Angolan Awakening: Ikonoklasta Doubles Down in his Fight for Change
The controversial Angolan rapper Ikonoklasta AKA Luaty Beirão looks ahead to a revolutionary life after prison.
Luaty Beirão, also known as Ikonoklasta, is certain that change is coming to Angola. It has nothing to do with President José Eduardo dos Santos’ vow to abandon power this year—a new regime is not about to pop up overnight. Yet, the Angolan rapper and activist is certain that the collective consciousness is finally shedding the chains of 37 years of oppressive and corrupt rule.
“People have been conquering the fear of challenging the arrogance of the authorities. The events of a couple of years ago were definitely a turning moment for all of us.”
The events Beirão evokes happened in June of 2015, when he and 16 fellow revolutionaries were arrested in Luanda’s dusty bairro Vila Alice. The revús, as they were labelled, were held in alleged flagrante delito—flagrant crime—during a meeting where they were studying Gene Sharp’s book From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, a rulebook on non-violent civil disobedience believed to have inspired resistance movements all over the globe. “For a split second, I thought I was going to die,” muses Beirão. “They brandished machine guns while a camera crew taped the operation. But they handcuffed us without telling us what crime we committed.”
A week later, a report made public said that Beirão and 14 fellow activists were being preventively held for “plotting to disturb the order and safety of the country” and “planning a coup against José Eduardo dos Santos.” Apparently, there was a video-evidence that captured the group candidly reading and pitching ideas around Gene Sharp’s manual. The case turned global and for all the time it dragged through courts and hospitals and prisons, Beirão was at the forefront of the struggle.
“I’ve been on the other side, where people say that I live well so I shouldn’t protest for others. But in society, there’s not an us and a them. If I want this to change, for my daughter and the children growing up in the country, then I have to stand up and do something. We can’t bend over injustice.”
Ikonoklasta – “Revolução”
A Son of the Regime
Beirão’s political activism is rooted in his early forays into hip-hop. In 1994, at the age of thirteen, he began writing his first rhymes, which he’d rap for fun alongside his friends. His cousins were his musical curators, hooking him up with cassettes and mixtapes somehow arriving from the US. Within that stash, he picked his main influences.
“I’ve always been into the conscious current of hip-hop, and also its heavier stuff,” says Beirão. “House of Pain, Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, rappers who’d talk about social issues in a very subtle way were my references.” His early explorations led him to immerse in Angola’s underground hip-hop scene, meeting artists who had a profound impact in his formative years. “Thanks to their rap songs I grew aware of the social problems in Angola, like the lack of access to education and health”, he says. “They made me realise I was living in a bubble, completely oblivious of the real world.”
Truth is Luaty Beirão is a son of the regime. His father, João Beirão, was an old time MPLA partisan and the first director-general of José Eduardo dos Santos’ foundation. Beirão’s education curriculum is one that only a few privileged Angolans can quote. He lines up a degree in Engineering from Plymouth University, in the UK, with a second one in Economics from Montpellier University, in France. Much to the establishment’s surprise, many of the current generation of revolutionaries in Angola are scions of the elite who benefitted from a good education, traveling and learning from new cultures. Beirão acknowledged some years ago being a son of the regime, but firmly stated having his own beliefs.
Beirao on stage. Photo by Fazuma
Beirão’s initial battleground, nonetheless, was rap music. What started as joke in his youth eventually developed into a serious creative activity and resistance conduit. In 2004, Ikonoklasta, his artistic alias, formed Conjunto Ngonguenha with three other Angolan MCs and the producer Conductor, a founder of Buraka Som Sistema. Ngonguenhação, a sonic portrait of childhood in 1980s Angola, was their first release and it came with a heartfelt documentary on post-Civil War life in Angola titled É Dreda Ser Angolano—it’s cool to be Angolan.
Nós os do Conjunto, a far-out work fusing traditional rhythms with kuduro’s emerging energy, came out in 2010. It was the second and last record of the group. By that time, Ikonoklasta’s musical endeavours had already yield him a unique profile among Portuguese-speaking rappers. He was regularly invited to feature in records of Portugal’s era-defining conscious rappers Valete and Xeg and also collaborated with the Angolan MCK.
In 2008, Ikonklasta, who occasionally rapped under the alter-ego Brigadeiro Mata Frakuzk, released the rebellious and politically charged solo album Ikonodamus. At the turn of the decade, he started working closely with Batida in a global, futuristic music language that broadened Ikonoklasta’s protesting reach against the government. In retrospective, though, Beirão confesses that music wasn’t fulfilling enough. “I wasn’t happy to simply assume my mea-culpa in music and just acknowledge that I’m guilty of what’s happening.”
Ikonoklasta – “Kamikasio (feat. DJ Mpula)”
Beirão is now thirty-five and the father of three years-old Luena. He has morphed from a son of the regime into a relentless opposing force to dos Santos’ authoritarian and corrupt rule. In February 27, 2011, at a period when the youth movements all over Africa were gaining momentum following the earthshaking effects of the Arab Spring, Beirão fiercely challenged the political establishment in a way not seen in recent years. He was a guest at the first live show in Luanda of Angolan rapper Bob Da Rage Sense. Thousands packed the city’s Cine Atlantico and among the crowd was Danilo dos Santos, one of the president’s seven offspring and a fan of Da Rage Sense. Aware of his presence in the theatre, Beirão jumped on stage, introduced himself as Ikonoklasta - “I’m a kamikaze”, he shouted - and bluntly told Danilo it was time for his father to leave power. His final words were “fuck them all”.
The episode was talked about for days in the state’s media and the overall sentiment was that it shook the powerful fortress. Indeed Beirão’s audacity on stage was greeted with loud chants and followed with an invitation for everyone to take part of a peaceful demonstration happening the following month. It was said to be the first independent protest held in Luanda.
“The event emerged on social media as a manifesto urging the Angolan people to follow the examples of Egypt and Tunisia,” Beirão recalls. “But it was organised by someone who didn’t show his face and, at first, that wasn’t appealing to me. Then I started reading comments on social media, a lot of people saying they would be there. The tension was palpable. But what really changed my mind was when the MPLA leaders threatened the protesters with beatings and arrests.” The MPLA being the ruling party. “I wanted to see if they had the audacity to show up and hit us all,” he follows up. “That’s something I learned about myself. If they promised beatings, then I’d be there challenging them. So instead of feeling intimidated, I was angry.” On March 7, the day of the demonstration, only 12 people, including Beirão, showed up in Luanda’s Independence Square. They wound up beaten and arrested by the police.
Beirao on stage. Photo by Fazuma
Still, that was a life shifting moment for Beirão. From then onward, he consciously immersed in rebellious activities, fronting the elitist regime and demanding a new chapter for a country ostensibly rich in oil and diamonds, but where more than half of its 25 million inhabitants struggle with poverty. Other activists would side with him, planning demonstrations, drawing leaflets and spreading the message across the city during night time. The media deemed it the Revolutionary Movement. But in Beirão’s point-of-view, it was a crippling definition for an organic, leaderless instance with an anarchic posture.
“I feel like I’m in a movement without knowing it,” he continues. “We don’t want to be tied up to a movement’s socially structured obligations. Without that structure we are more capable of battling injustices, battling for ourselves. So every citizen that reacts against injustice and oppression is an element in this new awakening. What we want is for people to believe in themselves, which is something lacking in the Angolan spirits. We’ve always encouraged each individual to be its own leader.”
As expected, the counter-reaction from the government was robust and besides the violent crackdown of protests, the police and armed militias turned Beirão and other activists into targets. One such event happened one day in 2012, when Beirão boarded a plane flying to Lisbon. At the check-in he dropped a single bicycle wheel and moments later, an airport staff alerted him that some policemen messed with his gear. Upon arrival he was held for questioning by the Portuguese authorities, who found 1.7kg of cocaine in his wheel. He’d be released by a local judge who concluded that he was framed. In 2013, on another noteworthy instance, Nito Alves, one of the incarcerated in June 20, then aged seventeen, spent 57 days in jail—some of those in solitary confinement—for ordering twenty T-shirts with the inscription “Fora José Eduardo dos Santos.”
A Puzzling Land
Angola is a country of deep contradictions. Oil and diamonds are abundant, Luanda is the most expensive city in the world and the consumption of champagne per capita is also one of the highest worldwide—reportedly 240 thousand bottles are sold every year. Meanwhile, the lower-class population barely ever saw a dime from its fortunate resources. Poverty is endemic and education and health sectors are dangerously under-financed—together they make up a meagre 11 percent of the year’s budget. The infant mortality in Angola is the highest in the world and recently the country faced a renewed outbreak of yellow fever that left bodies rotting in mortuaries waiting for some cleared space in the cemeteries. The grim imbalances owe much to the country’s enduring corruption—Angola is the fifth most corrupt country, according to Transparency International.
All things considered what have been the young revolutionaries enduring demands. “Democracy,” he calls out. “Which we won’t get until this gang that ransacked and hijacked the country goes away. We know the main obstacle to our country’s democratization is dos Santos and the current regime. There’s no way for us to reach democracy with this sort of people. Then, the country needs to improve basically everything. The civil war ended fourteen years ago, yet the military and police get more money from the budget then health and education combined. They have to give way to a new generation and mentality.”
Ikonoklasta – “Cuca (Isso é o que eles querem)”
The Last Resort
Beirão and the activists dwelled in jail for three months until the Attorney General formally charged them with plotting against the state and the president. It would be at least another month for the trial to actually initiate. The lawsuit was labelled by the media as the 15+2 case—a couple other activists were detained later. The revús, revolutionaries, called it on court a flat out palhaçada—clownery. Prior to the trial, public outrage grew in Luanda, with the families of the imprisoned promoting several vigils. These were promptly shut down by the police. Amnesty International, tracking the cases’ developments since the beginning, launched a resolute global campaign demanding the activists’ immediate release. But during the time they awaited in jail for a trial, an unexpected event unfolded. On October 5, 2015, Beirão initiated a hunger strike that lasted 36 days, leaving him at a near-death situation.
“It was an extremely dangerous tool to put forth in this country,” he claims. “I imagined in my lonely days in the cell that after the judge delivered the sentence—which I was sure would be guilty—I’d use to my advantage the media’s presence in court to declare a hunger strike, possibly a collective one, demanding not freedom, but the president’s resignation. It was utterly suicidal.” However, there was no trial scheduled at the time, nor even a formal indictment in place. The tipping-point, he says, was the end, a month before, of the 90-days deadline for preventive imprisonment as written in the law. Meaning that no one was let go to wait for the trial in freedom.
Meanwhile, Beirão never conceived going so far with the strike. “I kept testing my limits, seeing how strongly would I hold my convictions,” he recalls. “I imagined the authorities would adopt the necessary measures for that not to blown in their faces, but that’s exactly what happened.” On the 19th day, Beirão was transferred to a prison-hospital in dire condition. He was assigned a room with television and access to the news. That’s when he realised his plight wasn’t in vain.
The images of Beirão bed-ridden, pale and severely thin were circulating all-over the world. It prompted reactions from the European Parliament and the UN in rare, unfiltered addresses to criticise the Angolan regime and call out for the revús’ release. From Lisbon to Luanda and London, vigils were taking place on the streets, people pleading Beirão to stop his strike and shouting liberdade já—freedom now—for the political prisoners. “There was only the Pope left to speak about it,” he jokes. “That was my food, right there. I felt lively, calm, I slowly started speaking and standing up again. There was something new every day and the government was bewildered, without a clue on how to proceed. There was nothing else to be done, it attracted way more eyes than if we had been immediately released or even rapidly convicted. But if I hadn’t had access to the news, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.” On the 36th day of hunger strike, Beirão started eating again.
The following November, the trial was finally on its way, and within sessions, Gene Sharp’s rulebook was read top-to-bottom. The revús would eventually be convicted in March last year, their sentences ranging from two to eight years. Beirão was given five and six months. The defence’s appeal resulted, later in June, in the release of the activists, although forbidding them from leaving the country. The exception was Nito Alves, who spent some more time in jail for deeming the trial a joke in front of the judge. On that same month, the Angolan government passed an Amnesty law granting a pardon for crimes punished with up to 12 years and committed before November 11, 2015. Eight thousand prisoners were covered by the new decree, including the revús. Beirão still criticises the decision, saying it was a mean of getting away from a situation that hassled the authorities’ minds.
Documentary “É Dreda Ser Angolano”
The Struggle Goes On
Last month, Beirão travelled to Lisbon to celebrate on stage next to his friend MCK on the 10th anniversary of the iconic nightclub Musicbox. Grey haired, with a contagious smile on his face, he rapped some of his old tracks, as well as MCK’s. He says they rehearsed for this special collaboration for at least a couple of months hoping to perform live in Angola. But the shows they had lined up were cancelled. Anyway, it was kind of expected. The lyrics they were drawing didn’t help the concerts going forward, he assumes. “We still have to earn our own space to play in Angola because we are still boycotted,” he adds. “We have to do it somehow by ourselves.” The show in Lisbon was streamed live on social media so the Angolans wouldn’t miss a beat.
There are no plans for a new record anytime soon, claims Beirão. “I feel very good when I write and record a new track, but that’s not my priority at the moment.” Paving the way for renewed activities with the revús seems to be the focus of his interest in a crucial year for the future of Angola. “We’re testing a digital TV channel called CTV, where we report on human rights abuses in Angola,” he discloses. “It’s something that we really enjoy doing and it helps us alert the citizens and reporting on injustices. I’ve also had the idea of creating a bus stop with books for people to borrow. We have lots in mind to materialize.”
Born in Lisboa, based in London, Ricardo Miguel Vieira has bylines on global culture, emerging music scenes, surfing and current affairs in titles like Delayed Gratification, HUCK, among others. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.