While the majority of rappers like to think they rail against the establishment in one way or another, Lil Pump excepted, it is important to occasionally put things in perspective. While some produce fake severed Boris Johnson heads at awards ceremonies, Spanish rapper Pablo Hasél is facing a 9-month stint in prison for insulting the Spanish monarchy, army and police forces, praising banned groups, threats and obstruction of justice. He has used his music primarily as a form of activism, which has been an effective tool for resisting the rule of the Spanish royal family, which has strong roots and ties to fascism. A little too effective, as he has found himself in the cross-hairs of the Spanish authorities repeatedly.
From 2011 onwards, Hasél has been in and out of jail with charges including: lyrics supporting guerrilla factions, attacking far right groups, spraying washing-up liquid at a journalist and tweets calling the exalted King Juan Carlos el Borbón a “shitty mobster”. This tweet, amongst others, were his most recent transgression, and led to a 2-year sentence being passed down and an order for Hasél to hand himself in to the courts voluntarily. Hasél, unsurprisingly, was like “Nah”, and barricaded himself in the University of Lleida with his supporters. A tense showdown ensued, concluding with the police fighting through the barricades and retrieving the rebellious rapper. The scenes were dramatic and photogenic, something undoubtedly planned by Hasél to publicly embarrass the authorities and possibly create an iconic photo to put on a t-shirt.
On February 16, the date of his arrest, Spain erupted in protests and riots in support of Pablo and free speech for the left. Thousands took to the streets to demand his freedom, and were given a taste of truncheon for their troubles.
Spain has a long history of fascism, which reached its peak with the rise of Franco and the Spanish Civil War. Franco ruled the country under a brutal dictatorship until his death in 1975, crushing democracy and opposition voices using terror, brainwashing and state education camps. 40 years after his death, Franco’s spectre looms large over the country, and previously hidden pockets of Francoist militias are suddenly out in the open without a care in the world. This proves the commonly held belief that fascism never really went away in Spain, it had just learned to camouflage. Recent world events and major world leaders openly embracing fascism has empowered far right terrorists and Nazi sympathisers in Spain and worldwide. The royal family and police have happily pandered to these groups, allowing them to spread their hateful message with a pat on the back and an encouraging, paternal smile. The same rights have not been afforded to left wing activists, who have been routinely beaten, shot and jailed for exercising a democratic right.
Another Spanish rapper, Valtònyc, was sentenced to 3 and a half years in 2018, also for lyrics insulting the monarchy and the ruling party. His was the first conviction on the basis of lyrical content since the death of Franco, and it set a dangerous precedent. Valtònyc fled to Belgium to avoid prison, where he remains to this day.
All of this had to reach a tipping point, and the arrest of Pablo Hasél provided it in spectacular fashion. The idea of a rapper causing a full blown revolution is romantic enough to bring the inner Marx out of the most hardened conservative. The riots and protests have continued since the arrest and show no signs of slowing in the face of police brutality, resulting in a 19-year-old girl losing an eye to a foam bullet. His freedom was given more high-profile support by Amnesty International, as well as a letter signed by 300 Spanish artists including Pedro Almodóvar and Javier Bardem.
We can view this situation as if it were a film scene, it being so far away from our nice cosy hip-hop scene and its comparative luxuries. If I made a diss track calling the Queen a dickhead, I would most likely not be visited in the night by shadowy characters and invited to smell a cloth. In fact, there is every chance the track would never even reach the Queen’s ears. In Spain and countless other countries, to speak against the monarchy and government is to put yourself in real peril. To continue speaking despite this threat puts their credentials beyond question. The soundtrack to the recent film about the Black Panthers, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’, packed surprisingly little political punch, leaning instead on self-promotion and wealth-celebration. The obvious difference is that the American rappers get paid whether they shine a light on exploitation or not, so they don’t really have to. Spanish rappers have the light shining right in their faces, so they either fight it or go blind trying.