 
town known today as Villa Rica, close to the 
coast and 36km from Cali (Colombia).

Interview: Pablo Sabugo*
Photos: Eddie-Lee Lawrence

 From that moment onwards these Africans, and 
later their descendents, have had to fight 
against a series of problems that have presented 
themselves throughout their history and which are 
today more apparent than ever. One of the 
descendents of these slaves is Jota Ramos, a 
young man of 24 years who, through hip-hop, is 
speaking out against the injustices that his 
people are suffering. A student of political 
science at the University of Santiago de Cali, 
Jota started to sing and protest from an early 
age against the inequalities that existed in his 
town, and together with friends created the group ‘Soporte Klan’.

As time went on they became famous in the local 
area and nationwide.  This situation started to 
create problems with the people and groups who 
were blamed in the band’s message, so much so 
that even Jota Ramos began to receive death 
threats. In light of these threats, he decided to 
leave his country with the intention of telling 
the world about what is happening in Villa 
Rica.  He began a tour in March this year called 
“Haga que pase” (‘Make it Happen’) that has taken 
him to diverse countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Spain, amongst others.

In each place he has been sponsored by different 
organisations. He has now reached his last stop, 
London, and is backed by War Resisters 
International. In this city he showed people the 
situation that exists in his town through the 
documentary ‘Mi Fink’, made with members of the 
community, the group Soporte Klan, and the Villa Rica Foundation.

What more is there to say about “Make it Happen”?

It’s a musical and audiovisual venture that 
brings together a documentary we made in Villa 
Rica about traditional farms.  It includes the 
music of Jota Ramos and his group “Soporte Klan” 
which is basically a political message that 
denounces what has happened to the land of the 
campesinos, and the threats I received, as well 
as showcasing our music and some concerts.

Why did you receive death threats?

Last year we realised that the people of Villa 
Rica have been losing their lands so we started 
to organise ourselves with the community and the 
music group.  We also made the documentary to 
denounce the situation.  Mysteriously, after 
this, I received a message telling me that since 
I was organizing a quickly growing movement, my 
cause would no longer be supported, and I was told I was going to be killed.

Who made these threats?

This is the strange thing, because it wasn’t 
signed by anybody, as these types of threats 
normally are. The message came by post and was 
put under my door, but nobody had signed 
it.  They were also going through parts of the 
town trying to stop people from mobilizing.

Why did this happen to you?

Like many people, I make music and do social work 
in my community.  I think that our fight is an 
international fight which must be brought about 
by the poorest and most oppressed, the 
unrecognized people, especially women.  We all 
need the same liberty and equality, we all have 
the same oppressors in the world.  I have been 
highlighting this as one of the ideas we have in 
the ISBO collective (International School for 
Bottom-Up Organising), another organisation to 
which I belong.  I think the objective of the 
death threat is to stop the movement because I 
have revealed many things that have happened in 
the community and that continue to happen.

What is happening in regards loss of land by the campesinos?

The big landowners established themselves in 
1948.  The campesinos in the area survived off 
the land, because Villa Rica is a very fertile 
zone for agricultural production. First of all 
the landlords tried to buy land off the 
campesinos, but many refused to sell. Up to this 
point there was no problem. Difficulties began 
when these people started to fumigate the crops 
with a substance that destroyed the 
harvest.  There were also plagues of pests that 
ate the crop fields, leaving people’s livelihoods in ruins.

Afterwards, house by house, the landowners 
started making offers for the land of the 
campesinos that had been left destitute by the 
plagues and fumigation. This way it became easy 
for the landowners to purchase them.  The problem 
with this sort of cultivation is that it uses 
such strong chemicals for its growth that when 
the harvest finishes, the land is left virtually 
dead.  The next harvest, worked by the small 
farmers, produces nothing as the fields are now 
infertile and so the farmers end up selling the land.

Another guilty party in this situation was the 
Agrarian Bank, which awarded loans with high 
rates of interest directly to the campesinos, 
using the titles to their land as loan 
guarantees.  The problem was that, thanks to the 
plagues and the fumigation, people were unable to 
pay back the loans.  The farms were therefore 
left in the hands of the banks, and then bought by the sugar plantation owners.

Everything was a strategy to remove land from the campesinos

Exactly. The biggest problem is that the people 
leaving their land are left with no money, and 
end up working for the sugar plantation owners 
who pay very little, often less than the minimum 
wage.  There are people who work 16 hours a day 
and receive only four dollars. This is done 
through contractors who rehire people – it’s all 
a legal manoeuvre which allows them to pay as 
little as possible.  We are returning to a new 
form of slavery – the campesinos end up being slaves on their own land.

So we started to work against this.  Our message 
is to tell the people who are about to sell, 
‘resist with your lands’. To the rest we tell 
them that we have to start to look after what we 
have and make a productive plot of land in order 
to start to harvest our own food.

And what about the young people?

They don’t have the money to go to university so 
they have to get jobs for the same companies. For 
this reason we aim to motivate them to do 
different activities, like art and music, and 
above all to try to get to university.

Does the system help to combat this problem?

The system in Colombia means that Afro-Colombian 
communities cannot get ahead.  The system is set 
up to control them, with the result that they 
cannot escape their poverty and have to work for 
these sugar companies, dominated by local and 
multinational businesses. The situation of losing 
land to growing monocultures doesn’t just happen 
in Villa Rica, but also in Tumaco, Chocó, and 
other regions in the country, but with African 
palm. The difference in these regions is that 
different armed groups are pushing out the people 
who leave as consequence, and afterwards 
landowners come to buy the land and plant African palm.

Are the paramilitaries involved in what is happening In Villa Rica?

Not directly. The owners of the plantations and 
sugar mills have armed guards, permanently 
watching over their crops. They possess a type of 
licence that allows them to carry arms, something 
which is within the bounds of legality.

Given the situation it’s inevitable that many of them end up in armed groups.

In Colombia the armed groups are always there, 
offering another alternative: the army, the 
guerrillas, and the paramilitaries. So they’re 
seen as a way of getting money. The presence of 
these groups in the area also creates fear 
amongst adolescents and they feel the need to 
have a weapon.  What also happens is that those 
already part of these groups begin to talk to 
others, telling them about the advantages of 
belonging to a gang.  In the end they start 
killing each other. We are friends, we grow up in 
the neighbourhood, but later we join opposing 
gangs and immediately become enemies. We 
automatically start informing on our friend who’s in the other gang.

But who is really to blame for this?

I really don’t understand how the system can turn 
a state into this, when the purpose of the state 
is to defend the people, to provide 
benefits.  But this same system is so corrupt 
that it is directing all of these problems, 
leaving the poor people in these towns killing 
one another. In the end it inculcates citizens 
with the belief that it’s necessary to implement 
a policy of ‘democratic security’ to protect the 
rich, but 80% of the Colombian population is 
poor.  Despite this, education and health 
continues to be privatized, denying the 
opportunity for this section of the population to develop as a community.

The whole time they want slaves working for the 
big multinationals. I find it difficult to 
understand the situation, although there is also 
a very sophisticated strategy: the media promote 
what is going on. For example, the owner of these 
sugar companies, the most lucrative business in 
the country, also owns RCN, one of the biggest 
media companies in Colombia, which are allied to the state.

Why don’t people protest against this?

In essence, opposing this situation equates to 
opposing the state. Part of what I do on the tour 
is raise awareness of this.  This journey has 
really done me a favour; if I hadn’t done it, I 
would already be dead.  They would have killed me 
to prevent people from hearing my criticisms. 
I’ve already had a first warning. So if the world 
knows, if international organisations are aware, 
it makes it very difficult for them to get rid of 
me. My cause is already well-known abroad and 
people would know the reason for my death.  The 
main point of the threat was to turn the 
community against me. Because we’re getting 
organised, it was a way of trying to stop the process.

How did “Soporte Klan” come about?

We were born from a very beautiful process which 
is one of the reasons why we’re now involved in 
social work. My friends and I used to go to a 
school every day where there was a lady who was 
giving out hugs and food to children.  We used to 
like going there and we enjoyed making music, 
art, rap and hip hop.  They were rhythms that 
were popular in 1998.  I was very young.

At the same time, the Villa Rica Foundation 
created a group with young people, each one doing 
different things: some singing, others dancing, 
etc. So I started to sing there with other people 
and formed a group called “Magia Ra”. Afterwards 
we got together with another group and created “Soporte Klan”.

What came first, the album or the African influence?

The foundation wanted us to be a bit more 
professional, and gave us a teacher to help us 
study a bit about music and rap.  I was around 12 
at this time. Subsequently we set ourselves the 
goal of making our first CD.  It was 2003. For 
this album we wanted to do some political good 
and we researched how black people had reached 
Villa Rica, and so we called it ‘Africa-Villa 
Rica’. After this research we were able to understand our culture.

For example, in Villa Rica there used to be a 
slave plantation called Hacienda Alto, and when 
slavery was abolished in my country (1830), the 
foreman didn’t want to give people their 
freedom.  Some of them escaped, then returned to 
kill the foreman of the hacienda, liberating the 
other slaves who they found there. We put all of 
this into our songs. In this way we discovered 
the strong African influences in our town. That 
CD really took off in Colombia, so much so that 
the Ministry of Education described it as being 
very educational, since it was music mixed with native instruments and history.

The foundation was saved..

In 2006 the Foundation was on the verge of 
ending. Many of the members had left.  Some of 
the people who had guided us as a group of youths 
in the Foundation in previous years and who had 
always been there – come what may – suggested to 
us that we take leadership in the organization, 
since we came about through this process.  With 
my group we realised that somebody would have to 
replace those people who had left.

We are always concerned with talking about the 
problems of our town through our music, the 
social difficulties for example. But in our 
community we weren’t doing anything to begin to 
reduce these problems. So we decided to take 
charge of the Foundation and do more than just 
make songs. In fact, we kept the venue called “El 
Palenque” and when the executive committee 
changed, a member of our group stayed on as the 
legal representative of the Foundation. There we 
work on audiovisual projects with young people.

Without doubt the music has been very effective 
at reaching the youth. A while ago the Catholic 
Church had a priest who sang reggaeton, and got 
closer to young people this way.

Exactly, it’s a good medium. Now, with regard to 
the Church, it makes me laugh, because previously 
they said that hip hop and rap were the work of 
the Devil, but when they realised the power of 
this music, there began to appear many Christians 
with huge followings making religious hip hop.

Another of your criticisms is that young people 
absorb everything that the mass media shows them.

Today the media is controlled by capitalism, a 
model that I don’t agree with. Through this 
strategy the media influence the youth and 
control them. The people hang off the media’s 
every word, and end up losing their own customs 
and culture. In Villa Rica you can sometimes see 
fashions and you don’t know where they’ve come 
from.  For this reason we have a programme where 
we give cameras to young people, telling them, 
“Record your reality, record what is happening to you”.

In this way we take advantage of technological 
advances and we are educating more. While before 
kids used to play outside, what happens today is 
they’re now addicted to Playstations or some 
other type of video game.  Before, kids used to 
make up games and play in the street more.  It’s even worse in the cities.

Have any of you been victims of paramilitary violence?

In 2007 I was at a party in a place called “paso 
de la bolsa” near Villa Rica, in an area 
controlled by the paramilitaries, which I didn’t 
realise at the time.  On the way back I was 
leaving to take my car, and when I was walking in 
the street I found myself in front of a paramilitary group, and I was scared.

They stopped me and started to ask me a lot of 
questions, like who I was, where I was going, 
etc.  I’m very well known in the area and told 
them I was Jota Ramos from Villa Rica and that I 
didn’t want any problems. They carried on asking 
what I was doing at that time of 
night.  Suddenly, one of them appeared with a 
machete and started to attack me with it.

I managed to dodge the first blow, but the second 
cut my fingers. I didn’t lose them, but I was 
left with injuries, and even now I have mobility 
problems in some of them, and on one finger they 
had to attach a wood extension.  I was also left 
with scars on other parts of my body.

How did you survive?

Luckily their boss arrived and they stopped 
abusing me. I told them I was from Villa Rica, 
and they told me to leave straightaway or they 
would kill me.  Totally confused (because they’d 
also hit me with the butt of a pistol), I ran 
away hearing shots; later I reached a bridge a 
kilometre away, in an Army-controlled zone. There 
they helped me and called an ambulance.

They also asked who had done it to me. I told 
them what happened, but they didn’t do anything. 
The truth is that I don’t understand why they 
didn’t kill me – normally you don’t come out of that type of situation alive.

After this I started a campaign called “Youth Not 
War”, because the people who’d done this to me 
were adolescents, as young as me, and through 
this I met people from War Resisters 
International. I travelled throughout Colombia, 
with big concerts in Cali, Medellín, etc. I’d 
recently had an operation and did the concerts 
wearing bandages and everything. The tools I used 
to carry my message were art and culture.

These days, with the guerrillas and 
paramilitaries, do you see a solution or a 
strategy to end this climate of permanent war?

It’s very complicated. The war isn’t ending 
because many people benefit from it, and not just 
Colombians. An end to the war isn’t convenient 
for many overseas countries, because if they 
legalise drugs everyone will become drug addicts, 
but it doesn’t bother them that the situation 
persists. It’s the same for arms manufacturers: 
they’ll lose a lot of money if the armed conflict in my country ends.

Venezuela has bad relations with the United States.  What do you think?

I’ve been to Venezuela and the social situation 
there is much better than ours. I do not support 
war or so much military spending, but they have 
oil, and the funny thing is that the profits from 
this natural resource are going to the 
people.  On the other hand, in my country 
(Colombia) the multinationals take everything and 
the people remain poor. It pains me that we are 
sister nations but we allow the USA into 
Venezuela through the backyard.  The US is 
interested in oil, and wants to attack Chávez.

In this way they want conflict between our 
countries so that they can intervene on the side 
of Colombia and overthrow the Venezuelan 
government. I don’t agree with this because I am 
against war. When I was almost killed I saw the 
consequences of this type of conflict. I wasn’t 
in the war but I almost paid the price through 
the existence of one. I could have died and 
no-one would have known about it. The only thing 
I know about war is that nothing good comes from it.

But there doesn’t seem to be a solution.

Society must return to how it was before.  Maybe 
we didn’t have schools, maybe we didn’t have 
clothes but at least we survived because we 
helped one another. Now we have everything for a 
good life, but we are killing ourselves. Society 
has to understand that we are human, that in 
order to go on we have to appreciate that nature 
is there, that we must respect her, that we are 
alive thanks to her, and that we mustn’t carry on 
destroying her for material things. We must get 
back to strengthening interpersonal 
relationships, to have a richer life as a 
society, to be more human. In this way we will 
once again be able to coexist for a long time.

And what would you like to see happen?

My objective is to bring people together, because 
in this world there are many who are oppressed. 
Those that suffer the most are indigenous people, 
the descendents of Africans, Latinos, Asian people and women.

The working class in general. In the end we are 
all human, and we are all equal. I’m seeking that 
those on the bottom rise up and put themselves on a level with humanity.

I don’t want there to be any divisions because 
one person is black and the other white, or 
because one is a man and the other a women. We 
are all on this planet that belongs to no-one in 
particular, but to all of us. Capitalism is 
ruining the world, ruining nature. Societal 
changes make people think more about material 
things than about their own lives.

What makes you a leader?

We are all leaders. In fact “Make it Happen” is 
based on that idea because I realised that you 
have to make things happen yourself. From a young 
age I learned that when I want something, I have 
to do it to make it happen. “Make it Happen” 
reveals a lot about how I think and what I’m like.
+44 (0)7786 952037
"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."

"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic 
poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung

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