On the sunny afternoon of June 20, a group of 13 young Angolan human rights activists gathered for a book club meeting at a house in Vila Alice, Luanda. The reunion, which featured books and essays converging on the subject of how to non-violently overthrow a dictatorial government, sparked a debate on the current social landscape of Angola, a country blessed with oil and diamonds yet cursed by an unbrotherly 36-year-ruling by José Eduardo dos Santos. The meeting was suddenly raided by Angola’s Criminal Investigation Services, and the activists were detained– without a warrant– on the basis of “plotting to disturb the order and safety of the country” (aka planning a coup). The activists were first led to their different homes, where their computers, cellphones and credit cards were confiscated, and soon incarcerated in different prisons. The number of detained activists, mainly artists and musicians, such as rapper Luaty Beirão aka Ikonoklasta, would soon rise to 16. As of today, they remain locked up.
That same evening, Pedro Coquenão, aka Batida, had a Skype meeting planned with one of the activists to talk about “family stuff.” It obviously didn’t go through– his friend had been arrested. The 40 year-old Angolan-born, Lisboa-raised-and-based musician and creative is also an active voice and mind for an evolved and more equal Angolan society– a facet revealed by Coquenão throughout the years as a radio host in Portugal and a DIY documentary director and a musician, first as DJ Mpula and now as Batida.
Batida has been closely following the activists’ situation and briskly taking a stance for their immediate release. He regularly posts updates on Facebook, co-organises demonstrations and even displays billboards with their faces onstage. His greatest weapon, though, is his music: a blend of traditional Angolan sounds with the urban electronic landscapes absorbed in Lisboa and Europe, emanating a vibrant and physically-appealing rhythmic kaleidoscope that summons the past and present of Angola’s rich culture.
In the conversation below, Batida speaks with us about Angola’s current social landscape and the transformative aspiration of his music productions.
Batida displays posters of the 16 detained Angolan activists (Photo Credit: Luís Macedo)
Ricardo Miguel Vieira for Okayafrica: What’s the current situation regarding the activists detained in Angola?
Batida: It’s tense on their families and the Angolan society in general. You can’t be at ease when someone storms into your house and arrests your son or husband in an aggressive, violent manner without presenting legal arguments while you watch the whole thing unfolding. People become restless. So far the situation remains pretty much the same: a group of people is still in jail due to an alleged attempt to plot a coup-d’état during a book reading gathering. These are well-known, young, politically-independent Angolan activists and artists that have always acted publicly, never hiding their actions. They were debating “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation”, an awarded essay by Gene Sharp on non-violent meanings of overthrowing a dictatorial regime, which isn’t like a conspiracional or obscure manual. There were also a couple of other projects in discussion: creating an online television broadcast; and planning a demonstration where people would basically honk from their cars, displaying their discontentment with their onwards living standards. So the motivations for these arrests are pretty much clear for everyone except for the people that matter, which are those in charge of the country. So I don’t know when will this end, but social unrest is looming and everyone is worried about the activists’ current living conditions.
This social volatility has been very present in Angola since people took to the streets in 2011 following the Arab Spring’s global sweeping wave. What are these young Angolans fighting for?
A fairer, more equal and cohesive society. They want more investment in people, better jobs, infrastructures and education. These are pretty basic things that you hear shouting in any demonstration in the world. People feel they are under the same living standards since the Colonial War. The system spreads the word that Angola is a democracy, an evolved country with a booming economy and bubbling wealthiness. But then beer is cheaper than bottled water, the country has the world’s highest infant-mortality rate due to malnutrition, and its capital, Luanda, is the world’s most expensive city. In Angola only those aligned with the system are bound to succeed in their expectations, otherwise they won’t make it. Hence, these young activists are basically voicing the feeling that they don’t stand a chance in achieving a fair and equal life in Angola. They wish to speak without fear, hydrate their voices with tap water, go to a hospital without getting sicker. It’s not a matter of political parties or ideologies– they would plainly accept any government coming forward with these objectives.
It must be challenging for the movement to attract new voices because people on the opposite side of the system may face daily troubles within their lives…
If you do something unaligned with the collective discourse and the one staged by the regime, then you’ll only find hurdles on your way. The Angolan society has a deep fear of assuming a position or even liking or commenting things on Facebook. Only a few engage in conversation. For instance, my recent video of my show in Lisboa where I displayed posters of each of the detainees had 70,000 views on Facebook, but only a thousand likes. Many see, few comment and the majority is silent. Those assuming an independent position are often facing the court rooms or prison threats or can’t get a job. There’s a generalised fear in every sector of the Angolan society. There’s tension, uneasiness and unhappiness with many aspects of their current living.
Batida displays posters of each of the detainees at his show in Lisboa
Then how do these activists work to bring more people to the cause?
There isn’t a way of enticing people because there’s no money involved, no cute t-shirts nor free beer. What attracts is the overall sentiment, the message the group conveys and the chance to meet likeminded people in demonstrations. Basically, a feeling that you aren’t alone. There’s a very humane sense of belonging within these youngsters. That’s the bid. The group isn’t a solid organisation, people come and go, it’s open to multiple opinions and no one’s put aside.
You said you took posters of the activists’ faces to your concerts to raise awareness. You’ve also co-organised demonstrations in Portugal in solidarity with the activists. What moves you and your art to this situation?
I’m deeply influenced by the 1960-70’s music generations from Angola and Portugal and I’m not just talking about the sounds or lyrics of that era, but the spirit of such music. Many were apolitical artists venting subversive and thought-provoking political messages. They didn’t have a political agenda; they’d just tell stories of what was happening around them. I’m drawn to that posture, to that inevitability of an artist reflecting about what surrounds him through his art. Music had a socially relevant role in the genesis of Angola’s identity and I like the artists that have the ability to transform the world around them just by being themselves. My music and my performances are a reflection of my personality and this situation is close to me, affects my friends, the country where I was born and I feel the urge of standing up and say something, do something about it. I involved myself in this fight because no one was doing it. Those taking the fight to the streets are imprisoned, so I just act to claim for attention towards them and to make a difference and for this not to be forgotten.
Do you find your music interventive and revolutionary?
I like the art that isn’t necessarily interventional. That’s the art that transforms for being free, provocative and different. Telling about what you see is a basic exercise of freedom and it’s political as it is and I love that freedom and to be honest in what I do. I prefer movement, being less literary and more sensible. I believe in the power of dancing, in physical expressions, in the sound’s vibration and having people on the dance floor. I think that transforms better than long speeches, which follow rules in order to achieve their objectives. Although I have always worked with artists of the word such as MCK or Ikonoklasta [one of the activists currently in prison]. I collaborate with them because I find common ground in their lyrics. I like speaking through music, shows, images or films that I project in my concerts.
Which of your songs better reflect Angola’s present social environment?
The best example is “Bazuka”. My first idea was to blend a percussive and rhythmic sound from the 1960-70’s with the ones I was listening back in 2007. I crossed the old and the new in a harmonious way because it made no sense to have this generational gap in the Angolan music spectrum. It was a festive sound to which I added voices from a documentary I produced with Ikonoklasta back in 2005 because I felt the need for it to have a context. It was a song that had a great impact on my fellow producers and musicians; that was itself the weapon – but it was wasn’t in any way praising the gun. I mixed the old and new rhythms of the country with messages of Angola’s daily life so people could find a socially truthful story in it. Jumping from that track to “Alegria” and to “Pobre e Rico” clearly unveils what I try to do when producing music. Just as many elders forget the youngsters and don’t listen to them, there are also older happenings and people forgotten by both generations and there are many beautiful things made in the past that are still pretty much valid today. Thus I rescue the past through a mixture of music, dances and images and put it back into Angola’s present context and pay homage to the wholesome of the culture. Music isn’t just music; films aren’t just films; dancing isn’t just dancing. Everything’s a living experience and doesn’t have to be encapsulated in a set of rules.
What other courses of action do you have planned to expose the incarceration of the activists?
I’ll keep on doing what I’ve done since before the arrests: making music and shows and promoting Angolan artists in other countries as much as I can. I compromise myself as an artistic figure to speak about this in my shows, on social media and in interviews to the press. I’m here to come forward whenever it’s possible and to talk about this issue in front of 500 people or 20,000. It doesn’t matter: I have this compromise and I’ll stick to it.
And what can be done to help out in this situation?
First of all, sign Amnesty International’s petition for the immediate release of the activists. It’s simple and only takes 10 seconds. Then use social media to keep spreading the word and the news that you find credible, accurate and independent. From here onwards it’s in everyone’s hands to do something. I strongly believe that if a person is well-informed, then she’ll know what course of actions to take. Either personally or even artistically.
The 16 detained Angolan activists (Via Central Angola 7311)
If you could play one of your songs to José Eduardo dos Santos, which one would it be?
I would dedicate a beautiful song to him just as to anyone else. I never did a song thinking about him because I don’t hold any personal grudge against Angola’s president. I don’t have any interest in talking with him, I don’t even know him personally and he doesn’t slide his human side so I don’t know how he is. But maybe “Pobre e Rico”, because the lyrics are still up-to-date. This is not a matter of blacks and whites; it’s about rich people (‘rico’) and poor people (‘pobre’), that’s what people are talking about: there are many people with lots of money and many more with it at all. That’s the greatest wound in the Angolan society. The song also has an argument similar to the one his party stood for after the Colonial War, so it’s always good for someone to just go back in time and remember when they dreamed about projecting beautiful things for them and the others and to analyse if they did everything they could towards that dream. There are other songs that would also fit, but this one would be a good conversation starter. But I don’t feel like talking to someone who doesn’t want to talk with anybody either.
Ricardo Miguel Vieira is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter (@ricardom_vieira).