Felipe Coronel looks out across a stretch of Peruvian scrub grass. The vista is his physical empire, land purchased with the proceeds of his maverick career in the underground and DIY rap scene.
“It’s a long ways from Harlem, huh?” He laughs.
Nine time zones away, Felipe’s investment in another nation is alive and well as boys wolf down hearty dinners at the Omeid orphanage in Kabul. In 2006 Felipe was approached by Afghan-American activist Shamsia Razaqi, president of the newly formed Omeid International. In 2008 Felipe raised $50,000 dollars toward by way of fundraising shows and a portion of the proceeds from his album “The 3rd World.” In 2009 he was on the ground in Kabul, roughhousing with the Aghan boys who would become the first residents of the Amin Institute orphanage. But his road to Afghanistan in 2009 began in 1999 when he was released on parole from a prison sentence for aggravated assault.
Both scenes, from the countryside of Peru to the streets of Kabul, are captured in the 2011 documentary The [R]evolution of Immortal Technique. In this we can start to see the scope of his aspirations go beyond most rappers.
Felipe might take exception to being characterized as an emperor. On stage he’s the dynamic and dominating Immortal Technique, former battle rap champion. Day to day though, Coronel identifies as a revolutionary whose raps and rhetoric identify the plight of contemporary American minorities with the abuse of black slaves, the savage conquests of the New World, and even with international post-colonial politics between Pakistan and India. Immortal Technique crushed and conquered in the rap arena; somehow Coronel has turned that lyrical empire into a weapon against the imperial forces oppressing all those he deems “my people.”
Asked later about his South American investment he says, “I bought a huge farm about half the size of central park, I can do whatever I want, I grow whatever I want on it. If I had invested in these ridiculous little plans that the bank suggested for me, I’d probably have 60% of the money I have now instead of having triple the income and being able to provide sustenance for people.”
It’s a philosophy that’s defined Immortal Technique’s entire career. Whether it’s his music production or his farm, he sees independent economic liberation as a cornerstone to his broader social revolution. Doggedly independent, he started by self-promoting in the New York battle rap scene and has insisted on remaining unsigned to any major label ever since.
Eschewing corporate funding, Coronel and Omeid independently gathered the funds and personnel to found Amin. “I didn’t throw money at a problem,” he wrote. “I traveled to Afghanistan myself along with members of Omeid to help build this. We found an empty cold shell of a building, and furnished it into a home for those that “freedom” had forsaken.”
Coronel was born in a military hospital in 1978 Peru. His family moved to Harlem, New York, where he was raised from the age of 2. He was an active child, engaged in street culture and, by his own account, learning the worst of its lessons. “The people I grew up with had like a selective morality,” he says. “I think I blinded myself to a lot of things purposely. It was easier for me not to care.” By the time he left for Penn State he had a history of street violence that turned into a string of felony charges and finally landed him in prison for twelve months.
Coronel never glamorizes his time in the prison system but in every account of his development it’s clear that his incarceration was transformative. While he’d flirted with street art and rap growing up, his year in prison gave him the time and isolation to turn that interest into a vocation. Dividing his time between studying politics and South American history and refining his writing and rap skills, he turned his prison cell into a autodidact’s classroom.
When he returned to Harlem he dove into the battle rap scene. The young man who would someday own a farm in Peru founded his empire one victory at a time on the rap circuit. His victories brought him notoriety and respect in the underground rap scene. That notoriety fueled mixtape sales and the success of his two seminal albums, Revolutionary volumes 1 and 2.
“I make double what I would going gold on Atlantic” he spits in one freestyle. “The record label does a lot of things […] it buys them beats, it buys them studio time […] sometimes they even pay other people to write the verses for you.” It’s a golden leash though, and after all of this assistance and support from a label he asks other artists, “you expect to get paid a lot for that?” The colonial dynamic, he says, “directly relates to the music industry and how major labels have consistently exploited the labor and natural resources of the underground […] [Artists] had to sell their masters, their publishing, they had to give up rights to their image.”
Among his other activist pursuits, Technique engages in prisoner outreach and education, bringing his philosophy to youth in the same position he was once in. It’s not just a high-minded sermon when he tells adolescent prisoners “that they have a social responsibility now themselves […] to make sure that other young people don’t end up in their same position as well.” It’s a reflection of his own experience and transformation.
The same history that lead to his personal transformation also contains the seed of the controversies that have followed his career. While advocating radically progressive politics, he held onto the less than progressive lingo of the rap scene. Stylistically, battling is the most aggressive and intentionally transgressive form of rap. While demonstrating their lyrical skills and spontaneity the emcees are also constructing elaborate insults in order to provoke and humiliate their opponent. Rap music already has a long and complicated history with violent and sexually aggressive language. Battle rap intentionally steps over the line from street idiom to personal provocation, constantly daring its target to overreact.
In the diss tracking following his first album’s legendary “Dance With the Devil” Immortal Technique declares that his enemy’s “crew is full of more faggots than Greek mythology.” On his follow-up album’s ode to transgression, “Obnoxious,” Tech responded to criticism of homophobic language with the unsympathetic line that “if you can take a fucking dick, you can take a joke.”
Off of the record, so to speak, his politics are hardly reducible to fourteen-syllable sound-bites. On stage he speaks in the language of the hip-hop scene he came up in, but simultaneously he sees in message in a broader context. In a 2013 Alex Jones interview he admits, “People can’t hear me because I say it through hip-hop, and no matter what the venue is they’ll still think, ‘hip-hop, irresponsible, arrogant, young people,” but at the same time “what’s important about it is to have so many diverse groups of individuals who have the same core message.”
Coming full circle then, that message and how to communicate it are both open to comment. While his aggressive underground style is intact he’s acknowledged the conflict between his medium and his message. “If I can get some constructive criticism, you’re helping me grow as a human being. […] It happened with me trying to take the word bitch more out of my music. I’m not a “gay-rights champion”, but if I’m going to talk about people being oppressed in my music, then aren’t some people oppressed if they don’t have the right to marry the person they want in a society that’s supposed to be free? They shouldn’t be punished by a government because of the way they are born.”
The Felipe Coronel who grew up brawling in 90’s Harlem wanted to fight the world. The Felipe who came back to Harlem still wanted to fight the world, but he’d developed a new technique. “What do I intend to achieve with my music? I can’t force anybody to change their mind, I can’t force people to be more open-minded or progressive, but what I can do is tell them that the world they believe in is a lie and show them why it’s a lie. And if that’s the case, then they’re forced to confront those facts on their own.” This is a personal insight, from someone who’s already confronted lies of their own.
Immortal Technique looks back on young Felipe growing up in Harlem: “I think I blinded myself to a lot of things purposely.” From that revelation the commonality between revolutionaries is no longer a simple shared ideology or slogan, but a dedication to permanent personal revolution: not just to confront the world but to wage war against the lazy and regressive parts of ourselves.