Words that offend

Valtònyc on social inequality, terror and free speech in Catalonia

In a controversial yet peaceable move, the Spanish government has pardoned nine jailed Catalan leaders. José Miguel Arenas Beltrán, more widely known as the Spanish rapper Valtònyc, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for insulting the monarchy and ‘glorifying terrorism’ in his lyrics. He is still on the run from the Spanish authorities.

Valtònyc speaks to Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, editor of Razpotja, about his experiences of exile:

Valtonyc, Joanna Chichelnitzky Photo by Fotomovimiento from Flickr

Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič: During his tenure as European Commissioner for the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Frans Timmermans said that in Spain nobody is prosecuted for putting their thoughts into words. How did this remark make you feel? 

Valtònyc: It felt like the statement of someone trying to launder the image of Europe. A Majorcan rapper has been supported and safely exiled here in Brussels for writing a song against the King of Spain. And I was reminded of all those people who say Europe isn’t behind me – which I’m convinced isn’t true. When we talk of Europe we mean more that EU institutions: we are referring to the community of states that forms the Union. The independent courts of democratic countries like Germany, Switzerland or Belgium, have rejected requests for my extradition coming from Spain. That’s what really matters. I’ve never been assisted by a European Institution, nor has any important party ever given me support. Not even a Spanish party – except Podemos. It would be much too embarrassing to suggest that, in an EU country like Spain, there’s no freedom of expression. It’s far easier to say this about Venezuela, Cuba or any other socialist country.

Can you tell us how you got to Brussels?

I arrived on 24 May 2018. The authorities put my personal details online and people started buying flight tickets to get me out of Majorca – I received about 40. This distracted the police. A clandestine operation was organised to get me out. The curious thing is that the people who helped me escape were sixty, seventy, even eighty-year-olds.

Do you think that’s because they still remember Franco’s dictatorship and sympathize more with your case?

I think they have clearer ideas than younger people. We, the young, have been toughened by job insecurity. There is less labour militancy, and, in general, younger people are more fearful than the older generation. We are more divided by diverging personal interests. I think older people know it’s time to unite and organise clandestine operations when needed.

When you fled Spain you were charged with ‘terrorism apologia’ and issuing insults and threats to the crown. How old were you when you wrote those incriminating lyrics? 

Eighteen.

How does an eighteen-year-old feel when he receives a terrorism charge?

It seemed cool. It was like: hey, the police listen to my songs! In the US, being arrested is the least a rapper can expect. And I was being charged for my lyrics!

Didn’t you worry that the case might go further and that the tribunals could go along with the police and the public prosecutor?

Back then, in 2012, everyone imagined we lived in a democracy. I knew there were political prisoners in Spain and I cooperated with organisations that reported on the treatment of Basque prisoners, but most people thought this was a democracy. The idea that you could end up in prison for writing a song was associated with dictatorships like Iran or China. In fact, Spain has the highest number of musicians with prison sentences in the world. Right now there are eighteen of us. Some months ago, the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei visited Brussels and invited me to a talk. He had studied my case, so I asked him what would have happened to me in China. He replied that I would have had my power and water cut off. The police might have imposed sanctions on me but I wouldn’t have been imprisoned.

We have seen a number of cases in European countries where sentences for slander or lèse-majesté have met with public outrage. But you were found guilty of ‘glorification of terrorism’? How do you explain the use of that phrase?

Above all, it trivializes the word terrorism and turns it into no more than a slogan. It also humiliates people who have suffered from terrorism and threatens the dignity of Spanish citizens. Any 24-year-old who works in a fruit shop can be branded as a terrorist. So can your son, your brother, or your uncle.

I don’t believe that a hip-hop song can qualify as terrorism, especially when the Spanish monarchy deals with dictatorships like Saudi Arabia. The Spanish government has protected paramilitary groups like the GAL death squads, collaborated with the illegal invasion of Iraq, campaigned for war by saying that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and lied about the perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. This is real terrorism. It’s about increasing social inequality, evicting a minor, or when the police smash your face in for putting a piece of paper in a ballot-box. A song that reports all this is not terrorism. That’s why I don’t believe what I’m doing is an apologia for terror. I do not consider myself a terrorist.

Why did you choose to take refuge in Brussels?

It’s the capital of Europe. I thought it would be effective to report on the lack of freedom in an EU country from the political centre. And I was lucky to find a powerful network of Catalan exiles here. Our political criticisms are bound to have more impact if we work together. The cases against us are a reflection of the same problem. Denouncing it jointly is a good strategy.

When you arrived in Brussels you had already been sentenced to three years in jail…

Because I’d been sentenced for terrorism, I expected to have to serve my sentence at least 500 km from home. That’s the main reason I decided to leave. In Belgium, I can keep singing and tell the world what’s happening in Spain. It’s a country where people are persecuted for their political views – more than eighteen musicians have been given prison sentences. Some, like Pablo Hasél, are my friends. I thought I could do more to help them from here. Hasél, on the other hand, thinks he can damage the Spanish government more if he goes to prison and serves his unjust sentence. He believes it’s the only way he can help bring about social change.

Spain issued a European arrest warrant as soon as you arrived in Brussels…

In my case, Spain made many mistakes. They failed to send the documentation in Flemish or French, and explained this by saying that the Spanish government didn’t know which of the two was the official language in Belgium. Naturally, the Belgians were annoyed and rejected the Euro-order. The judges absolved me of all charges and let me go, indicating that what I’d been condemned for in Spain is not a crime in Belgium – which confirms that the terror charge should be levelled not at me but at the state that persecutes song writers. Six judges have sided with me. We are sure the case is won.

The Spanish Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court have rejected the appeal you made on the grounds that you were protected by your right to freedom of expression, so you have turned to the European Court of Human Rights, right?

It’s mostly to denounce Spain and make sure that legal repression there is internationally condemned. But it’s also to help my compatriots in Spanish prisons.

Have you decided to continue living outside Spain?

I don’t want to go back. Even if Strasbourg ends up siding with me, I’m expecting another charge: hate crime against the police. I don’t trust them. I can fight from here to build a Catalan republic and for the self-determination of other oppressed groups – especially the Basque people, who may be closer to success. I believe this is the best strategy to weaken the antidemocratic Spanish bourgeoisie. And self-determination is an undeniable right. While the Spanish political and judicial establishment continues to imprison people and makes use of exceptional political tribunals like Audiencia Nacional, I shan’t be going back. I’m probably the most hated person in Spain, after the Catalan pro-independence politician Carles Puigdemont. Seriously.

Photo by Jove, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You were sentenced for a track often called The Bourbon King (El rei Borbó), but you originally called it La Tuerka Rap. It’s not very well known that you chose the title because the song was conceived for La Tuerka, a TV show presented by Pablo Iglesias.

The leader of the political party Podemos, yes. At the time he was an opposition journalist. Every week La Tuerka included a rap song: Iglesias would choose the rapper and the subject, and the rapper would send him the song. In April, they contacted me and asked if I wanted to do a song for them. It happened to coincide with the anniversary of the Second Spanish Republic’s proclamation. They told me the topic was the monarchy. So I wrote a song against the monarchy. They played it and kept it on their website. I got three and a half years.

Has Pablo Iglesias given you his support?

He expressed his sympathies in a tweet.

You wrote a song for his programme, his party leads in the defence of civil rights, and he didn’t help? 

He didn’t help me pay for a lawyer or anything. All he did was post a tweet and use my sentence to win a few extra votes.

Before the Catalan independence referendum on 1 October 2017, your case resonated strongly in Spain. Even prime minister Pedro Sánchez tweeted in your favour, although he didn’t agree with your lyrics. Now your case has moved to the European level. There are more than a dozen musicians imprisoned in Spain but they are barely mentioned in the mainstream Spanish media. How do you explain this? Does it reflect an authoritarian turn after the referendum in Catalonia?

Individual cases are lost among all the other daily injustices in Spain. My case has had particular impact, but other people haven’t been as lucky. They have tried to spread awareness but there hasn’t been any mobilization in response. Consequently they have been sentenced to prison or fined. The Civil Guards killed 15 migrants from Trajal and were not convicted; the neo-Nazis attacked the Blanquerna Catalan Cultural Centre in Madrid and nothing happened; some Civil Guards came into a bar, locked people in, put bullets between their hostages teeth and belted out a recording of Cara al Sol, the anthem of the Spanish Falangists. Out of the 1,400 corrupt politicians in Spain, only 70 have been imprisoned. The case of a single musician is bound to be lost in the context of so much injustice.

Your songs are provocative, violent and obscene. Even people who have stepped in to defend you have distanced themselves from your lyrics. How do you respond to those who say your language is beyond the pale?

It’s part of a show, that’s all. When you go to the cinema to watch a movie or to the theatre to see a play, you know it’s acting; when you read a novel, you accept it’s fiction. In the 21st century, a democratic society should know the difference between a story or a rude joke, and a real threat. I’m 24 and I’ve worked in a fruit shop all my life. I’m no threat. Writing and performing songs isn’t a threat. One of the charges against me was ‘threatening a politician with a nuclear bomb’. Well, there isn’t any plutonium in Majorca, as far as I know…

Burning a flag or a photo of the king is a childish act. It leads nowhere. But when people are persecuted for burning a flag or a photo, their act becomes a political statement and an expression of solidarity. The repression I’ve had to face has convinced me that I did what I had to do.

Do you regret anything you’ve said or written?

I’d change the sexist and homophobic lyrics. Unfortunately, they’re part of the rapping style. Rap songs often denigrate women and the LGBTI community. But I wouldn’t alter the rest. The past is something we should learn from, not regret. Today, I wouldn’t say many of the things I said when I was eighteen. Everybody evolves. But no eighteen-year-old should be imprisoned for a song. Anyone who felt offended by my lyrics could have come to a concert and protested. Social protest is entirely legitimate. What’s not legitimate is the use of tools of the state to repress words we don’t like. Forms of expression that offend us are also part of a democratic society.

Clearly there are attitudes that should be eliminated from a society – racism, sexism or homophobia, for example. But I don’t think repressive tools of the state are the best means of combatting them. We should use role models instead. When we use tools of the state we choose the dangerous path of repressing fundamental human rights. Initially our intentions may appear good, but repressions often end up being directed at the wrong people. The antiterrorism law that condemned me was written into a pact between the conservative Popular Party and the Spanish socialist party PSOE to fight jihadism. No jihadists have been prosecuted under the law, but it has been used to repress left-wing people – anarchists, protesters and so on. Similarly, the Gag Law (‘Llei mordassa’ in Catalan), passed to protect the police and the security forces, has contributed to the persecution of more than 20,000 citizens. The reintroduction of life imprisonment also worries and, frankly, frightens me. They say it’s for murderers and rapists, but there are likely to be about 5% of those. The remainder will be Catalans, those who are already serving maximum sentences of 30 years. It’s very dangerous.

I imagine you follow Spanish hip-hop and rap closely. Have you noticed any change in the attitude of other musicians in Spain? Are they more careful now when choosing topics, and in the way they express themselves? Have you noticed any increase in self-censorship? 

Encouraging self-censorship is the key objective of these sentences. It’s the worst form of censorship. A free person is a person who is not afraid. If you’re fearful you’re already limited in your potential. We know the ’78 regime, that’s to say the Spanish establishment, is currently going through a deep crisis of legitimacy – political, judicial, economic and monarchical. The last thing they need is for people to mobilize and organize themselves. Hip-hop was born in the 1970s and 1980s, when African American communities were harshly oppressed in the US, and music was a way for them to assert their rights. It was a form of self-defence, but it also expressed hate for the police. At one point, hip-hop also gained popularity in Spain. These are not just my views; the judge who sentenced us said we were guilty of trying to mobilize people and undermine the interests of the Spanish state. This indicates that popular mobilization and protest are now against the law there. It’s not criminality that’s being judged – if it was, think how many songs, films and videogames would have been prohibited for extreme violence! The judgement passed on me wasn’t for criminal acts; it was a political judgement. Neither I nor Pablo Hasél were asked about our songs. We were interrogated about our ideology, our social commitment, our political militancy and our political actions. The videos of the trials have been published. They show us being asked why we said certain things about the monarchy. We replied that we hadn’t invented anything we said about the monarchy – we had read it in the media. These were documented historical facts. You can’t condemn a person for speaking the truth, that’s what authoritarian regimes do.

Photo by Òmnium Cultural, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Your case has been reported in some of the most important media outlets in the world: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Politico, and Al Jazeera. PEN International has also spoken out in your defence. Yet the resonance of the Pussy Riot case – which was very similar – proved far greater, although I’d say your case was more serious. After all, you were sentenced for your lyrics. Do you think condemned Spanish rappers have had enough attention in Europe?

Europe isn’t conscious enough of the fact that people can be imprisoned for writing and performing a song in an EU state. Some American media have shown interest in my case. In the US, they understand rap and hip-hop as an art form that has to be permitted to be critical. Rap culture was born there. Snoop Dogg has shot Donald Trump in a videoclip; Madonna said she would blow up the White House in front of 300,000 people. There are thousands of videoclips showing politicians being shot at. Freedom of expression is all the oppressed have to externalize their feelings about the powerful. If we lose that, we’ve lost everything.

Has publicity surrounding your case been suppressed for geopolitical reasons?

No, but everyone knows that Venezuela, Cuba, Russia and North Korea are dictatorships with no freedom of expression. What nobody recognizes is that the same happens in Spain. Nor is it known that, during the yellow vest protests in France, 4,000 people were injured and almost 9,000 arrested. Worse has happened in the UK – think of the film Bloody Sunday. If this kind of thing occurred in Cuba, Venezuela or Russia we would be seeing it on television every day; international organisations would be condemning it. But when it happens in a European country it’s too uncomfortable to talk about.

You write most of your songs in Catalan. If you sang in Spanish, you could reach a much broader public. How do you see the role of language and the national theme in your work?

I do half of my songs in Catalan and half in Spanish. It depends how I feel about them. Resisting class oppression can go together with fighting against national oppression. When a woman sings leftist rap in Catalan, she is taking up the struggle on several fronts. She’s a woman, she’s leftist, she’s Catalan, she’s a worker and she’s a feminist. My songs fight for our national and social condition. At my trial, the judge kept emphasising that I rap in Catalan. He repeated it over fifteen times, as if there was something offensive about it: ‘That boy sings most of his songs in Catalan’. Why?

Since your arrival in Brussels, you’ve started meeting Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan exiles. Part of the Spanish left has accused you of selling yourself to the Catalan bourgeoisie. How do you respond?

You have to make alliances wisely. Historically, communists have made strategic pacts with social-democrats and bourgeois liberals to combat fascism. It’s a historical fact that the Catalan right – even though it is right-wing – has done most to weaken the ’78 regime over the past 40 years. Shameful as it is, the Spanish left is proving more Spanish than left. It has white-washed the regime, hidden the existence of political prisoners and criminalized social struggle. Podemos has helped pacify the streets at a time when it’s obvious real change cannot come from institutions.

What do you feel about the issue of Catalan independence?

Independence for Catalonia would be a good way to get rid of the residual Francoist system, and these shitty low salaries. Independence is not just a question of cultural identity – it’s about establishing decent healthcare and education, establishing a new country, doing everything that Spain doesn’t allow us to do.

You seem deeply rooted in your language, your culture, and your country. Is exile difficult, on a personal level?

It is. But I know how to survive and look ahead. One day I’ll return, look back and laugh about all this. There have always been political exiles. In contrast to a Syrian, or any other war refugee, I know my home is still there, my family are still there and, thanks to new technologies, I’m able to communicate with people and with audiences. I can express my ideas, I can keep singing and have direct contact with my fans and family. It was either prison or this. I think I made the right choice.

The interview was conducted for the Slovenian quarterly Razpotja, in Spring 2019.

Published 25 June 2021
Original in Slovenian
Translated by Marta Capdevila
First published by Razpotja (Slovenian version), Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Razpotja © Valtònyc / Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič / Razpotja / Eurozine

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