“The question is how can things have come so far over a song” “The important thing is basic rights and defending them”
“The right to self-determination is an undeniable democratic right” “My perception of the issue of Catalonia changed on October 1, 2017”
“I’m surviving by adapting and becoming more resilient” ”I’d love someone in Spain to show some sense and say: ’This has to end.’”
Josep Miquel Arenas Beltran is better known as the rapper Valtònyc. At the end of November, the European Court of Justice’s advocate general advised the courts that Spain could not demand Valtònyc’s extradition from Belgium to serve a jail term of three and a half years over the lyrics of his songs because he was convicted on the basis of a penal code that postdates the offences for which he was found guilty. Valtònyc is now waiting for the courts to rule on his extradition.
How do you see the advocate general’s decision?
It’s a legal issue. When you commit an offence, you have to be aware of what the crime is and that it carries a certain punishment. Spain took a risk, I guess because when it’s in your own territory anything goes.
If it’s so clear, why have things come this far?
The question is how can things have come so far over a song. I always thought that at some point someone in Spain would ask why it is worth tarnishing its image abroad for a 25-year-old who worked in a fruit shop and wrote some songs. I’m only well-known because of what has happened, and if they had left me alone the whole issue would have gone nowhere.
While your case is ongoing, you’re not allowed to leave Belgium. What’s life like in Brussels?
It’s the life of a European citizen. In Spain, I’d be subject to harsh restrictions because they wanted to lock me up under anti-terror laws. Here I’m just another European citizen, designing websites, studying languages, meeting new people, doing sport, trying to get on with life. The only thing is that I can’t leave the country and go home.
When you came to Brussels you found a group of exiled Catalans who are here for other reasons. What’s your relationship with them?
We saw that we have a shared objective, which is fighting for basic rights. Freedom of expression goes along with the freedom of a people to decide its future in a democratic vote. The strategy of sharing lawyers is a good one, because it responds to the need for unity, to show that we are defending the same exceptional cause.
Why is it an exceptional cause?
Because in another context we’d be enemies. A rapper can never be a friend to politicians. I never wanted to get involved in politics, even when it had been suggested to me. But in the context of the historic repression we’re experiencing, a rapper and a politician like Puigdemont have to stand together because that’s what’s called for now. The important thing now is basic rights and doing whatever is required to defend them.
What do you think of the Catalan crisis?
I’m totally in favour of the people being able to decide their future. I think the right to self-determination is an undeniable democratic right and should be considered a basic principle in Europe.
Has your perception changed since coming to Brussels?
My perception of the issue, as with a lot of people, changed on October 1, 2017, when the Catalan people showed themselves to be an example of resistance. We have seen very few such examples of resistance in the past hundred years. It clicked for a lot of people when they saw the level of police violence that Spain was willing to use, as well as the violence of imprisoning people and repressing the population in the way it has.
Did you see it as a distant thing?
I knew about the Catalan independence movement before October 1; I knew it existed in Catalonia but not in Mallorca. There are pro-independence supporters in Mallorca, but to be a nation there has to be a collective psychology of nation, and unfortunately this perception, which is the mainstream in Catalonia, is only held by a small minority in Mallorca. It had never been my struggle. But obviously, after October 1, things changed for family and neighbours, and a part of Mallorcan society began to empathise with the Catalan cause so that it became more of our own struggle.
One of your main sources of support while in exile has been Lluís Puig. Has it anything to do with him being the former culture minister?
I always tell Lluís that much more than a politician, he’s a person to me, and as a person he’s been concerned for me from the beginning. We spent last Christmas together with our families and we will do the same this year. He’s a friend and one of the best people I know.
How does a Mallorcan survive below Brussels’ grey skies?
It’s tough. What’s more, I’d never lived in a city and never thought I would. I’m from Sa Pobla, a very rural town of 12,000 inhabitants. At the beginning, and still today, it was a bit stressful, and I had to put up with things like spending an hour in the car on a route that should take 10 minutes. But it’s fine, I’m surviving by adapting and becoming resilient.
Have you come across any other cases like yours?
Spain is the place with the highest number of artists sentenced to prison in the world, although that it also because we don’t know how many there really are in China. Yet, it’s worth mentioning that a little while ago I met the Chinese activist, Ai Weiwei, who clearly has no sympathy for the regime in China, and he told me that in a case such as mine they wouldn’t put someone in prison even in China. Perhaps they would make life difficult, cutting off their power at home, for example, but they wouldn’t lock them up in prison.
A rapper was recently convicted to a year in prison and a 100-euro fine in Morocco for criticising the king. That is in a country with question marks over its democracy, while you got three and a half years in a country considered an established democracy. What do you think about that?
It’s unbelievable. This case brings us to an interesting conclusion. European institutions, apart from some leftwing parties, do not support cases like mine or the other 15 rappers convicted in Spain, because it’s uncomfortable for them to say that a country in Europe, which is a continent of freedoms and respect for human rights, sentences people to prison for songs that criticise a regime. At the same time, whenever it is a singer in Morocco, Venezuela or Cuba, or any other country that is not part of the European Union and so it is not uncomfortable to talk about it, they do give their support. I’m right here and no one from the European Parliament has said anything to me.
Has the European Union disappointed you?
I never put much faith in it. When Europe sides with us, we’re talking about Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, established democracies, but I don’t believe in the European Union as a whole. I think it’s really good for trade agreements, but in terms of human rights, I don’t know what to say. If in Melilla there’s a spiked fence, or a debate on whether to save a ship with 800 people on board, then that Europe is no example at all.
How has exile marked you as a rapper?
Exile has been a great learning process that makes you mature and reflect. Especially at the beginning, when I first got here, and I spent 33 days without going outside. In those moments you are your own worst enemy and I have not been the same person since then.
Has it helped you with writing songs?
It has influenced everything, including how you value life.
How has it changed how you view life?
I sometimes think I should have made more of the time spent with friends, family, everyday things, details that you may have overlooked but that now seem exceptional.
Are you still performing?
Not much. I’ve been focusing more on the legal front and the media. For someone who sings in Spanish and Catalan in Belgium there are occasional gigs, but I don’t have a tour scheduled.
You said that you’re studying languages.
Yes, English and French.
Do you see yourself doing a song in either of those languages?
I’ve already done songs in French. In English, for the moment, it’s a bit more complicated.
Even though you’re a rapper, I’m interested in your opinion about the whole urban music genre. What do you think about Rosalía?
I’ll summarise it all very easily. The other day I was in FNAC in Brussels and over the loudspeakers there was a song in Catalan playing. By Rosalía. I didn’t listen to it carefully, because I tend to become a slave to new trends, as I’m susceptible to marketing strategies. Something similar happened with Game of Thrones, for example. Everyone was watching it except for me. And now after five years I’ve become a big fan. I’m sure I’ll listen to Rosalía with more attention in the future and will be better able to evaluate it than I can now. But whatever the case, I’m happy for her. There’s no doubt she’s good at what she does, that she has talent, art, and linguistic sensibility.
In Catalonia there is a boom in urban music, such as trap and hip-hop, also in Catalan.
Catalonia has always had a really good hip-hop and urban music scene, better than in Spain, which yet again because of Catalanophobia has not had enough support.
Which groups would you pick out?
One of the best groups in Spain is At Versaris. In musical quality, for the quality of their message, the quality of their activism, and their human quality. They brought out two albums and then retired because they did not get enough support. Among urban music groups in Catalan I also like Poor tràmit, Xavi Mata, Senyor Oca. There are really good people out there. Yet, the same thing always happens. If their songs were in English then everyone would listen to them, even if they couldn’t understand them, and no one would question the language they are sung in. But if they’re in Catalan then people say they don’t sound good.
How do you see your future in the short term?
In the short term, here in Belgium.
And in the mid-term how do you think it will be resolved?
I’m someone who didn’t have an easy childhood, who hasn’t had an easy life, and for that reason, as a defence mechanism, I never look too far ahead, or back, and I’ve always lived in the moment. I think that if I’d stopped at some point to analyse what’s happening to me or what could happen then I’d freeze and wouldn’t be able to keep on going. I do the same thing now. I’m experiencing injustice and I don’t think too much about the future. But if you ask me where I see myself in a few years, then I have to say, unfortunately, in Belgium.
You can’t see Spain taking a different tack?
I’d love someone to show some sense and say: “This has to end. Here we have a 25-year-old who made a song spouting a load of nonsense when he was 18. We sentenced him to three and a half years in prison because we wanted to make an example of him and it hasn’t worked out for us and now it’s damaging Spain’s image in Europe. Is all of this worth it? Let’s give the lad amnesty and move on.”
Would you ask for a pardon?
No. I don’t even consider it. If they told me that by asking for a pardon I could go home tomorrow, I’d say no. This is no longer just an individual thing about me, it is a collective issue. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. If it was just something that affected me then that’s one thing, but there are lots of rappers being convicted or persecuted. My crime was to be on the left; it’s a purely ideological matter. The trial in the National Court was a purely political trial. They asked me if I was against Spain, if I wanted to mobilise people, why I sang in Catalan, whether I was a friend of the CUP party... They didn’t ask me anything about the lyrics, or the alleged criminal acts. They wanted to know about my political ideology. That’s why I’ve not asked for a pardon. I might ask for forgiveness for other things, but not for that.
For what things?
I can ask for forgiveness for my songs being disagreeable, I can ask forgiveness for making sexist or homophobic comments in some songs, which sadly is the norm in hip-hop culture. I can ask forgiveness from all of those groups I might have offended by my ignorance, but I can’t ask forgiveness from a state that wants to lock me up for making a song and that wants to make an example of me. If they want me to be an example, I will be one, and won’t ask for forgiveness.