By Greg Brosnan
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Among the shabby high-rise
tenements overlooking Venezuela’s capital, hip-hop beats rather
than the usual gunfire kept the Caracas neighborhood of Pinto
Salinas awake one night recently.
Bass notes echoed from a small stage as teen-agers in baggy
sports clothes and fat sneakers, many of them black youths
descended from African slaves, listened avidly to an instructor
before themselves rapping in Spanish over a thundering sound
In a twist in Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s
self-styled socialist revolution, his government, which has
long pumped proceeds from oil sales into health and education
for the poor, is paying for rap-crazy youths to prime their
rhymes as an escape route from drugs and violence in some of
Caracas’ toughest neighborhoods.
“We’re used to seeing corpses, used to seeing people kill
each other every day in shootouts,” said Alfred Garcia, a
20-year-old rapper from Pinto Salinas who helped organize the
workshop on hip-hop culture.
“Shooting can break out at any time … but not tonight,”
he said. “I know the bad guys … I spoke to them and told them
this event was going on. They said they wouldn’t bother us if
we didn’t bother them.”
Held in poor neighborhoods across Caracas, rap workshops
are run with government funds by Tiuna el Fuerte, a collective
of young artists and musicians born out of a failed April 2002
coup against Chavez.
“This is a turntable, this is a mixer,” a 21-year-old
instructor in combat pants who called himself MC klopedia told
wide-eyed children who clambered onto the stage at Pinto
Salinas for a class on hip-hop basics. Some could barely walk.
“There is gangster rap, there is hardcore rap … Hey pay
attention!” he snapped as two toddlers scuffled.
Older brothers, some wearing dark glasses and headscarves
and holding pitbull terriers on chains, looked on approvingly
at the rap class.
After oil production soared under 1950s dictator Marcos
Perez Jimenez, Venezuela began building scores of high-rise
apartment complexes across Caracas known as ‘superblocks’ aimed
at providing healthy spaces for urban living.
But overflowing with rural migrants and virtually
unpoliced, many hillside complexes like Pinto Salinas are now
as prone to drug violence as the chaotic shantytowns that have
sprung up around them.
As marijuana smoke mixed with the solvent stench of
graffiti artists’ spray paint, the budding rappers at Pinto
Salinas described their daily reality in neighborhoods known as
“barrios” a world away from the plush malls and guarded
condominiums of wealthier parts of the city.
“Come to my barrio, to see I am not lying, where the
bullets are a concert of pure death, not salsa,” one rapper
chimed. A friend puffed a “beatbox” rhythm into a microphone
with his mouth while another “scratched” vinyl records.
MUSIC WITH A MESSAGE
The project was born out of the political upheaval that has
characterized Venezuela in recent years.
Leaving a rehearsal at their university in 2002, members of
a band mixing salsa with hip-hop from a Caracas neighborhood
similar to Pinto Salinas bumped into a march by Chavez
opponents that was part of a coup that briefly toppled him.
After joining thousands of other Chavez supporters in the
streets to help restore his power, some of the band members
vowed to support the former paratrooper’s “revolution” using
music and art.
The government put the young musicians on the payroll, gave
them transport, a sound system and a plot of concrete-covered
land in the shadow of a “superblock” complex as a base.
Covered in creative graffiti, much of it critical of
Chavez’s sworn enemy President Bush, the spot overlooking a
busy highway is a hangout, concert venue and school for
everything from sound-engineering to circus skills.
“We are armed and fighting,” said one of the collective’s
founders, 32-year-old Piki Figueroa. “Our bullets are music,
dance, painting, poetry, video and images.”
Critics denounce Chavez’s neighborhood programs as wasteful
populist measures aimed at currying favor among the masses.
Members of the collective say they support the government
with reservations because they worry about corruption. Tiuna
says it had little grasp of the reality of barrio youth
culture, something they want to help change.
Proudly watching her son perform, rapper Garcia’s mother
Egle Mijares said she was hopeful the project could limit the
number of bullets flying around Pinto Salinas on most other
“They’re getting rid of all that adrenaline they have,” she
said of the budding street poets. “They’ve fallen in love with
rap so much that they’ve given up crime.”