Dancing with fear
It is not every day that people are detained for talking about democracy. In June 2015, this fate befell 15 activists in Angola, who had organized a book-reading in the capital, Luanda.
Among those arrested was Luaty Beirão, better known throughout the Portuguese-speaking world as the witty and rebellious rapper Ikonoklasta.
He and his fellow activists – the Angola 15+2 as they came to be known – became a cause célèbre last year after the book-reading led to trumped-up charges, which ranged from plotting a coup d’état to an assassination attempt on the president, José Eduardo dos Santos.
For their peaceful challenge to the 36-year rule of Dos Santos and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) ruling party, the activists endured 90 days in solitary confinement, a spell under house-arrest and more time back in prison before the government finally granted an amnesty in June 2016.
‘Everyone’s interested in what we went through,’ says Luaty, on a European tour that combines rap concerts with testimony in Geneva at the UN panel on arbitrary detention. ‘It’s putting my country in the spotlight and giving us some courage.’
A small elite reaps the benefit of significant oil wealth in Angola, leaving 70 per cent of the population to survive on $2 a day; according to UN figures, the country suffers the highest child-mortality rate in the world.
Luaty himself grew up in comfortable surroundings. He traces his political awakening to when he joined Angola’s underground hip-hop scene and was inspired by the powerful, vivid lyrics of rappers Sons of the Eastern Line from the other side of the tracks in downtown Luanda.
‘I began to feel I was part of the status quo, a piece of the machine,’ he recalls. ‘And if I did nothing I felt even guiltier. When I first started to speak out, it was therapeutic.’
The hiphop music scene was one of the few media with which to express grievances against the government.
Their tunes were banned from the radio and performances restricted, but they still attracted government ire. As his first overtly political act, Luaty pinpoints a song he wrote to commemorate a young car-washer, whom police had marched into the ocean to drown, for singing the songs of rapper MCK in public.
'There is always a part of me that's scared. It's something I still have to negotiate within myself the whole time'
Luaty’s path to activism had international influences too. While studying in Europe, he joined Britain’s anti-war movement and the blockade movement for secure work in France.
‘I saw that there’s hope when people come together,’ he recalls. ‘People could take a stand, and no-one was getting beaten up. I thought: “Why doesn’t this kind of thing happen in my country?” I felt the urgency to go back.’
Without bothering to graduate, Luaty returned to Africa. He spent six months hitchhiking along the western coast with only $100 in his pocket.
‘Everywhere I went, people welcomed me and fed me,’ he remembers. ‘Even though most people had almost nothing. It was humbling; they had every reason to send me away. This shaped my priorities. I thought: people should have better than this.’
Into the line of fire
Luaty’s music was already political but he felt it wasn’t enough. When the Arab Spring in 2011 provoked a call for a demonstration in Luanda, he saw an opportunity to take things to the next level, ending a concert by inviting the 500-strong crowd to join him at the protest.
From that moment his life changed. As an underground artist with a small crowd of followers, he posed little risk to the government. Now he knew that repression was inevitable.
The 14 people who showed up on 7 March were all instantly arrested. ‘We didn’t last for more than 25 minutes,’ he recalls. ‘In a flash we were surrounded by hostile, heavily armed police. We spent the night in jail.’
But although he was scared, he found the intimidation had the adverse effect.
‘I don’t know where I got it from. But I thought, “I’m not breaking any laws. I won’t accept your threats. If you want to kill me, do it.” With each step I found I could take one step further. I found out I had the guts for things I hadn’t imagined before.’
Luaty quickly emerged at the forefront of a youth-activist movement challenging political elites. Protests in 2011-12 were quickly and brutally put down by hired thugs. Luaty needed stiches to his head after being slashed by a machete; others were injured more severely.
‘We were giving our bodies to serve as proof of the nature of the regime. We wanted to show that they don’t like dialogue, they just like to beat people; they can’t tolerate people who think differently.’
Despite the violence – or even because of it – Luaty and his fellow activists could feel they were having an impact, because the government was being forced to react. Small groups of NGOs that had the guts to stand up to the regime were constantly put down, restricted by laws.
‘We thought: let’s give them something new, something they don’t know how to deal with,’ Luaty explains. ‘We wanted to show common Angolans that you don’t have to wait for a messiah, or official parties, to take part in the political life of your country.’
When the bookstore arrest came in 2015, Luaty had been expecting it. But he found the sudden separation from his loved ones, especially his wife and baby daughter, particularly hard.
‘I spent all my days with her – fed her, bathed her, put her to bed – for 18 months and then all of a sudden I was gone. That was the hard part.’ (The same daughter, now a toddler, displays a proprietorial air over her father, interrupting this interview repeatedly and featuring in YouTube interviews on Luaty’s lap.)
Yet overall he sees prison as beneficial. ‘It was just another step in the process. It wasn’t good for us as individuals, maybe, but it was good for the struggle. And actually it made us stronger.’
Some high-stake gambles – such as Luaty’s 36-day hunger strike – paid off, prompting an international campaign and press frenzy to demand their release. ‘Everything they did to us became news on the outside,’ he recalls. ‘They were fed up with us, they gave us an amnesty.’
The Angola 15+2 are now appealing against the amnesty on the grounds that they didn’t break the law in the first place. They feel they are getting results.
‘More people are losing their fear and speaking out. We are reaching that point. That keeps us positive,’ he says.
These are pivotal times in Angola. An ailing Dos Santos has lined up an army general to replace him. Meanwhile, a faltering economy is undermining cronyism and support for the MPLA.
Luaty believes that conquering fear is key to making change happen in the world.
‘There is always a part of me that is scared – those butterflies in your stomach, the same ones you get with love, or going on stage, or when you face uncertainty,’ he admits.
‘It’s something I still have to negotiate within myself the whole time. It’s not easy – but it can be done.’
He doesn’t see himself as courageous, though. ‘Can I live with the weight of not doing something? I think that’s far heavier,’ he says. ‘What I am doing gives me great pleasure.’
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