When it comes to giving the US empire a bad rap, few can be more qualified than radical rapper Marcel Cartier.
“I was born in 1984 in Heidelberg, West Germany, to a Finnish mother and American father, who was at that time working for the US Army,” says the empathetic emcee, who has just released his incendiary new album, History Will Absolve Us.
“Because of this, my childhood was spent on US military bases both in Germany and England.”
It was while he was living in England that the then 14-year-old Cartier began listening to highbrow hip hoppers such as Dead Prez, KRS-One and Talib Kweli, who inspired him to start writing his own songs.
“These rappers helped me to challenge the ideology that I had thus far been instilled with,” says Cartier.
“I began to challenge the narrative about the ‘greatness’ of the United States. My art began to reflect this change in worldview more and more through the years.
“In 2008, I completely broke with my military background by moving to New York City, to not only further pursue my hip-hop career, but to become a part of the revolutionary movement.”
In NYC, he teamed up with Bronx-based revolutionary rappers Rebel Diaz, who appear on one of the album’s many goosebump-garnering moments, “Start The Revolution”. The song delivers one of Cartier’s copious killer lines: “I’m about as American as you can get, I rep the people, you rep the one per cent.”
But just how patriotic is he seen as by his military father?
“We obviously have diametrically opposed points of view,” says the rapper. “But there was never really any pressure from my father to follow in his footsteps, so I don’t think he was necessarily disappointed when I chose not to join the military myself.”
Cartier also emphatically urges others not to join up, putting the forces firmly in the crosshairs in the song, “Be All You Can Be”.
“‘Be All You Can Be’ was the slogan of the US Army until 2006,” he says. “Instead of being a pawn for corporate interests, I am encouraging young people to ‘be all they can be’ by rebelling against the system of degradation.”
But the song also expresses empathy with those who sign up to the services – a rare insight no doubt influenced by Cartier’s upbringing. Guest emcee Intikana raps:
“I’ve spoken to policemen
Had a heart to heart with them
By a seat aside spoke without the harsh venom
And all they really want is bread to feed their family
The force wasn’t their first choice but to be secure financially
It’s tempting when you’ve never had a plan B
To retire with a pension at the age of 50.”
Cartier’s empathy is all the more admirable considering his recent run-in with the law.
“’99 to 1′ on the album is a song that was influenced by the Occupy Wall Street movement,” he says. “I directly participated in this in New York City, including the October 1 mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge – I was detained for 12 hours.
“The song paints a very optimistic picture of the protest movement in the US.”
He also plays upon the Occupy theme in the song “Unoccupy The World”.
“This song touches on the US wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Libya, and the propaganda war that has long been waged against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he says.
“The final verse from guest artist Rodstarz of Rebel Diaz addresses the war being waged against the black and brown community INSIDE of the US. By tying together domestic and international issues, we strive to make the connections between the lack of basic necessities in our communities and the aggressive posture of the US ruling class toward the oppressed peoples of the planet.”
Cartier’s global outlook is shared by Carlos Martinez, the multi-instrumentalist who wrote the music on Cartier’s album. Martinez, better known by his music-making moniker Agent Of Change, had a similarly multicultural upbringing to Cartier, whose French name comes from his paternal great-grandfather.
“My dad’s from north India – the Punjab – and mum was born in England, but of Spanish descent,” says the 34-year-old Martinez.
“I grew up in west London with my mum and grandmother. I was lucky to go to school with a lot of people from different national and ethnic backgrounds – especially African-Caribbean and South Asian – so I was absorbing a lot of different cultural influences from a young age.
“Both my parents were college teachers and were – and still are – traditional Marxist-Leninists, so the political influence has always been there. Although I don’t have quite the same politics as my parents, I appreciate the fact that I was brought up to question the dominant narrative.”
There were also “a lot of books around”, which made Martinez the avid reader he still is. The musician is a public speaker and talented writer with a lot to say, as can be seen on his blog, Beat Knowledge. So why doesn’t he rap?
“I’ve never really tried it,” he says. “I’d probably sound stupid – you need a cool voice. Also, I can write articles and stuff easily enough, but the abstraction of poetry doesn’t come naturally to me.”
Cartier not only has the voice and poetry, he also has melodies that can mould themselves into listeners’ minds. “Never Be A Slave”, a curse on colonialism, shackles itself to the subconscious like a pair of unbreakable manacles. Unlike most emcees, Cartier also recognises the chain that links racism and sexism.
“Misogyny is a huge problem in hip-hop,” he says. “Even ‘progressive’ artists often fall victim to being perpetrators of sexist lyrics. I would identify the primary problem as being hip-hop’s hijacking by the white power structure that aims to further perpetuate misogyny.”
Martinez also sees the parallels between racism and sexism.
“I think that the misogynistic language that is so socially acceptable today is an awful lot like the ‘scientific racism’ that was widely acceptable 50 years ago,” he says.
“We have to move above this bullshit. Hip-hop is often very tuned into race issues while ignoring other dimensions of oppression.”
Cartier hits chauvinists where it hurts on the plaintive, piano-driven track “Never The Answer”:
One in four women face domestic violence
It’s a shame that so many feel the need to stay silent
And worse even still many blame themselves
Like whatever they did justifies this hell
But there’s never an excuse for this sick abuse
It can be physical or it’s verbal too.
So although Cartier’s obvious target is US imperialism, he is also fighting against a covert war being waged much closer to home – the battle of the sexes.
You can hear the whole album and buy it or download it for free at
Mat Ward lives in Australia and writes for Green Left Weekly.