I seldom receive albums that I consider instant masterpieces. Furthermore, albums that actually make me question the talent of the rich and famous, and simply restore my faith in humanity. Mind you, I’m not a fan of some commercial rap and hip-hop. And I outright despise all reggaeton. That is, because as a woman I feel the basic need of preserving my dignity overtaking my desire to, say, dance. There, I said it. Now, with hip-hop, however, I’ve always had, and will always have the highest respect for the genre. I live in the Bronx after all.
I recently received a request to take a private listen to the new Free Family Portraits, by gone-solo Rodrigo Venegas, RodStarz from the duo Rebel Díaz. This duo is well-known for utilizing hip-hop culture as a means for liberation and self-empowerment in marginalized communities throughout the world. As a soloist, he extends his mission to show us the true global power of hip-hop, without resorting to stereotypes and over-the-top antics.
RodStarz’ political work goes beyond the turntable. He has taken stands against what he feels is the violent, racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-environment rhetoric spewed by some politicians, especially Ted Cruz, who recently visited the Bronx.
Overall, this album is honest, balanced, musically rich and engaging. Rodrigo Venegas throws a ball to our community and expects us to play with it by simply organizing, producing and rebuilding community. He does so without being didactic, without writing down condescending rules. So, after this listen, it was imperative I sat down for a one-on-one conversation ‘a calzón quitao,’ with our Chilean brother.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: Free Family Portraits, Why the title? Is it a presentation of your own life now?
Rodrigo Venegas: Each song to me is like a portrait of a different moment in my life. Family is big part of my life. I’m a husband and father; I do Rebel Díaz with my brother Gonzalo Venegas (G1), and I treat my community as a family as well, so it made sense to me. It’s the concept that when we take family portraits we are documenting our family history. It’s interesting because it was after I decided on the title, our my friend Bocafloja pointed out how back in the day mostly rich people were the only ones who had access to having a family portrait done. Think about it: in those big mansions, with all the paintings and pictures, it’s because they had access. In poor communities, we didn’t have that.
MF: In the opening number, “NYC 2016,” you tell a story about being locked up. Could you tell us about that experience?
RV: Yeah, I say “2008 I’m locked, 2009 I beat the law, 2010 they want more… ” because in June of 2008 me and my brother G1 got locked up by the NYPD in The Bronx for defending an immigrant street vendor whose produce was being confiscated. We spoke up in his defense and got arrested. We caught serious charges and it was a rough time. They were threatening to deport me, etc. But we fought back and beat the case in 2009. That’s why I say “2009 I beat the law.” We won that case and then took the police to court for brutality and won again.
MF: You’re the second Latino artist I interview that has a line in a song about the “post-Reagan era.” Why is that relevant in the song “ChiTown95”? What we should’ve learned from those times?
RV: The post-Reagan era to me was surviving the crack era, early 90’s in Chicago, when the damage had been done. We survived with hip-pop. That’s what that song is about, an ode to Chicago in the 90’s, when I was breakdancing, rackin’ clothes and trying to holler at girls. My crew was my family back then, and many still are to this day.
MF: In “Play it Safe” you state “Misunderstood, not misbehaved/ New chapter I turned the page,” and then you go on to claim “this is my revival, my personal recital.” Are you presenting the new Rebel Díaz—Rodrigo Starz that is no longer locked up, but is a family man? How about the activist in Rebel Díaz, has it changed with the times?
RV: I’ve always been a family man, close to my parents, brothers, and grandparents, yet now I got my own little family. We are an addition to the larger tribe. I’ve also always treated my friends as family. I’m a child of exile, so the large families on TV, we never had that. Our family is an extended family of activists, refugees, exiles and community. That’s family to me. I’m not presenting a new Rodrigo Starz, to be clear, I could’ve gotten locked up just the other day for protesting the system; I’m not like a changed man. If anything I’m going to fight harder because now I have a son whose future depends on our actions today. So, yeah, the activist hasn’t changed. Maybe the tactics; we are wiser with experience. I know getting locked up isn’t a smart strategy, so I don’t engage with the enemy when I don’t have too, but our work is still going as hard as before.
MF: Then, you present “Broken Windows Theory,” which starts with the broken windows policing speech about Eric Garner’s death. “The window stay broken if your poor and you’re hopeless, if you’re broke and you’re homeless.” It sounds to me like at this point you’ve moved from your own family portrait, to the oppressed family portraits.
RV: YES… we have!
MF: How can we seek justice against the militarization of Amerca’s police—or how you call them, “Dracula?”
RV: The Dracula line is from my comrade A.G. of the legendary D.I.T.C. crew who paved the way for MC’s in The Bronx like me to even rock. I stand by his line because they’re Draculas. They’re out here hunting us in the night and they’re killing our children..
MF: Interesting. Do you think some of our uniformed forces are being oppressed as well, by being forced to follow these tactics by the people in power?
RV: I’m unapologetic about my views on police. The minute you join the force and put a uniform on, you are joining the first line of defense of the state, and your job then becomes to hunt black, brown and poor youth to fill up jails. That’s not cool. However, the example of the #NYPD12, who spoke out the truth about racist arrest quotas and work conditions, shows the contradictions that good people face joining an evil system.
MF: Let’s talk about “The Ray Sisters.” You actually narrate a family story about a biracial couple. It touches upon deportation and the KKK. Could you explain the inspiration for this song? Who were Jamie and Jimmy?
RV: The Ray Sisters. It’s a play with words. The story of White America. The story of Racism.
MF: Let’s talk about “Ella,” your bilingual song. This is your homage to feminism, to single mothers, to independent women, to women who’ve done the impossible to seek a better life for her and her young. As a woman, I have to say, it’s refreshing to hear the counterpoint to a song celebrating us, instead of belittling us. What’s your take on other recording artists of any genre that depict women as “perras” or sexual objects, or belittle us within their lyrical content or their performances?
RV: Thanks. That’s featuring my homie King Capo. We were in the studio, and the theme came up and we ran with it. I talk about a lot of the liberation leaders in movements that are so many times overlooked because they are women, but we also talk about our mothers and grandmothers, who are the leaders in our communities who hold us down!
MF: Overall this is album is a five-star ode to family conscious activism. We’re in a pivotal, historic election cycle. What’s your advice to young voters out there and our Latino community?
RV: Thank you! That’s love! Much appreciated. My advice to young voters out there is to vote everyday with the actions you take in your community. Teach a self-defense class. Plant a garden. Create a beat. Write a poem. Spit some bars. Play sports with the youth. Build. Don’t just consume. Produce.
MF: We clearly see you walk the walk. And of course, I must ask you, what is your definition of a Latino Rebel?
RV: Think outside the box. Build with Latina rebels. Respect Latina rebels. Grow and defend community.
MF: I love that. I wish you the best and congratulations!