Columbian hip-hop land rights activist visits UK
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
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 bands 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?
Its 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 wasnt
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 peoples 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 its 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 dont 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 doesnt 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 its 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 theyre
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 whos in the other gang.
But who is really to blame for this?
I really dont 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 its 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 dont 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 hadnt done it, I
would already be dead. They would have killed me
to prevent people from hearing my criticisms.
Ive 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 were 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 were 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 didnt 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 werent 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, its 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 dont agree with. Through this
strategy the media influence the youth and
control them. The people hang off the medias
every word, and end up losing their own customs
and culture. In Villa Rica you can sometimes see
fashions and you dont know where theyve 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
theyre now addicted to Playstations or some
other type of video game. Before, kids used to
make up games and play in the street more. Its 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 didnt
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. Im very well known in the area and told
them I was Jota Ramos from Villa Rica and that I
didnt 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 didnt 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 theyd
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 didnt do anything.
The truth is that I dont understand why they
didnt kill me normally you dont come out of that type of situation alive.
After this I started a campaign called Youth Not
War, because the people whod 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. Id
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?
Its very complicated. The war isnt ending
because many people benefit from it, and not just
Colombians. An end to the war isnt convenient
for many overseas countries, because if they
legalise drugs everyone will become drug addicts,
but it doesnt bother them that the situation
persists. Its the same for arms manufacturers:
theyll 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?
Ive 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 dont agree with this because I am
against war. When I was almost killed I saw the
consequences of this type of conflict. I wasnt
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 doesnt seem to be a solution.
Society must return to how it was before. Maybe
we didnt have schools, maybe we didnt 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 mustnt 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. Im seeking that
those on the bottom rise up and put themselves on a level with humanity.
I dont 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 Im 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
More information about the Diggers350