The Rap Battle Everyone Should be Paying Attention To

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Claire Killian

In America, we hold freedom of speech dear, but lately it’s been called into question. The debate rages on a national level, what constitutes free speech, and what’s treasonous or criminal? Where do we draw the line? America, however, is not the only one questioning it’s take on this liberty, as Spain has also recently struggled with the parameters of it’s laws. In Spain, dozens of rappers have been sentenced to prison for what they say is free speech, but what the government claims is condoning and supporting terrorism. The battle there is tense, as the public and government go to war over the lyrics of a song.

Spain has only been a democracy since 1975, after the death of the dictator Franco. Since then they have struggled with environmental disasters, terrorist incidents, economic crises and political instability. Lately, as with much of Europe, the country has swung hard to the right, with the extremely conservative Vox party doubling their parliamentary seats in the most recent election, and expressing alt-right control in the country for the first time since Franco’s death.

A lot of what sparks this opposition towards the rappers comes from Spain’s long and troubled history with terrorism. The terrorist organization ETA, which in 2018 announced that it would abstain from political interference and give up its weapons, has long terrorized the nation. The ETA is made up of Basque separatists. The Basque are an ethnic minority within Spain, who, under Franco’s regime, were not allowed to practice their culture, speak their language, or express any semblance of autonomy. They rebelled violently in favor of a more liberal government, and continued their aggression even after the collapse of the dictatorship into the early 2000s, and claiming 800 lives. Even now, when the Basque region is given more rights than really any other part of the country, with their own parliament and right to collect their own taxes, their name still strikes fear. The recent movement for Catalan independence has also brought controversy, as Catalonia is notably more liberal than the rest of Spain, and its supporters feel that they are being held hostage by a government which doesn’t work for them. Catalonia has long sought independence, however recent movements have turned protestors into martyrs and given rise to a new fervor. Most recently especially, Spain has fallen victim to the same Islamic extremist terrorism which holds the rest of Europe hostage. One attack in 2004, which was claimed by Al-Qaeda, killed 191 people in just one day. The sheer volume of domestic and international terrorism which Spain has weathered in the last couple decades has traumatized generations and left them questioning their leadership.

This fear, which is tangible within the Spanish borders, has largely prompted the government to take what they consider to be action, and oppositionists call tyranny. Government officials have cracked down on rappers, sentencing them usually for 1-2 years due to the lyrics they write. Quietly, for the last few years, the Spanish courts have been prosecuting and sentencing rappers. In December of 2017, 12 members of the notoriously explicit group Insergencia received 2 year sentences for allegedly glorifying terrorism, in February of 2018 Mallorcan rapper Valtònyc was sentenced to three and a half years for the same charge, and for insulting the monarchy. Later that spring, as the country neared the elections which would lead to Vox’s rise to power, Catalan rapper Pablo Hasél earned a two-year sentence, and a fine of €37,800 ($46,700).

Hasél is a known and proud communist, who has long supported Catalan independence. He was jailed for two years and one day following a series of anti-police tweets, and posting a picture of a communist extremist group with a caption indicating support. He was charged in glorifying terrorism and mocking the monarchy, the two most common charges against these rappers. His song, Juan Carlos el Bobón, is a satyrical take on the former King.

These cases come after a recent reformatting of the Spanish penal code to include violations online, like social media. Ironically, when the government takes the rappers to court, they often surge in popularity and notoriety, spreading their message. Many people attend their concerts, not because they actually like the music, but out of solidarity. The Spanish law has been interpreted so that even expressing dislike has been attributed to hate speech. Like in Hásel’s case, where a mere anti-police tweet contributed to his conviction.

The artists argue that their songs cannot be held to the same standards as pamphlets, op-eds, or other methods of pushing ideals. Songs are pieces of creative work, and therefore license a certain degree of creative license. They are interpretations of events, with ideals which may be played up in order to spread a message. However, according to sections 578 and 510 in the Spanish penal code, which now encompass all types of media, this is not an acceptable excuse.

In America, anti-police rhetoric is integral to rap, and with the rise of police brutality has become a common line in most modern songs.  The difference in the two, is that American rap typically pertains to political issues, or institutionalized racism, whereas these Spanish rappers are going against an entire political institution. Instead of fighting for retribution or equality, which are themes commonly promoted in American rap, they support known terrorist organizations and violence. That being said, support does not always equal action, and to send a man to jail over a single song lyric seems aggressive. While in America we take freedom of speech first and not yelling fire in a crowded theater second, it seems to be the reverse in Spain.

Whether you live in America or Spain, our inherent freedoms of expression are being threatened. The only thing which decides whether the imprisonment of rappers is justified is context and personal opinion. Regardless, it is certainly frightening when rap music, which anyone could listen to, is played in a court room as evidence.