09/26/2013 09:21 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

Interview with Immortal Technique

Peruvian-born Felipe Andres Coronel, known by his stage name of Immortal Technique, is an avid supporter of the Occupy movement and is one of the more successful hip-hop artists leading the charge to take hip-hop away from the vapid music industry, using his music as a way to convey revolutionary messages to his listeners. His third album, The Third World, was released for free online, peaked at #99 on the Billboard 200, and has since been downloaded 1.2 million times, the equivalent of a platinum record in the days of the music industry before the internet. Immortal Technique and Brother Ali, another independent hip-hop artist who has been arrested at Occupy Homes actions, performed in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Sept. 21. I spoke with Immortal Technique about how he uses his music to inspire action, and about the future of revolutionary hip-hop.

CARL GIBSON: You're doing a lot of great work, not just in the movement, but in the music scene in general. You're starting to become more of a big name in hip-hop. And I've noticed this is a really revolutionary crowd here in Madison. Talk a little bit about how you use your music to inspire revolution in young people.

IMMORTAL TECHNIQUE: I think for me, when you talk about revolution, it's very easy to romanticize picking up a gun or marching in the street, but I think before we take any of those actions, violence of course being the last one, we first have to have a revolution of the mind... I think when we get to those interpersonal stories, it helps to build that camaraderie between people and understanding them. And even maybe the people at the top, the rich kids, are saying, "Hey man, I don't want to be a scumbag, that's the legacy. I don't want to just take, I want to be able to give something back. Obviously I can't be responsible for the actions of my forefathers. But if I do nothing to correct that, if I continue to benefit from it, if I live in denial of what it is, aren't I just a continuation of that legacy, and can I break away?" And the answer is yes. It doesn't matter what race you are. It doesn't matter what religion you are. I always tell people. If you want to be a part of hip-hop, you just need to have a heart. You need to have the courage to tell the truth.

CG: Speaking to the state of young people today, certainly it's different than in 2Pac's heyday, where you know, now we've got a trillion dollars in student loan debt that's accumulated, young people are living with their parents when they graduate college and it's really hard to find good-paying jobs these days. Given the state of young people today, especially this generation that your music speaks to the most, do you feel that this sort of mainstream corporate music is becoming less relevant and music like yours is becoming more relevant to our situation?

IT: ... Those gory, like, scary rock n' roll bands had all the devilish imagery. But at the same time, it's not because they were devil worshippers, they were saying that society is run by devils. It was human society that created these things, they become the devils. This is what you worship. This money is what you worship. This idea is what you worship. Now, most of those guys went on do like the living in a castle in England type of shit, selling their merchandise like fifty bucks a shirt. So, at some point, art has to be, you know, trade itself, conform to the old strict guidelines set forth by how it was going to act in the future. But I think for me, one of the best things that I've been able to do is to present people with the idea that you don't have to either choose to save the world or become a sellout. I say to people, "Listen dude, how can you save the world if you can't even save yourself? Why don't you try to affect one person's life who's in your life, and that would be historic. I went to Afghanistan to open up a school and an orphanage. If I can succeed in those conditions, what's to stop anybody here in Madison, Wisc. from succeeding in changing their community here? I'm not trying to sell pipe dreams to people. I'm not giving them some fake utopia. I'm not telling them it's easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it. But you don't fight the fights you can win, you fight the fights that need fighting, you know? That's the most important part.

CG: Have you heard about the crackdown on the daily singalongs at the Wisconsin State Capitol? Basically, what's happened in the last two years since the uprising at the capitol, a group of people have started getting --

IT: -- Oh, I saw this! When they arrested like, a war veteran, and they stomped on his American flag and shit. What the hell was that, yo? I was furious about that. My brother was in the Marine Corps, and he was fuckin' angry as hell. He was like, "Yo dude, here's a dude who risked his life for his country, and he's getting his flag stomped on by a mall cop?" Dude, I don't even know who that guy is. But that's just crazy to me. You can't even sing? You can't even petition your government in some way, shape or form? That's not the welcome mat to fascism. That's when you leave your boots at the door when you walk in the house. That's just ridiculous. I think that if Mr. Walker wants to set up a totalitarian regime, he should move to South Carolina with the rest of the fanatics... But the point I'm trying to make is not to divide it among demographics, or to show people that if you're willing to shame the devil, if you're willing to shame the government, and to say, "Look what you're doing. You're arresting people, they're singing. You're arresting peacefully demonstrating people who aren't trying to burn anything down, you know? So how would you react if you did have that? Is that what you prefer? Would you prefer us to have a riot, so you could justify it with an over-inflated police budget? So you could increase that buffer zone in between the one percent and then everybody else?"

CG: And I had one more question. It seems like everybody in this country, no matter who you vote for or what you believe in, everybody is really angry about something to the point of wanting to take to the streets. And it seems that the media is, and the politicians are intended on keeping us divided, like you said, along these false paradigms. What are some ways that we can bring this righteous anger together under one people and really affect change?

IT: I mean, obviously, I choose the medium of music to be able to speak. But there are so many ways to do it. Through independent journalism, you know what I mean? Through teaching in prisons. That's something I definitely did before that I look forward to doing again, even though it was very difficult. But I think beyond just that, people are willing to give their time, and not just their money. Or rather, if people are willing to give their time and not just their money, they'll find that investment goes a lot farther than signing a ten-dollar check off to some organization, telling them to deal with their own problem. Actually having someone there physically caring, another human being, sharing a comprehensive amount of experience in their life, saying, "Here's what's going on with me. Let me break it down for you." I think that we're seeing more of that, so if you have people willing to challenge the status quo in their mind first, or anyone else, that speaks for how far we've come. And I just wanted to give a big shout-out and say solidarity to the people out there singing. Because, you're not breaking the law dude, you're being American. You're being more of an American than that lunatic who's unfortunately driving drunk with the state behind him. So, God bless you. Keep up the good work.

This is an abridged transcript. Watch a full video of the interview here.